Political Corruption and the Ethical Judgments of American Citizens

Download data and study materials from OSF

This experiment was fielded as part of a TESS telephone survey. Data and materials for all the studies included on this survey is available here.

Principal investigators:

David Redlawsk

Rutgers University

Email: redlawsk@rutgers.edu

Homepage: http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~redlawsk/index.html

James A McCann

Purdue University

Email: mccannj@purdue.edu

Homepage: http://www.cla.purdue.edu/polsci/directory/?p=James_McCann

Sample size: 530

Field period: 09/27/2005-12/14/2005


Talk of corruption in American politics is commonplace. Indeed, since Watergate in the early 1970s, the suffix “-gate” has been attached to many scandals and controversies. Most recently, we can add campaign fundraising improprieties, corporate mischief, and questions of no bid contracts for rebuilding Iraq to the list. Clearly, corruption matters in politics. Less clear, however, is what exactly constitutes corrupt behavior in a given situation. If, for example, a government official recommends an unemployed friend for a job, is that an instance of political corruption? If individuals claim government benefits to which they are not entitled, are they corrupt? If voters support a candidate because he or she has promised to fund neighborhood improvements would that be corrupt? In a democracy, citizens wishing to hold leaders accountable must grapple with such ethical questions. Some might condemn these behaviors, while others may see them as simply part of the game. Most would likely avoid a simple yes or no judgment and position themselves somewhere in the gray middle. This study attempts to understand how ordinary citizens make judgments of just what is corrupt.


This was exploratory research attempting to understand how citizens perceive corruption and the extent to which they respond differently to official versus citizen actors as well as the emotional or cognitive nature of those responses.

Experimental Manipulations

1. Principal Actor Manipulation: A randomly selected group of 250 subjects indicated how corrupt six hypothetical actions are, based on a five-point scale (1 = not at all corrupt, 5 = extremely corrupt); in each case, a “government official” will be the focus of attention. A second group of subjects responded to a similar battery, but for each item the focus will be on a “citizen.”
2. Normative / Emotional Reactions to Potentially Corrupt Actions: For all subjects, normative or emotional reactions to the six hypothetical actions in the “corruption” battery were assessed. For a randomly chosen half, we asked, “To what degree can [name of action] ever be justified?” (1 = always, 2 = sometimes, depending on the situation, 3 = never). For the other half, the question was, “How angry does [action] make you feel? (1 = very angry, 2 = somewhat angry, 3 = not angry).


Attitudes towards corruption, affective and cognitive responses to corruption, support for a two party system.

Summary of Results

We find evidence of a "democratic" view of corruption, where citizens acting in their private interests are expected to be as honest and trustworthy as any public official. We also find evidence that citizens are attuned to the political environment in their assessments of corruption, with partisanship significantly conditioning expectations of public officials but not of citizens engaging in the same "corrupt" practices. Even so, political actions can be seen as extremely corrupt and still be excusable depending on the identity of the principal protagonist and whether laws have been violated. The same holds for emotional reactions. The strongest emotions and judgments are reserved for government officials who break the law for some kind of personal gain. Recognizing the ambivalence underlying impressions of corruption – in some instances these perceptions fuel voter rage and denunciations, but in many other contexts they do not – helps us explain why Americans can simultaneously appear exceedingly suspicious of politics and politicians and be unwilling to line up behind fiery candidates seeking to rid the country of corruption.


(see findings summary)


McCann, James A., and David P. Redlawsk. 2006. Political Corruption and the Ethical Judgments of American Citizens: Are Government Officials Held to a Higher Standard? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, Atlanta, GA
McCann, James A. and David P. Redlawsk. 2006. As Voters Head to the Polls will they Perceive a Culture of Corruption? PS: Political Science and Politics 39(4): 1-6.
McCann, James A. 2007. Corruption in the Eyes of American Citizens:Can It Ever Be Justified? Does It Always Elicit Anger? Prepared for the Workshop on Corruption and Democracy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, June 8-9, 2007.
Note - both investigators have talked about these results on Public Radio shows in their respective communities - West Lafayette, IN, and Iowa City, IA.