There’s No Such Thing as Morality in Politics Anymore
With the news in South Carolina on Saturday, Newt Gingrich’s stock continues to rise. The win in South Carolina came on the heels of an interview of Newt Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, in which she claimed that after having an affair for six years, he asked her for an open marriage. The news did not put a dent in Gingrich’s support in South Carolina, of course – and even days later, as the news has had the chance to settle in, Gingrich continues to rise in the polls. Why doesn’t news like this – news with serious bearing on the character of a candidate for political office – matter any more?
This change in standards is not limited to Republicans or conservatives, of course (Exhibit A: Clinton, Bill). But as they are the party of the so-called values voter, the fact that the Republican front-runner is an admitted two-time adulterer has a sort of Nixon-to-China feel to it. Congratulations, Newt: you’ve made the party – and perhaps our whole government – safe for philanderers everywhere.
I wonder what this says about us as a polity, and about the standards to which we hold our leaders.
You can, of course, make the argument that personal characteristics have no bearing on a person’s ability to govern. But it is specious to reason that the kinds of failings that make a person likely to violate the trust of a spouse are not linked to the kinds that would cause them to, say, accept a bribe in exchange for a political favor. We may wish only to look to our leaders for “results,” but we do so at our peril; character is what assures us that elected officials will labor to achieve those results (and do so ethically!) rather than use the trappings of office to enrich themselves.
You can also argue that we’re not perfect, and that nobody is free of mistakes made in the past. That is definitely true, and it would be different if Newt were forthright and contrite about past sins. But his exchange with John King during the last South Carolina debate suggests a particularly unnerving lack of remorse – one that does not bode well for his ability to exhibit the kind of self-denial necessary to the duties of public office. More importantly, the audience’s enthusiastic support of him in that moment suggests that the party faithful (and, possibly, many more of us) are perfectly willing to give him a pass on this question. Why?
The reluctant conclusion I’m coming around to: morality is not a meaningful standard in politics any more (if, indeed, it ever was). Put more specifically, questions of character, however much individual voters may care about them, have been entirely eclipsed by questions of party interest. Partisan echo chambers (like a Republican primary debate) set up alternate realities in which the facts are subjugated to the narratives of ideology. In Newt’s case, there does not seem to be a viable alternative candidate that passes all the right litmus tests. Therefore – stay with me on this one – NOTHING that anyone says to impugn his character can be true. The “team sport” nature of our democracy means that moral relativism (and relativism about facts in general) has become a fundamental underpinning of the way we practice politics. Again, this is particularly ironic for a party that prides itself on thinking in terms of absolute truths – but in fact, it is a loss for all of us.
What can we do about it? Being aware of one’s own biases is a good start. Each of us needs to be especially receptive to criticisms of leaders we favor, and willing to question our instincts in the way that we evaluate them. Going further, we need to not be so quick to join the chorus of people on our side (whichever that is) to defend one of those leaders when serious accusations or news about them come to light. In a pluralistic society, we may never have such a thing as a morality to which we can all unreservedly sign on. But even if society cannot collectively have a complete set of moral principles, individual voters can – and they should bring those principles to bear in the way they participate in political discourse.
Personally, I believe that we deserve better than Gingrich; the world of government should not be safe for people like him. I hope that I’ll be able to reach the same conclusion when confronted with similar character issues in a candidate I favor.