Giving the Gift of Public Office

30 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2005


This interpretive essay, written for the Buffalo Law Review's annual essay issue, identifies an increasingly common pathology of American democracy in which voters treat the election of public officials not as an instrumental act designed to influence public policy, but as an opportunity to present public office as a gift to those who have pleased, entertained, or moved them. The reelection of Strom Thurmond to the Senate at age 93 and the election of nearly forty congressional widows to their late husbands' seats exemplify this trend. Although this behavior bears a passing resemblance to eighteenth-century habits of political deference and nineteenth-century understandings of politics as a form of public entertainment, judged by contemporary norms of democratic citizenship it is a corrosive kind of civic corruption akin to patronage. As with efforts to eliminate other forms of patronage, only substantial institutional reforms seem capable of neutralizing this destructive behavior. Such reforms might include moving to a party list system, or creating new figurehead offices, like the presidency in a parliamentary form of government.

Keywords: Democracy, elections, citizenship

Suggested Citation

Gardner, James A., Giving the Gift of Public Office. Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2005; Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2005. Available at SSRN:

James A. Gardner (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

Room 514, O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-3607 (Phone)
716-645-2064 (Fax)


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