Examples of the Spoils System in Politics

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The spoils system refers to the process whereby elected officials reward political supporters with government jobs. The term, which goes back to President Andrew Jackson and was meant to be pejorative, is related to a speech Senator William L. Marcy gave in which he said, “To the victors belong the spoils.”

In a lot of ways, the spoils system makes sense. Once elected, political leaders need subordinates around them who are loyal and will keep the leader’s best interest in mind. When campaigns end, staffers need jobs. Conveniently, the leader-elect has jobs to fill.

Hard-working campaign staffers can slide into junior-level positions, while campaign managers and strategists can be slotted into upper-level positions. Political allies, meanwhile, can be given plum jobs as repayment for their public endorsements and behind-the-scenes work securing support from big-money donors.

Although government organizations still use policy-laden hiring processes to fill jobs, those who benefit from the spoils system are often hired in spite of policies and processes designed to ensure fair competition in hiring. When the big boss says to hire someone, that someone gets hired.

How the Spoils System Works

While the spoils system has been prevalent in the federal government, it is also at play in state and local governments as well. Here are some examples of the spoils system at work:

  • When a candidate for the US presidency wins an election, current and former elected officials of the new president’s political party make up the bulk of the Cabinet. However, awarding supporters with jobs does not end there. Many of the president’s campaign staff are awarded White House jobs and positions at executive branch agencies. After previously serving as campaign manager for then-candidate Donald J. Trump, Kellyanne Conway went on to serve as counselor to the 45th president. Conway was joined in the administration by many Trump acolytes that worked on the campaign such as Jeff Sessions, a campaign surrogate, who went on to be named Attorney General, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Sean Spicer, who both worked as the president’s press secretary. President Trump was also joined in the White House by his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushnir, who were assigned prominent roles in the administration.
  • In the previous administration, after serving as the Barack Obama campaign’s chief strategist, David Axelrod took a job in the White House as a senior advisor to the president, a post he held from January 2009 to January 2011. Axelrod left the White House to take a job with Obama’s re-election campaign.
  • After working on numerous campaigns over his career, Karl Rove found himself rewarded with a senior adviser position and later Deputy Chief of Staff in the George W. Bush administration, after working on several of Bush’s campaigns on his ascension through public offices to the US presidency. Bush called Rove “The Architect” for his work on Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign against Senator John Kerry.
  • The spoils system isn’t limited to presidential politics. Say a citizen is elected as mayor of a large US city. Under the strong-mayor form of government, the mayor typically appoints one or more deputy mayors to help run the day-to-day operations of the city while the mayor handles external affairs. The mayor must also appoint department heads. There are plenty of jobs available for the mayor to implement the spoils system. Campaign staffers and relatives of donors may be in line for jobs.