By: Mitchel Hochberg
For this episode's “Student on the Street” segment, I had the pleasure of interviewing my peers about their opinions on the morality of elected officials. The segment is part of an effort to make the concerns of people in and just out of college the focus of the show. There are some parameters. We try to do most of our interviews in Red Square, and not under the Leavey Center Bridge, where the tatted-up Adderall junkies roam.
Georgetown itself has somewhat of a mixed record with the morality of elected officials. Very few Jesuit institutions boast among their alumni a president notorious for a very public indiscretion. I expected that at least a couple of the students I interviewed would be permissive of some misdeeds for this reason. They proved me wrong. Still, when my peers said they didn’t want their leaders to have sex out of marriage, I pressed them on how they would define “sex.” None of them inserted a Lewinsky clause.
Morality in all aspects of politicians’ private lives was expected by those interviewed. Only a few believed the electorate should judge leaders solely on whether they fulfill the duties of office. The more prevalent assertion rested on a tired bit of conventional wisdom: If politicians act immorally in private, won’t they act immorally in public? I’m really not sure what evidence backs up this intuition. The mighty Ronald Reagan’s only misdeed may have been an illicit love affair with the American people, but Jefferson had slaves and Kennedy had affairs. Was Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis an outgrowth of his infidelity?
Recently be-scandled politicians like Spitzer and Weiner were good public servants derailed by private misdeeds. Rod Blagojevich was a corrupt governor without an affair to his name. He even let his wife appear on a reality show for him! Not that these examples are as good as science. Still, they should encourage scrutiny of the idea that private morality is a prerequisite to good leadership. It’s worth asking why that way of thinking endures.
The requirement that elected officials act morally is at least somewhat American. When asked about that issue, students being interviewed for the segment would cite the French reaction to the Dominic Strauss-Kahn scandal. It demonstrates that the French public generally judges their leaders less based on private behavior. The French scorn their leaders, but are unsurprised by their actions. Leaders are rarely forced to resign, because indiscretions are expected.
I’ll return to this cultural difference in a second, but first I’d like to approach this issue from a different perspective. That came in the answers to the next set of questions in the interviews. I asked, “Do we need different or new ways to hold public figures accountable?” The almost-universal answer was. “No, we have elections.” Then I said, “What about excessive corporate funding of elections that makes leaders accountable to their donors instead of their constituents?” Students would then answer something like, “Oh yeah, we should fix that.”
How can elections check the public or private abuses of leaders if they are in need of reform? I think Americans are taught to respect the sanctity of elections as a bulwark of our democracy in a way that inhibits debate on this issue. Even when we admit elections are imperfect, the ensuing suggestion that flaws prohibit elections from functioning seems blasphemous. This means that the public willingly follows the media on witch hunts for bad behavior, while an electoral system that protects corporate interests with concrete policies remains in place. Eliminating any number of wasteful subsidies would probably help America more than ousting Anthony Weiner.
The irrational confidence in elections and association of private behavior with public behavior are rooted in a similar source. Americans are proud of America. Not that this pride isn’t merited. It just gets in the way. Elections are a great democratic institution in a great democracy, but reforms are needed to ensure they further the public’s interests. Leaders of a great democracy should ideally conduct themselves well in all parts of their lives, but this expectation is unrealistic. Pretenses of morality are valued more than policies, even if being moral doesn’t lead to good policies. That’s the difference between the American and French reactions to misdeeds. The American reaction is characteristically idealistic, and the French reaction is skeptical. I’d prefer the practical.