Outer-Circle Cronyism

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Noam Scheiber has a nuanced take on cronyism in the George Bush and Michael Brown era:

[I]f you happen to think bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people’s lives, and if you have contempt for the kinds of people who reside in them, then you have two choices: You can either slash the bureaucracy and refund taxpayers’ money, or you can reconcile yourself to the existence of bureaucracy and run it as a patronage operation. (If, by definition, a bureaucracy can’t get any less competent, you might as well make appointments that benefit you personally or politically.)

He notes that all administrations have some degree of cronyism—every president brings in close friends and trusted advisers to the White House, because they need people they can rely on. What distinguishes the Bush administration, and what distinguished the Reagan administration, was what Scheiber calls “outer-circle cronyism”:

The focus here isn’t so much on handing out jobs to dubiously qualified friends and associates–that is, to one’s own cronies. It’s on handing out jobs to cronies of cronies, which increases the scale of the cronyism exponentially. The Clinton administration was relatively free of this pestilence. (Clinton’s appointments were largely meritocratic even when they involved people in his extended social network.) The Bush administration is infested with it.

I think he’s being too easy on the Clinton adminstration (see this piece for some Clinton crony nostalgia), but “infested” is apt for the current regime. One big fear here is that enough ineptitude among government bureaucracies will make enough people believe, eventually, that government bureaucracies simply can’t work, and that “slash the bureaucracy ” is the way to go. Not everyone thinks this is the likely outcome of the Bush era: In the Wall Street Journal today, Stephen Moore argues the party of Reagan is fast becoming the party of Roosevelt and big-government liberalism: “FEMA, despite its woeful performance, will grow in size and stature. So will the welfare state. Welcome to the new New Dealism of the GOP.” It’s a common prediction, and it has some validity—after Bush’s Katrina speech, any conservative who advocates scaling back government will be situated far outside the political mainstream—but I worry that the eventual fallout from all this cronyism and dysfunction will be yet another Reagan-esque backlash, similar to the small-government backlash that came after the Nixon administration. The backlash is never sustainable in the long run—people fundamentally like having the government do stuff for them—but in the short run it pushes the country ever further to the right.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend