Governor Chris Christie and the Sociology of Catastrophic Bullying
–Richard E. Vatz*
Gov. Chris Christie’s role in the New Jersey traffic snarl retribution scandal – to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not being a team player – constitutes sociology most of us have lived through throughout our lives, occupationally, in families and in our everyday associations.
Let me say at the start that adult bullying is not being gruff; it is usually punishing people (sometimes with threat to their safety and/or jobs) outside one’s employment for simply disagreeing or sometimes not sufficiently being supportive.
For all of the confusion claimed by principals, anyone who has ever been in any organization, much less politics in general, understands intuitively what has generally happened with Gov. Christie and the traffic scandal, even if the particulars still require shaking out.
Leaders establish values and parameters regarding ethics and acceptable behavior in dealing with rivals. These leaders are sufficiently sophisticated to know that if the actions they implicitly suborn are publicized, their jobs, status and even freedom may be at risk.
They not only ensure deniability, but they also often put themselves in a position of literally not knowing what behaviors they encourage through their daily interactions with subordinates.
What about all the people whose suspicions are aroused by their behavior? Most people are the “Good Germans” of the Third Reich, without the material horrors of that era: they suspect nothing, say nothing, and in the words of one satirical song, “We didn’t know at all; we didn’t hear a thing.”
Consequently, a typical scene with a deniably complicit leader and his/her followers would be:
Aide: “I think we can teach the Mayor that he’d better stop messing with us and get on board.”
Boss: “Whatever you’re thinking of doing, I’m not getting involved in that stuff.”
But even dictatorial sociologies can be undone by a significant weak link. You always need ethical, non-blindly-following people in a sociology to stand up and brave the consequences of exposing unscrupulous behavior, and in New Jersey Patrick Foye, the Executive Director of NY-NJ Port Authority, was that individual.
Hence, the boss is confronted with the, say, impossible-to-ignore devastating traffic tie-up in the Mayor’s town. He asks his aides who effected it, and they say with a half-smile, “Governor, these things happen – there was to be an ill-timed traffic study that conflicted with traffic – this situation was utterly regrettable, and it won’t happen again. We know you would never support an action that would hurt the people of New Jersey, and neither would we.”
The scandal blossoms. The Governor now publicly has to deal with the sociological situation he has fostered, whose latest outrage he literally did not “know” about – he had “no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution” — and he fires some of the scandal principals who “lied” to him and publicly apologizes for two hours, saying: “What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable…I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge….I delegate enormous authority to my staff and enormous authority to my Cabinet. And I tell them, come to me with the policy decisions that need to be made, with some high-level personnel decisions that need to be made. But I do not manage in that kind of micro way, first… I first found out about [this] after it was over.”
Leaders, again, set a tone, and after years in office those under them know the chief’s values, what they will tolerate, what they won’t tolerate and what they’ll let pass as long as it causes them no political damage.
Except for his insufficient support of Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, I have always thought positively of Gov. Christie’s politics in potentially reconciling or bridging the traditionalists and the Tea Party conservatives in the Republican Party.
No longer. He says he’s not a bully. Perhaps not in a strict sense, but he is a classic suborner of political bullying of the worst sort.
Professor Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2013)