Why Do People Support Corrupt and Unjust Political Systems?

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As election season begins its divisive descent, everyone with a political ax to grind has a theory about why the “other side” believes what it does. And whether they’re talking about Republicans, Democrats, other parties, or people in the middle, these theories are rarely charitable. Americans are fortunate enough to live in a country where votes count and the government is accountable to the people. But even in a relatively open society such as ours, corruption is commonplace. Turn outward to the rest of the world and you’ll find shocking corruption and injustice.

We all like to believe that we’d fight injustice wherever we found it, but the truth is that unjust systems often survive precisely because the citizenry is complacent. So what causes people to accept or defend systems that are inept, corrupt, or harmful? An article in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal Current Directions in Psychological Science lays out the circumstances that cause people to accept unfair systems:

When you’re dependent upon a system, you’re much more likely to defend it. For example, one study found that students who were induced to feel dependent upon a college department were much more likely to defend its ineptitude, but they disliked similar policies if they emanated from an entity upon which the students didn’t feel dependent. People are dependent on a variety of systems—government, jobs, universities, even their marriages—to varying degrees. The fact we all depend on some system to some degree at some time makes us much more likely to defend the system, even if it’s not working for us.

Inability to escape
Most of us have heard friends claim that they plan to emigrate to some other country if their favored candidate does not win the presidential election. Rarely, if ever, do they follow through with these threats. In fact, they might even end up defending the candidate they loathed. People who feel they can’t get out of the system are much more likely to defend it. After all, no one wants to resign themselves to hopelessness; finding the positive is a psychologically sound strategy even if it’s personally and socially harmful.

In some cases, the inability to escape might mandate defending the system. Citizens who were unable to escape Nazi Germany, for example, very likely felt pressure to comply with the system in the hope that they wouldn’t be punished for disobedience. Extremely tyrannical systems, then, may be even more likely to garner support—however forced or faked the support is.

Feeling threatened
Politicians know that one of the best strategies for gaining support is to make people fear some outside threat. Whether the threat is the other party, political meltdown, or another country, this strategy can be highly effective. People who are afraid are much more likely to support a system they feel can protect them, even if the system is otherwise corrupt, unjust, or even dangerous. Dictators have long taken advantage of this inclination, but it also occurs in more mundane political contexts.

Whichever party or candidate you’re supporting this season, it might be helpful to reflect on the myriad reasons people make political decisions. Some of these reasons are as much psychological as they are philosophical.


  1. Kay, A. C., & Friesen, J. (2011). On social stability and social change. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 360-364. doi: 10.1177/0963721411422059
  2. Why do people defend unjust, inept and corrupt systems. (2011, December 12). Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/why-do-people-defend-unjust-inept-and-corrupt-systems.html


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  • Phil

    November 6th, 2012 at 9:37 AM

    I think ignorance is another reason people put up with a corrupt and unjust political system. Far too often, people rely on the opinions of others around them rather than really thinking through issues and taking the time to understand what a candidate stands for and how he/she has voted on important issues in his/her political past. This is the reason why certain states always vote with a certain party. Just because mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, etc etc voted a certain way doesn’t mean it is right or relevant at this time. Also, people often only vote for one of the two major parties without giving smaller parties with valid view points a chance.

  • Auntie M

    November 6th, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    Corruption is such a huge problem in our own political system. Even well meaning voters can’t tell whether a candidate is being honest or not. Politicians are people who have perfected the art of getting people to vote for them. They may be horrible at the rest of politics, only good at figuring out what people want and them promising it to them. It would be wonderful to figure out how to prevent this, but I just don’t think it can be done.

  • Spencer

    November 6th, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    This is all just a little too negative for me and that includes this piece!

    I was standing in line to vote just a little while ago and a lady in line with me, we talked while we waited about what an amazing opportunity that we have to go out and vote when there are so many others across the world who never have this chance, either because they cam’t make it to the poll or they live in an oppressed nation where they do not have the same freedoms that we have.

    I think that to focus only on the negatives of the campaigns is to demean the underlying importance of the political system, and if we only talk about the bad then our young people will assume that it is no longer important for them to ehad out to vote and make their voices heard.

  • Lee

    November 7th, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    For many voters, unjust or not, this is what they know and are accustomed to. This is what they know, so they continue to support it over trying to rock the boat.

  • Theresa

    November 7th, 2012 at 7:04 AM

    Feeling threatened is the most dangerous of all these, I mean if someone was pointing a gun at me I probably wouldn’t want to rock the boat either. We just don’t know how good we have it.

  • Rebekah

    November 7th, 2012 at 7:10 AM

    I think that an inability to escape isn’t really a reason for supporting a corrupt political system unless the boarders of the country are closed (like North Korea). Just because someone says they are moving out of the country if their politician of choice doesn’t win doesn’t mean they are really supporting a corrupt political system. It may just mean that their family, friends, and livelihood are all in their current location and moving is very impractical and uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean they are supporting a system that is politically corrupt.


    November 7th, 2012 at 1:44 PM

    We may be allowed to vote. But we cannot really choose our government. The choices we have are almost hand picked and even then who wins is decided more by corporate findings than the regular voter out there.

    This is a good questions as to why we still live with a system that is corrupt. I hope we are able to at least get our own insight when we see this question. I shall be thinking about this for a long time now. Thanks for the very interesting and thought provoking topic.

  • morgan

    November 9th, 2012 at 4:33 AM

    We are so blessed to live in a country where we can voice our opinions and cast our votes for whomever we choose without feeling as if this opinion or this vote will cost us our lives. There are millions of people around the world though who do not enjoy this kind of freedom. They are living under a corrupt regime that threatens them every day with harm to them or their families if they do not outwardly support their government. If it is a matter of keeping my family safe for one more day then I suppose that I would be a vocal supporter of this too.

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