Why have accusations of sexual impropriety been a bigger threat to Herman Cain’s presidential bid than his political ignorance?
The chances are that former pizza mogul and current US presidential candidate Herman Cain won’t make history as the first black Republican president. But it’s safe to say that the Grand Old Party race would not have been the same without him.
From his suggested ‘9-9-9’ tax code overhaul (described by one commentator as a plan based on ‘wishful thinking that borders on fantasy’) to his readiness to profess ignorance about world affairs (he once said if he didn’t know ‘who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan’, he wouldn’t be ashamed to admit it), Herman Cain has been one entertaining a-political figure to watch.
But Cain’s political weaknesses have been overshadowed by a string of accusations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity. First, there were reports that Cain had made inappropriate sexual advances to at least two women during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. This prompted a third former co-worker to come forward and, soon after, a fourth woman became the first to make similar accusations publicly. This was all topped by an Atlanta businesswoman’s claims this week that she’s had a 13-year ‘casual affair’ with the married Cain. He described the woman as ‘troubled’ and her story as ‘completely false’. Soon after, though, he said he was ‘reassessing’ his presidential bid.
It seems that, these days, scandals are to politics what death and taxes are to life. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that American politicians are involved in more affairs or dodgy dealings than in the past. As far as extra-marital relationships go, John F Kennedy is a case in point, and as far as political disgraces are concerned, the 1970s were – to put it mildly – pretty scandalous. That’s when the US experienced the mother of all ‘gates’, as Richard Nixon became the first president ever to resign following his implication in the theft of documents from the Democrats: the so-called Watergate scandal.
Over the past 30 years, as scandals have become less and less juicy (Herman Cain has got nothing on former US president Bill Clinton’s cigar-juggling antics in the 1990s for instance), they have come to occupy more and more space in political life and in the reporting on it. In fact, scandal, intrigue and dirt-digging have become the modern mode of politics and a substitute for public, political debate.
The rise of scandal has gone hand in hand with the decline of democracy and political engagement. Increasingly, politicians choose intrigue-mongering, backstabbing and character assassination over lobbying among the electorate as a way to win votes. Consequently, voters are reduced to passive spectators as their representatives drag out each other’s dirty laundry into the public arena. And as leaders’, or prospective leaders’, personal affairs and characters come to substitute for ideological clashes, minor and major personal character weaknesses are blown out of proportion in the press.
How did we come to this? The 2002 book Downsizing Democracy, by Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, describes the process well. The authors argue that a tactic of ‘revelation, investigation and prosecution’ (RIP) has replaced electoral mobilisation as the primary way of defeating political foes and winning over the public. This process, they suggest, is a legacy of the Watergate scandal and was honed by the Democrats in Congress when Republicans were in control of the White House. However, during the Clinton administration, Republicans began using the tactic aggressively, making numerous charges throughout the Nineties, including complaints about Clinton’s conduct during his years as governor of Arkansas and, of course, about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton finally ended up being impeached for lying under oath before the grand jury.
When Clinton’s presidency was finally devastated, both political parties had, Crenson and Ginsberg write, ‘developed and demonstrated the capacity to drive their opponents from office without mobilising or even consulting the electorate, which seemed a mere vestigial organ of the American body politic’.
Mobilising popular support and seeking approval in the court of public opinion are treated nowadays as little more than a waste of time or a distraction from the more pressing affair of dirt digging and litigation, which are seen as more straightforward routes to political victories.
Of course, in Herman Cain’s case, the women have chosen to step forward and Cain’s blanket denial is looking increasingly incredible. His trustworthiness and honesty – two characteristics broadly recognised as important for a political leader – are now seriously in doubt. In other words, he has brought many of his misfortunes upon himself. But the weight put on scandal these days is still apparent in Cain’s case, considering that his involvement with women seems to be the more likely reason for the bursting of his presidential hopes than his shambolic political campaign. Yet his apparently creepy methods for hitting on women do not say much about his ability to govern the country, whereas his bragging of being ignorant about international affairs, and of being a businessman rather than a politician, does.
Scandal-mongering has devastating consequences, not just for individual politicians’ campaigns, but for political life as a whole, too. Amid all the character assassinations, litigation and moralistic accusations about dodgy dealings, real political issues get overlooked or stay unresolved. And at the same time, voters are reduced to the sidelines, given a chance to voice general opinions in polls but not to have a proper say in what should be high up on political agendas. This is likely, in turn, to encourage cynicism about politicians, who seem obsessed about image because they’re scared to have their secrets leaked or turned into campaign killers. And the more image-concerned politicians become, the more fake they appear.
Many are predicting Cain’s departure from the GOP race to be imminent. Unfortunately, the culture of scandal-mongering is not likely to be relegated to irrelevance as quickly.