Political patronage is the system of rewarding political allies with government jobs, especially prestigious positions which pay well and demand little in the way of work. Political patronage is sometimes also referred to as “spoils.”
The political patronage system is routinely denounced, but in fact the practice is probably as old as the US government itself. The Constitution gives the president the right to appoint judges and ambassadors, as well as members of the cabinet. (In many cases these positions also require approval by the Senate.)
The spoils system is closely associated, in US history, with Andrew Jackson. Jackson, the 7th president, considered himself a man of the people; he pledged to clean up Washington after what he saw as the widespread fraud of Adams’ tenure. When he swept into office, Jackson instituted a rotation system, under which party supporters would switch in and out of key government positions.
In practice, what Jackson billed as a fair system designed to make the most use of each man’s potential quickly turned into a naked system of bribery. Journalists were rewarded for supporting Jackson’s candidacy. Others who were elevated to government jobs turned out to be corrupt. Jackson appointed one of his old army friends, Samuel Swartwout, head of the New York City customs house, only to have Swartwout make off with a million dollars of stolen cash.
The patronage system has never died out, but it has been dramatically curtailed over the past century or more. Patronage reached a strange and tragic peak in 1881, when a man named Charles Guiteau assassinated President James A. Garfield. Guiteau was a lawyer, a writer, and an ardent supporter of the president. He was almost certainly mentally ill. He was convinced that he had been vital in getting the president elected, and he believed that he deserved a cushy job as a reward. When no such job was forthcoming, Guiteau shot and killed the president.
(Guiteau himself later said, “the doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” This has been taken to mean that the president could have been saved – and in fact, there may be some truth to it. Guiteau was eventually hung for Garfield’s murder.)
Today, presidents tend to reward their political allies with jobs as ambassadors to friendly nations. Both Democrats and Republicans appoint their friends (or rather, the people who helped with their fundraising) to serve as US diplomats in plum spots like Canada, Austria, and Japan.
In 2009, NBC News noted that 57 percent of President Obama’s diplomatic nominees were political appointees, people who did not have prior experience serving within the State Department. 23 percent of those appointees were “bundlers” – people who had raised more than $50,000 for Obama’s campaign.
Obama was not unusual in this. His successor, President Donald Trump, reportedly rewarded his supporters with meetings and with high-level jobs. Politico reported that 38 percent of the people President Trump appointed to such jobs had also been donors his presidential campaign.