In one respect, it does not matter if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had direct knowledge of the plan to cause a four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee, NJ. The bizarre act was a by-product of a vindictive culture he created.
It was not the act of a single person. It involved the participation of several people in Christie’s inner circle. No one out of the blue thinks shutting down traffic to an entire city is a clever idea. You only get to that point by embracing a culture obsessed with harming anyone who opposes you and putting the pursuit of power ahead of any public interest. Why would any political leader have such people in his/her inner circle, unless the leader believed in the same culture?
Governors and other top elected officials don’t live in the real world. They are too often (not true in all cases) surrounded by fanny-kissing aides, consultants and lobbyists whose careers depend on staying in the good graces of the chief executive. As Peggy Noonan points out in her insightful Wall Street Journal article, political operatives often have “an ethos of wise-guy toughness…and they often try to out-tough each other. That’s how dirty tricks happen.”
The worst part of “Bridgegate” is not the traffic jam. It’s the realization Christie’s “get them” approach is not the exception in American politics, it’s the rule. Retaliation is just rarely done in such a stupid and clumsy way. This culture is everywhere. Even my own town supervisor once threatened to fine me for not having a special use permit to work from home on my computer when I was on the Town Board (fortunately, that move backfired).
This “get them” culture exists because it works. It keeps many undeserving people in power and discourages many of the best and brightest from entering the fray. This will not change until voters start throwing the people out of office who engage in it. And encourage and support more of their true leaders to step forward.
Only then will we have a better democracy….and maybe less traffic.
The writer is a former elected official and former senior aide in the NY State Legislature.