Trust in the honesty of public officials is a crucial condition for stable democratic systems. Yet despite the presumed centrality of honesty in government, there has been a long tradition of “popular rogues” who are considered dishonest and corrupt, but retain popularity for their strong and effective leadership. In this paper, we look at the phenomenon of popular rogues using the case of the former Mayor Buddy Cianci of Providence, Rhode Island. With data from two statewide Rhode Island opinion surveys (one before the trial and the other at its end), we present a “teeter-totter” model of public opinion whereby voters balance competing qualities of honesty and leadership. Depending on whether the assessment involves job performance or legal guilt, citizens employ different criteria. This model has ramifications for leadership in democratic systems and the prospects for citizen support in a scandal-based political era. Although city, state, and national politicians are the object of character attacks and personal scandals, it does not mean they always lose popular support in political settings.



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