“The Jerry Springer Show” has been off the air for years, but you’d never know it to judge by the state of American politics, which now serves up titillation and outrage as reliably as Jerry Springer ever did.
In just the past week, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert made headlines for groping her date and blowing off warnings about vaping during a performance of “Beetlejuice,” while in Virginia a Democrat running for a seat in the state’s closely divided House of Delegates turned out to have a history of performing sex acts with her husband on a tips-for-tricks live porn site called Chaturbate.
Reports that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a married woman, has been carrying on an affair with the also married Trump aide Corey Lewandowski seemed old-fashioned by comparison, although the damage done to their families is likely to be all the more severe.
Hypocrisy is always the charge whenever Republicans like Boebert and Noem are embarrassed by such scandals. They campaign on family values, but they don’t practice what they preach.
If Democrats like Virginia’s Susanna Gibson can’t be accused of the same inconsistency, it’s because they preach much lower standards in the first place. After all, Gibson’s Chaturbate activities were consensual and even within the bonds of marriage; they just happened to involve getting paid for gratifying strangers’ perversions. That might be distasteful, but from a progressive point of view, how could it be wrong?
Yet Gibson’s instant defensiveness once her videos became known suggests, if not a guilty conscience, at least an awareness that voters will find something objectionable about her side hustle. She called the online archiving of her romps “an illegal invasion of my privacy designed to humiliate me and my family.”
But why would it be humiliating if there’s nothing immoral about it? Does it really make a difference if the randy customers watching the show are a live audience or not?
There’s hypocrisy here, too: thinking you can behave shamelessly in one public context, on a raunchy livestream, yet no one else can bring it up in the equally public context of a political campaign.
These scandals illustrate a basic moral dilemma confronting America in the 21st century: Do we want to uphold any sexual standards, at the cost of knowing that many of our leaders fall short of them, or should the same standards that govern commerce and entertainment apply to sex, too? The question is more fundamental, and cultural, than the merely instrumental question of which politician to vote for.
Democrats enjoy highlighting the gulf between Christian conservative values and the politicians that many Christian conservatives vote for, including Boebert and Donald Trump. But they know they’re not making a persuasive argument: A Republican philanderer is still more likely to give social conservatives the policy outcomes they want—on abortion, religious liberty, and everything else—than any Democrat is.
Should conservatives have preferred the churchgoing family man Jimmy Carter over the divorced and irregular churchgoer Ronald Reagan?
To the extent that politics is about policy, choosing leaders is like choosing a surgeon or a plumber. When your husband or wife needs a heart transplant, the only qualification that matters is how well a surgeon can perform the surgery. Likewise, when the pipes are bursting, most people don’t think to ask their plumbers what they do in their free time on a Saturday night.
Good moral character is no guarantee of competence, unfortunately. And people who are personally objectionable are often professionally indispensable. Democrats know that, which is why it’s a safe bet that even those Virginia Democrats who find Gibson’s dabbling in pornography abhorrent will vote for her: Her victory might make all the difference for control of the legislature, and those stakes are too high to forfeit for moral indignation.
But to acknowledge this doesn’t mean that voters must surrender their values; they just have to look elsewhere for moral examples.
In a bygone era, politicians behaved just as badly, but the press was more discreet about their indiscretions: It was almost unthinkable to report on the infidelities of Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, for example. Scandals did make the papers, but journalists had a paternalistic attitude and considered it better, in many cases, to hide the moral failings of America’s leaders, lest revealing them should shock and demoralize the nation.
Now openness and transparency are the order of the day, but prurience and hypocrisy are the flipside of those priorities.
Rather than being dismayed and demoralized, Americans should look to themselves instead of politicians for moral leadership. If the public raises its standards, office-seekers will feel compelled to raise theirs—not so much because they have to in order to win, but because they don’t want to endure the shame of being known as bad members of a good society.
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