But…we used to prefer our politicians upright, with integrity and morality and values. At least in public. Preferably in private. These days, fewer secrets can be kept. So politician’s indiscretions are on fuller display. Whether it’s just because we can see more clearly behind the curtain or because our leaders are more apt to live lives of compromised consciouses, one thing is abundantly clear:
We don’t seem to mind.
We don’t care if our political leaders are immoral — once or repeatedly. We can hold our noses and vote for them, cover our eyes or look the other way, and excuse them with mental gymnastics to fit our desired outcomes.
We don’t care. We really don’t.
It wasn’t always that way. Take President Richard Nixon, for instance.
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1972 with a stunning 520-17 margin in the Electoral College. He only lost one state and the District of Columbia.
Then Watergate happened.
In less than two years, his approval rating plunged from it’s high near 70% to 24%. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who felt he should be removed from office spiked from less than 20% when the Watergate hearings began to nearly 60% at the time of his resignation.
Even after he did so, people strongly believed he should face criminal charges (58%). More than half of Americans did not think Gerald Ford should pardon the former president. It is widely believed anti-Nixon public sentiment led to the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Fast forward twenty-five years and the nation was embroiled in another scandal — this time centering on President Bill Clinton, allegations of sexual impropriety, and the charge of lying under oath.
Unlike under Nixon, public approval of Clinton during and after his impeachment process actually increased, and his disapproval ratings stayed the same.
How could this be?
One theory is that Americans largely weren’t paying attention to the political theatrics in 1998-1999 like they were in 1973-1974.
Unlike the Watergate hearings, which gripped much of the country in 1973, Americans largely tuned out the proceedings against Clinton. In a Center survey conducted just after the House impeachment vote, only 34% said they had paid very close attention to it. In fact, the impeachment didn’t even crack the Center’s top 10 news interest stories of 1998.https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/03/clintons-impeachment-barely-dented-his-public-support-and-it-turned-off-many-americans/
Another theory is less nuanced: maybe we just don’t care when our leaders misbehave.
Last year during President Trump’s first impeachment trial, the trend mirrored the Clinton scandal more so than the Nixon saga. Despite the fact that 63% of Americans (about 90% of Democrats and about a third of Republicans) said President Trump “definitely” or “probably” did something illegal and 70% concluded he did something unethical, his approval ratings stayed essentially the same.
Yes, he lost re-election (he was the only president of the three cited who had the opportunity to attempt an additional term). But he was just 5% points behind Joe Biden in the popular vote and it took a handful of swing states breaking Biden’s way for Trump to be defeated.
Even after his efforts to “Stop the Steal” and his involvement in the riots at the Capitol on 1/6, former President Trump’s approval rating has only decreased by about 6%.
Perhaps this statistic puts the finest point on it all:
In 2011, when asked if a politician doing something immoral compromised them as a public leader, 30% of Americans said they were willing to overlook it. In 2016, when asked the same question, the number had increased to 72%.*
We are a community of individuals who are wiling to overlook the misdeeds of our leaders (particularly when they belong to our party).
I’m not sure I can explain this, at least not in a short article, but I can recognize one of the natural consequences. And it is dire.
When we enable leaders who lack integrity by holding our nose to cast our ballots for them or “fighting like hell” to keep them in power, we set a precedent for more of the same.
It is a sameness we claim to despise, but it is a culture that we have created.
*This stat was pulled from Michael Wear’s wonderful book, Reclaiming Hope.