A peanut politician is one who practices politics on a petty scale and who is chiefly motivated by narrow self-interest.
Peanut politicians are also often corrupt, although they usually favor small-scale graft. A peanut politician practices “peanut politics.”
The expression dates back at least to the late 19th century. There is some debate over the roots of the phrase. Certainly “peanuts” has long meant something which is so cheap as to be almost valueless. The expression “peanut gallery” to mean the cheap seats in a theater also dates back to the second half of the 19th century.
Some say that peanut politician gets its meaning by analogy to peanut vendors. The peanut politician has about as much to do with serious politics as the peanut vendor has to do with major commerce. Both the peanut politician and the peanut vendor are small-time players, scraping by on the outskirts of the real game.
In 1887, the New York Times wrote about the “peanut politics” practiced by then-governor of New York David Hill. Hill had a long career in politics; after his term as governor, he served as senator from New York and went on to run for the Democratic nomination to the White House. He lost that bid. Hill was known throughout his career as a self-interested and moderately corrupt politician.
The 1887 New York Times article is headlined “Tricky Governor Hill: His ‘Peanut Politics’ Exposed in the Senate. Playing with his Nominating Power to Capture Votes – Railroad Commissioners to be Confirmed.” The article quotes one of Hill’s political opponents, Senator Comstock, as defending the general right to “express his views” about Governor Hill’s activities:
I understand that any Senator around this circle has the right to express his views in parliamentary language in reference to the purposes of any peanut politics and the purposes of the Governor, and that is the position I take here, notwithstanding the admonition of the President of this body.
Nearly half a century later, peanut politics appeared to be common usage still. A 1930 political cartoon preserved by the Library of Congress shows two men holding up a sign. One man is labeled “Irreconcilable Democrat;” the other’s label says “Insurgent G.O.P.” Their sign says “We will die rather than cooperate.” A caption underneath the cartoon says “Peanut Politics.”
Just as there are peanut politics, and peanut politicians, there is also a widespread “peanut butter problem.” That term refers to the quandary politicians find themselves in when they have to share resources among their constituents, making sure that those resources are spread out evenly. The trouble is that, while there is pressure on politicians to be fair, not every constituent has the same needs:
Not all neighborhoods need the same kind of help. Some might require gang intervention, while others might be ready to launch as a commercial center, given a well-timed boost. Politicians always have to worry about the “peanut butter” problem—the need to spread out resources equally across their entire jurisdiction. But spending the same amount everywhere means there probably won’t be enough to make a major impact anywhere.