Philly’s Deviant Political Culture, Explained

How Philadelphia’s political class can keep the FBI busy all day, and still sleep soundly at night.

Illustration by gluekit; dougherty and boxes: Charles Fox | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Associated Press; City Hall: C. Smyth for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Illustration by gluekit; Dougherty, Charles Fox | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Associated Press; City Hall: C. Smyth for Visit Philadelphia

Because this is 2016 and I’m a journalist, I was on Twitter when I first saw the news that FBI agents were raiding Johnny Doc’s home. This was around 8:30 a.m., so I’d already had several cups of coffee, but even so, this obviously momentous development barely registered. “Huh,” I thought, and kept right on scrolling to the next hot Trump take, the next wry 140-character blast about SEPTA or improvised dumpster pools, which apparently are now a thing.

I felt a little guilty about that later. This is John Dougherty we’re talking about. Kingmaker, yes, but also judge-maker, Council-maker, deal-maker. The longtime union honcho is probably the most powerful political figure in Philadelphia, and the feds had just packed an iMac and a couple of metric tons of files from his Local 98 electricians union into a moving truck. True, he hasn’t been charged with anything, and he may never be — the feds have investigated Doc before without finding anything that would stick. But this was big news, nonetheless. And I yawned. 

And since then? Well, today alone, we’re reading that District Attorney Seth Williams is belatedly reporting $160,050 in “gifts” he received between 2010 and 2015, and that former Mayor Mike Nutter’s official trip to Rome and an open bar reception (among other eyebrow-raising expenses) were paid for with cash from the Philadelphia Marathon, which was channeled through a city-run nonprofit. On the surface, that doesn’t look particularly good. And, of course, we woke this morning to news that Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was convicted Monday night on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, and while she might hail from Scranton, the sordid story of her demise prominently features an array of Philadelphia figures.

Philadelphians have been — recite it with me; you know the words — corrupt and contented since at least 1903, when the California-raised, New York-based reporter Lincoln Steffens distilled our meek, self-defeating acceptance of political bad behavior into three words. “Corrupt and contented.” It’s a good line. But it raises more questions than it answers. Why so contented? Why do our political figures keep crossing lines in spite of the feds’ itchy indictment fingers? How did corruption become so normal here?

Greed alone doesn’t begin to explain matters. So what does?

Partly, it’s that the norms for political behavior are simply different here than they are elsewhere. There’s the law, and then there’s the collection of local traditions and values that define what’s permissible in Philly — and in the middle of that Venn diagram are a large array of activities punishable with jail time.

This is also true to a lesser extent in other cities, of course. And there are of course many Philadelphia politicians who serve honorably and without a whiff of immoral or corrupt behavior. But those disclaimers don’t change the fact that Philadelphia’s huge roster of politicians under investigation or indictment, or already convicted of a crime, is not remotely normal.

Philly’s political culture is, in the sociological sense, deviant. You can be considered an upstanding, honorable figure by fellow Philly pols even as you’re thought of as irredeemably criminal by the feds. (Vince Fumo, anyone?) Deviance isn’t always bad, of course. Every city has practices and cultural qualities that puzzle outsiders. An unusually high tolerance for corruption is just one of ours, along with scrapple and parking in the median of South Broad.

And yet Philly pols do interact with the broader world, where the deviance of the city’s political subculture doesn’t hold sway. They go to Congress, they meet with business leaders, they talk to constituents. How do they straddle these worlds? How can Chaka Fattah be both the architect of a $4 billion college awareness program and the guy who orchestrated a sham sale of his wife’s Porsche to cover up an $18,000 bribe? How is Doc a central figure in both an FBI investigation and the bid to extend SEPTA’s Broad Street Line?

In 1957, sociologists David Matza and Gresham Sykes published a theory that sought to explain how street criminals justify their illegal activity to themselves. They were studying juvenile delinquents, and their “neutralization theory” is now considered to be at best an incomplete explanation. But it strikes me as a helpful way to understand the thinking of delinquents — juvenile or otherwise — who drift between legitimate and illegitimate behaviors.

According to the theory, criminal guilt “neutralization” is achieved through a few different methods that, in a Philly corruption context, would roughly translate to this:

Deny responsibility: “Yeah, I broke the rules, but in this city, everyone does. If you don’t cheat, you get beat.”

Deny injury: “This developer wants to do something good. Who gets hurt if I take his money? This is a good thing for the city.”

Blame the victim: “They hired non-union labor. They were asking for it.”

Condemn the condemners: “The feds have it in for Philly.”

Appeal to a higher loyalty: “Protecting my friends is more important than the law.”

I’ve heard these rationalizations offered up many times over the years by members of Philadelphia’s political class. “Neutralization” works. They feel just fine about their activities, noble and illicit alike — until the sentence is handed down.

As for the rest of us, “numb” might be a better description than “contented.”

Follow @pkerkstra on Twitter.