Mark Sanford and Why Character Doesn’t Matter Anymore

Mark Sanford won his way back into Congress, marking the culmination of the strangest–and quickest–redemptions of a public figure since Marv Albert put on women’s underwear and went on a biting spree.

Some commentators are drawing from this the conclusion that society has deteriorated to the point where we just don’t care about the morals of our leaders any more. Sez Jonah Goldberg:

And it’s worth noting that what has changed the most isn’t the supply of moral politicians, but the demand for them. Ambitious, selfish, amoral men have always been attracted to politics. At least in terms of his sex life, John F. Kennedy was a disgusting man who, among other things, pimped out an intern. Other presidents, Republican and Democrat, cheated on their wives, too. Such behavior is not new. But that was all kept from the public eye — by the press, by the establishment, etc. – in part because it was understood that if the public found out, the politician’s career would be over. Times have changed and the public doesn’t demand — or demand sufficiently — either the myth or the reality of morality anymore.

It is hard to disagree with this, but I don’t think that newer, loosey-goosier morals explain everything.

In third-world countries, you often see “elections” that devolve into gunfights between the two competing factions. It’s not because people in third-world countries are particularly vicious or murder-happy; it’s because in countries without common law traditions or protection of minority rights, those elections could be winner-take-all. And when I say “all,” I mean “all.” The government has unchecked power, so the faction that controls it is free to take from its opponents and give to its allies–wealth, land, food, everything. Given those circumstances, it’s not surprising that people might embrace some extreme measures. Their very lives may be at stake.

The more powerful our government becomes–the more ability it has to pick out the winners and losers in society–the less people can afford to wait on an admirable, upstanding candidate to come along. They have to settle for anyone they can find on the ballot who won’t take everything they love and burn it to the ground.

In days past, the “demand,” as Jonah Goldberg would say, for virtue from our politicians was greater, and the punishment for lack of it was harsher, in part because government mattered less. Since government didn’t affect day-to-day life all that much, it didn’t matter as much who was running it, so voters could be choosier.

But a couple of years ago, one vote in the Senate made the difference in passing Obamacare, which is going to affect day-to-day life the way a falling Acme safe affects Wile E. Coyote. It matters who is pulling the levers of government today.

So, yes, we’re tolerating a lot more boorish behavior, and it is a moral problem, but it’s not just a moral problem. Voters might be more discriminating if they thought they could afford to be.

Leave a Reply