Seeing All The Dirt On Politicians Will Not Make Us Care About Their Policies More

Anthony Weiner

If we all knew every politician’s dirty laundry and just accepted that they are all flawed human beings would we be more likely to put away the personal issues and focus on their plans for America?  

Perhaps, says Jack Shafer who writes at Reuters about the present and future state of “opposition research” in politics. 

His argument is worth quoting at length. Shafer writes:

Maybe it won’t happen this campaign, but I can see the day that a complete documentation on every politician of note, produced on the Web in Wikipedia fashion, would make opposition research redundant. When that day comes, we’ll finally be able to see our candidates in full and see that nearly every one of them has flip-flopped; made a fortune from either honest graft or dishonest graft; mistreated, divorced, or cheated on a spouse; taken drugs; lied; cheated; violated taboos; told dirty, racist, or otherwise tasteless jokes; stretched the fabric of the campaign finance laws; associated with bad people; engaged in resume inflation; taken dubious payments; or otherwise transgressed—just like you.

When the day of the Super Dossier comes, and it may even come by 2016, the power of the Web will teach us that nobody has enough character (Nixon? Clinton? GWB?) to be president. At that point, maybe all this standard human frailty will have become sufficiently normalized that we’ll have to pick our chief executive based on the policies and programs he binds himself to pursuing.

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. 

Firstly. Not all scandals are equal. Earning a few thousand in “honest graft” is very different from, say, getting mob-help to win your state senate election. Any two candidates and their media surrogates will still argue over the relative merits of one scandal or another even if it is all out in the open. 

Secondly, citizens don’t vote on policy ideas for a reason–they are usually hard to understand, may not be reliably implemented, and their secondary effects are difficult for even experts to predict. So it is much easier for people to support or oppose a politician based on cultural cues and party-loyalty. “I dislike pointy-headed academics who think they know everything, I’m voting Republican.” or “I can’t stand these gun-nut Bible-thumpers, I’m voting Democrat.” 

And, relatedly, different scandals send different cultural messages. A scandal in high-finance might reinforce the image of someone as being too aloof “out of touch with the common voter.” The discovery of serial adultery could amplify the perception that someone isn’t trustworthy, or makes worthless promises. 

We would all love it if a fully-engaged, politically hyper-literate citizenry voted purely on a set of policies they believed were in the common interest. Unfortunately, increasing the cynicism (or realism) about the character of our politicians won’t achieve that.