There is no denying that the process by which a citizen strives to attain public office, whether elected or appointed, entails a great degree of public exposure and risk of character damage. Political candidates are regularly subject to a vetting process by which individual Americans, the media, and other members of government evaluate the suitability of a particular individual for a political position. These evaluations can range from more benign measurements of education level, experience, and their intended policy agenda (which I fear is becoming less commonplace a metric), to what has become more recently acceptable —defamation and character assassination. And to a certain extent, this is acceptable, because who we elect and who is appointed carry a minimum degree of power that we would like only entrusted to someone of character. Thus, when these public criticisms are substantiated with empirical evidence, they are merited and should be of great concern to us. But when they are not, we should be worried about their potential consequences.
Evidence of frivolous character attacks in contemporary American politics are in abundance. The 2016 Republican primary debates, which should’ve demonstrated nuanced ideological differences within the same common platform, devolved disappointingly at times into personal attacks. Although much of the attacks remained superficial insult, others cut deeper by taking jabs at families, espousing conspiracies, and challenging personal ability. Attack ads have become more prevalent in electoral campaigns at all levels and have become more caustic too. Look no further than the stark difference between LBJ’s 1964 jab at Barry Goldwater’s Cold War foreign policy in the famous “Daisy” attack ad or the blatantly offensive attack ads of the 2016 Trump-Clinton election. Additionally, look at the less-than-substantive attacks on Ocasio-Cortez, where some of her opponents reach beyond critique of her socialist policy, of which there is ample room for criticism. President Trump’s use of Twitter, in particular, widely attempts to disgrace his political opposition. Roger Stone has long launched a campaign of character assassination against Bill Clinton, continuing even after he was out of office. The use of defamation and ad hominem criticism as a political weapon, its bipartisan usage, and its effect on the individual is evident. It’s a zero sum game with no clear long-term winners, but does this political environment appear too hostile for potential political newcomers?
While there is certainly value in evaluating a candidate’s moral standing, when there is sufficient information to do so, the problem lies in the deterrent effect that such public displays may have on potentially promising political aspirants, especially when such claims are frivolous, or at worst, unfounded. Budding political minds of all party affiliation that would come of great benefit to our country, through either innovative policy or a unique set of intangibles, may not want to enter into the American political arena. They won’t want to enter because like most human beings, their reputation and self-esteem are intertwined to some degree. Young men and women whom would otherwise be interested in politics, may already have spouses and children by the time they are eligible for a position or may not want to subject themselves and their families to the psychological ordeal of American politics. Who would even want an office that has such a high chance of irreparably damaging your public image? Or perhaps even worse, how is a candidate who was successfully elected or appointed going to act in their office towards the segment of the public that vilified them previously? Will they be more radicalized, more prone to lashing out in vengeance, or will they be ineffectual as they occupy a marginalized role even in office?
Future candidates who have spent their early years in the Internet Age should be especially concerned, since there is no matching precedent for such a widespread cataloguing of personal information. Our ever-entangling relationship with technology has challenged previously-held notions of privacy and political saboteurs can use this kind of information to their advantage. I don’t think we’ve seen this quite yet in a high-profile case, but I find little value dissecting the adolescent social media behavior of our future political aspirants and would find it tremendously useless in predicting the policy inclinations of a candidate, let alone their character as an adult. Barring serious offenses that may indicate the early formations of seriously unethical behavior like sexual assault, hate crimes, or an individual’s off-color tweet at age 15 is not substantive grounds for character evaluation.
Granted, although campaigns are expensive and financing is a prohibitive factor, we can’t really prove how widespread a phenomenon this deterrence may be (perhaps we haven’t even seen it manifest yet). It is certainly important that we consider the kind of political environment that we are creating. Clearly, we have seen an entire generation of political figures run and attain office in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings, with no marked diminishment in interest. But, the emergence of new forms of technology (in particular social media) and increasing partisanship (which exists, according to some measures) show the potential to fortify a deterrent effect, if there is one.
If the personality draws no hard red flags, then the bulk of the political evaluation process should rightfully be aimed at a candidate’s policy. Some argue, as they did during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, that since the ‘reasonable doubt’ standard is a privilege only constitutionally afforded to criminal trials, only in criminal trials should such standards apply. I think that in order to create a more entrant-friendly political environment and perhaps an overarching national political-social environment, we must adopt the ‘reasonable doubt’ logic as a broader philosophical position. Unless we can prove something to be true, there is more danger in operating under assumptions of truthfulness and accepting blindly any accusation or rumor than there is in giving an individual the benefit of the doubt. If we can adopt this position as a new political orientation, then perhaps aspirations of civic duty in political office will be perceived as a more attractive prospect and less of a personal sacrifice.