In this month in 1996, Bill Clinton denied having sexual relations with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. For the next few months the alleged affair remained front-page news, with journalists and the public speculating whether the allegations were true.
The rumours were finally confirmed in the summer of 1998, when Lewinsky testified in court and handed over a semen-stained dress that identified the president’s DNA. The scandal became front-page news in national media all over the world and the President was impeached (though later acquitted).
Bill Clinton is not the only politician whose private misconduct became public knowledge and significantly damaged their career. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Eliot Spitzer, Nicolas Sarkozy, Simon Danczuk, Anthony Weiner – the list goes on. Why do we care about politicians’ private lives so much?
As a candidate, Clinton did not include a promise to stay faithful to his wife in his manifesto. The affair did not hinder his performance as president. What gave American people the right to demand his impeachment, and the House of Representatives to order it? He was a public servant, hired by American citizens. Imagine a company where employees get fired for cheating on spouses – nobody would stand for it. How are political figures different?
To some, the answer appears simple – it is important to judge a politician’s character when making the decision of whether to vote for them. We want to put good and honest people in power, and decisions they make privately are good indications of that.
We would not want a politician to cheat and lie, and there are people with certain dispositions that allow them to do that habitually. If we can identify a dishonest person, great – they should not be in public office.
However, we do not elect politicians on their moral authority, but on legislative one. We need leaders who can make good political decisions and will work hard to implement laws, not ones who share our moral values. Democracy is based on people making rational choices – that is why debates are held before elections. It is intelligence, articulation and commitment to work that matter, not choice of partners.
The public has the right to care about the politicians’ support of and compliance to laws. Sexual life and history have very little to do with that, and broadcasting facts relevant to these areas is an invasion of privacy.
Moreover, accepting that the public can base their voting decisions on a politician’s private affairs will lead to discrimination, fuelled by prejudice and favoured by society. Moral beliefs vary from person to person, and while some will choose not to cast a vote for a president who regularly visits prostitutes, others will refrain from voting for a gay, Muslim or unmarried politician.
It is all too tempting to link the politician’s character to their career, but that is not fair. We would not want politicians monitoring our private lives, and we should not monitor theirs. People are more complicated than ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
We should not pretend that we know what a man is all about if we hear one story of their indiscretion – we do not. Let’s treat everyone the way we want to be treated – fairly and with respect, and those are the values democracies were built on.
Image credit: Matt Johnson