Has Social Media Taken The Sting Out Of Political Scandal?
Does the public still care about the personal transgressions of politicians? The evidence seems to suggest they don't.
Last weekend, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo was arrested in Alexandria, Virginia and charged with driving under the influence. As it turned out, Crapo had a blood alcohol level that was .03 points above the legal level for intoxication in Virginia. The incident raised a few eyebrows, not the least because Crapo is a Mormon and thus supposedly does not drink alcoholic beverages. In any case, Crapo issued an apology within hours of of the incident becoming public and, by Christmas, Idaho’s largest newspaper was issuing an editorial saying that the incident should not be considered a black mark on Crapo’s career. All of this leads Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith if, thanks to things like Facebook, we’ve reached a point where the sting of personal embarressment has become less harmful for politicians:
Drunkenness, affairs, secret gay relationships, dodgy financial dealings, and other sins have been common in public life since the Jewish and Roman historians started documenting them. But for most of American history, most Americans didn’t want to know, a desire affirmed by last year’s cringe-inducing memoir by a teenage girlfriend of John F. Kennedy. The demand that politicians actually live up to their virtuous facades, enforced by press and prosecutors for the last few decades, reached its peak in the exposure of Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. And the sanctimonious approach by some press and prosecutors has been — as the national revulsion at the Starr Report, and bipartisan embarrassment at its memory has showed — basically unwelcome.
Now America is on the cusp of an end to that anomalous era. This change, very much still in its beginnings, is defined, most of all, by Facebook, where an ever-increasing share of Americans (and their so-called friends) have preserved embarrassing moments. Members of Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard Class of 2006 who made it to graduation will be eligible to run for Senate in 2014. The early jokes that nobody of that generation would ever survive public life have been replaced by the reality that they all will. They’ve been building their memoirs of occasional error and excess, Obama style, in real time on their Timelines, with little calculation and far too much information.
This isn’t to say that the politics of the social media age has lost interest in personal weakness. To the contrary: The whole palate of sanctimony, schadenfreude, prurience, partisan relish, and discussion of character played out on Twitter over the course of a couple of hours Sunday evening as Crapo’s arrest was made public. His name (CRAY-po!, the AP insists) was subject to the obvious jokes and the additional note that it’s an anagram for “O, Crap.” But Twitter politics burn hot and fast, and are often goodhearted or sympathetic in a way that isn’t in the range of a tabloid headline.
It’s certainly the case that the public attitude toward at least some of the personal scandals that plagued politicians starting roughly in the 1970s when, partly in response to the Watergate Era, ended the “code of silence” that had once existed in Washington regarding the private lives of powerful people. Whereas the long-term affair that Franklin Roosevelt had during his time in office, or the numerous dalliances of President Kennedy, were treated with the journalistic equivalent of a “wink and a nod,” we entered an era when essentially private activity by politicians became public fodder and many careers were ruined. Granted, in many cases, the events that led to these downfalls were prompted by what can only be called incredibly stupid or reckless behavior by the people involved (Gary Hart’s challenge to the press that they should follow him if they believed he was being unfaithful to his wife comes to mind). In others, such as the more recent examples of former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, former Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards, and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey involved illegal or unethical activities. However, it’s also true that, for a long time, the press focused on essentially private behavior by politicians and those in power not necessarily because it was relevant to their jobs, but because it satisfied some prurient interest and, of course, brought in the ratings. For a long time, the public actually seemed to care about these types of stories when they went to the polls, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. After all, Bill Cinton is arguably the most popular politician in America despite the fact that he engaged in an affair with a 21 year-old intern while he was in the White House. Would that have happened in 1960 if people had known about JFK’s dalliances? I’m not so sure.
That doesn’t mean that a politician who does commits some transgression isn’t going to have to worry about the voters any more, that’s something that will likely be decided on a case-by-case basis. In Crapo’s case, he’s not up for re-election until 2016 and in his last election he beat his Democratic opponent by more than 200,000 votes. This is, after all, Idaho and Crapo is a Republican. Absent some evidence that there are more serious issues regarding his personal life or his behavior in office I suspect he’d be easily re-elected in four years should he choose to run. In some cases, though, I’m sure that there will be cases were personal behavior does spell the end of a political career. Indeed, in the just about to conclude 112th Congress we saw many examples of it, the most extreme, of course, the bizarre behavior and downfall of Anthony Weiner. What’s clear, though, is that personal transgressions are no longer the death sentence for a political career that they used to be.
Smith suggests that this means that the political media is going to have to adjust how it reports these kinds of stories:
This new era isn’t a return to the old media silence about sex, drugs, and other foibles in the corridors of power. That’s obviously gone, and there’s no suggestion that Americans have grown too mature to gossip about their leaders, if such a thing is a sign of maturity. The reality, for better or worse, is that Americans seem capable both of being amused by and interested in their leaders’ foibles without withdrawing their support from those politicians. Voters’ comfort with this will be welcomed, of course, by the political class; the biggest problem it poses is for the press, which will have to find a mode other than outrage in which to cover the intersection of the political and the personal.
It depends, I suppose, on the type of transgression we’re talking about. Personal sexual peccadilloes are likely to be viewed less seriously than a criminal offense of some kind, quite obviously. However, does that mean that every little transgression by a politician should be treated as an “Outrage Of The Day?” It seems the public’s answer to that question is no.