November 8, 2013
Politics and Sex: What's Really at Stake?
by Myriam Miedzian and Gary Ferdman
On November 5th, conspicuous by their absences on the New York City ballot were Eliot Spitzer, defeated in his bid to be the Democratic candidate for City Comptroller, and Anthony Wiener, who garnered only 5 percent of the primary vote for mayor. Meanwhile, across the country in San Diego, the mayoral seat left empty by Mayor Bob Filner’s August resignation won’t be filled until a November 19th special election. All three political careers were cut short by varying degrees of reckless sexual behavior.
Spitzer, Wiener and Filner represent the Jewish contingent of a growing list of American politicians who have traded in their political careers for the thrill of sexually offensive behavior.
From Gary Hart’s 1987 affair with Donna Rice to Anthony Wiener’s second round of online penis promotion, endless words have been written, and spoken about these men. The reaction has often been jocular— Keith Olbermann, in his MSNBC days, read from lascivious emails sent by the “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” (aka Virginia Governor Mark Sanford) to his Argentinian lover. New York Magazine put Spitzer’s picture on its cover with a caption reading “brain” with an arrow pointing to his crotch. Jay Leno quipped: “Anthony Weiner said yesterday that he wants closure. If he wants closure he should start with his zipper.”
But lurid details, bad puns, and “How could he be so stupid?” seem to be all the media has to offer. What is sorely missing is an analysis of the serious impact these escapades have on politics and history when voters’ aspirations for city, state and country are derailed by politicians who choose sex over responsibility to the electorate. Isn’t it time to take a serious look at the political consequences of these scandals and begin to focus on what can be done to reduce the chances of the next and the next and the next?
Political Repercussions: A Sampling
Looking back at the 1988 presidential campaign, there is good reason to believe that, were it not for Gary Hart’s extramarital affair, Hart, not George Bush, would have been our 41st president. In an April 1987 poll, Hart was the favorite candidate of 46 percent of Democratic voters. Jesse Jackson was favored by 18 percent, and Michael Dukakis by 4 percent. Hart’s affair with Donna Rice led to Dukakis becoming the Democratic nominee. In 2008, Dukakis who was widely perceived as having run a very poor campaign, reflected on his defeat. In an interview with Katie Couric, he said he owed “the American people an apology” because “if I had beaten the old man, we never would have heard of the kid, and we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
If anyone needs to apologize for facilitating George W. Bush’s presidency, which brought us a disastrous war in Iraq and economic collapse, it is Gary Hart, whose odds of beating Bush the father were significantly higher than Dukakis’s.
The fact that Bill Clinton was tainted by his sex scandal and impeachment was an important factor in Al Gore’s reluctance to involve him in Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Gore refuses to taint himself with the President’s moral legacy — but aides say he needs help,” the Observer’s Ed Vulliamy reported from Tennessee on October 21, 2000.
Writing in Salon magazine in 2000, Joan Walsh, one of many Gore supporters and advisors expressing their dismay, wrote: “This election should be a Gore rout . . . The Clinton-Gore administration has presided over the longest economic boom in U.S. history.” Bush was at that point ahead, she argued, because he embraced the Reagan legacy, while Gore distanced himself from Clinton — an “unconscionable strategic blunder.” There is little doubt that with President Clinton campaigning at his side, and especially had Clinton not been tarnished by sex in the Oval Office, Gore would have won the 2000 election by the electoral as well as the popular vote. Again, were it not for a sex scandal, we might well have been spared George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency.
Eliot Spitzer was widely admired as a reformer, a man who, as New York Attorney General, had the fortitude to stand up to Wall Street. He was elected governor by 70 percent of the electorate — the kind of mandate a governor needs to even begin to clean up the dysfunctional New York State Legislature. After passing historic Workmen’s Comp reform that increased payments to workers and reduced costs, his reforms were nipped in the bud as a result of his call-girl trysts. The “sheriff of Wall Street” was sorely missed as the same financial institutions that created the financial crisis rode roughshod over consumers with untenable mortgages.
Mercifully for Democrats, John Edwards did not become their candidate for the presidency. Had he been nominated, a Republican victory in 2008 would have been almost inevitable. As it is, an eloquent spokesman for America’s poor has become the subject of scorn and moral outrage.
In addition to overturning voters’ choices, this behavior predated the Tea Party Republicans’ government shutdown and debt debacle as a contributing factor to voters’ cynicism and disaffection with politicians, and a lack of interest in politics.
A pre-shutdown June, 2013 Gallup poll puts Congressional approval at 10 percent. Such a dim and distrustful view of our elected officials is reinforced by the perception of hypocrisy — as in the case of ardent segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, who fathered a child with his family’s 16-year-old African-American maid. And then there are the Republican lawmakers who vociferously support “family values,” use their wives and children as campaign props, and overtly promote homophobia to pander to conservative Christian voters. How can the electorate not become cynical when their holier-than-thou candidates are arrested for exposing themselves to undercover cops and again for having sex in a House Men’s room (Mississippi’s former Republican Representative Jon Hinson); playing footsie in an airport men’s room (Idaho’s former Republican Senator Larry Craig); or drunk driving with an unidentified man in his passenger seat, after leaving a gay nightclub, (California’s former Republican State Senator Roy Asburn)?
Why Can’t We Be More Like The French?
One frequent response to all this is to lament the fact that Americans care about what politicians do in their private lives. Critics love to point to French President Francois Mitterand, who had a daughter with his mistress, or President Jacques Chirac, who had numerous affairs, with no negative political repercussions in either case.
We can’t be more like the French, however, because in American political culture “character” all too often trumps issues and beclouds self-interest.
French voters don’t much care about personality (look at Francois Hollande) or candidates’ marital or religious status. It takes charges of rape, as in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, to get them concerned. The French are politically savvy, fully aware of differences in candidates’ parties, and vote for the party and candidate who represent their interests.
Many Americans aren’t even aware of the difference between Republican and Democratic platforms, and vote on the basis of a candidate’s likeability — remember all the guys who voted for Dubya because he was the kind of guy they would like to have a beer with — or they vote based on rhetoric, not voting records — witness the rise of the Tea Party, aided and abetted by corporations desirous of gutting governmental regulation. Their agenda was masked as protecting individual citizens from the excesses of “big government,” and is enthusiastically supported by working-class Americans, against their own interests.
While French political parties have clear ideological and economic stances understood by the electorate, registration for both major U.S. parties continues to decline, with independent voters on the rise, in spite of the fact that the demise of liberal Republicanism has made the distinctions between parties much more clear.
According to Pew Foundation research through 2012, “The number of political independents has continued to grow, as both parties have lost ground among the public. Based on surveys conducted this year, 38% describe themselves as independents, up from 32% in 2008 and 30% in 2004.”
American politicians hype family values by being photographed going to church with their families, by opposing gay marriage, abortion, and in some cases even contraception. The “family values” French voters care about, by contrast, include maintaining their country’s world-class daycare and preschool systems, and continuing family support stipends when children are born.
So we are stuck with a system that focuses heavily on politicians’ private lives. And a media that relishes the scandals that sell newspapers and drive traffic to their ad-laden web sites.
The Problem, Along With Testosterone, Is Here to Stay
Research indicates a two way relationship between testosterone levels in men and the attainment of power and dominance. Higher levels of testosterone lead to increased dominant and aggressive behavior. Higher levels of power and dominance, in turn, lead to increases in testosterone levels. Because higher testosterone levels are also linked to increased sex drive, powerful men are likely to be particularly sexually driven.
Higher levels of testosterone are no doubt also a factor contributing to the self-confidence and hubris — the belief that one can get away with anything including supporting anti-gay legislation while trying to pick up men in toilets, or having an affair while presenting oneself as the caring and devoted husband of a woman with terminal cancer.
Some politicians’ extramarital affairs probably never become public knowledge. Going back as far as Alexander Hamilton, some women have used sex to blackmail eminent men. In some cases, such as Strom Thurmond’s, politicians choose to be generous to former sex partners, either out of a sense of responsibility or in order to keep transgressions out of the headlines.
Some politicians seem driven to go beyond the risk inherent in illicit sex and take extreme risks to further enhance their sexual enjoyment. When Republicans like Jon Hinson and Larry Craig expose themselves to strangers, or seek sex in men’s rooms, they are taking risks far beyond the risk of having an illicit affair.
Elliot Spitzer had to know that some very wealthy and powerful people were out to get him. Since he himself had passed anti-prostitution legislation in New York State, he had to be aware that while he may have survived an extra-marital affair, his removal from office was a certainty if his Empire Club activities ever came to light.
San Diego is a very conservative city, so when reform minded Democrat Bob Filner was elected mayor, he had to have been aware that Republicans, along with the city’s business interests, would be looking for any vulnerabilities on his part that could lead to his removal from office. Filner helped them out: “It’s common knowledge that the ex-Mayor’s relentless habit of coming onto women provided his political enemies with enough free ammunition to hound him out of office,” civic activist Norma Damashek, writes in her San Diego Free Press Numbers Runner blog. Had he stopped the harassment he indulged in as a congressman, she noted, once he became mayor he could have apologized for his past mistakes — which could be characterized as “sexual harassment lite” since the women’s rejection of his advances did not lead to their being demoted or fired — and mended his ways. Had he done so he would in all probability still be mayor today.
Gary Hart also engaged in a higher than necessary level of risk taking by daring reporters to follow him when rumors were spreading about his affair.
After being forced to resign his congressional seat, Anthony Wiener, went on to a second round of online sexual antics while hoping to become mayor of New York. This killed not only any chance he had of becoming mayor, but made it extremely unlikely that he could ever be elected to any political office.
Did the excitement resulting from such high risk levels enhance these men’s enjoyment? Did it represent a sexual version of climbing Mount Everest? Risking political demise for that extra thrill?
From a young age, many boys and men are drawn to a variety of adrenaline-raising risky behaviors which create a high. Engaging in life-risking sports and dangerous driving are among the factors that lead to much higher male than female accidental deaths rates. Men are also much more likely to engage in impulsive violent behavior.
Instead of just waiting for the next political sex scandal to make headlines and change the course of elections and history, shouldn’t we be focusing on what measures could be taken to at least reduce the frequency of occurrences? Here are some thoughts on what can be done:
More Preventive Research.
The Republican and Democratic parties regularly hire professionals to do “opposition research’ on the other party’s candidates, with the goal of digging up the opponents’ most hidden and damaging secrets. Given the enormous setbacks a party suffers when one of its presidential aspirants has to withdraw because of a sex scandal, a president is politically neutered by the threat of frivolous impeachment, or a congressman has to resign, wouldn’t it make sense for the parties to do the same kind of research, including a focus on sexual behavior, within the limits of what is legally permissible, on their own congressional and presidential candidates before the worst damage is done? Such due diligence in the case of Bob Filner, for example, would likely have turned up some of the ample evidence of boorish sexual behavior during his House career, sparing San Diego Democratic voters their current disappointment. Sexual harassment quizzes of the kind recently given to the four major candidates for Filner’s mayoral office are not sufficient, nor are harassment training programs.
Recruit More Women Candidates.
Another remedy is to move towards equal representation of women in government. Since they are so underrepresented (in 2013, only 20 percent of congressional seats were held by women), it is difficult to compare sexual behavior. Only one U.S. congresswoman has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior, Idaho Republican Helen Chenowith, who was highly critical of Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades and later admitted, under pressure, to having had an affair with a married man. She was not, however, married or in congress at the time! Nikki Haley, for her part, denied allegations of an extra-marital affair and was elected governor of South Carolina.
While estimates of the prevalence of extramarital affairs vary considerably from one study to another, the one constant is that men have more of them. While the gap appears to have diminished considerably among women under the age of 40, anthropologist Helen Fisher informs us that a meta-analysis of a dozen American infidelity studies found that “31 percent of men and 16 percent of women had had a sexual affair that entailed no emotional involvement.” That men, statistically, are more prone to casual sex is borne out by the continued flourishing of prostitution and sex tourism. The attraction of casual sex seems especially pronounced among politicians.
Given what we know about testosterone levels and power, combined with the availability of young women attracted by power, it seems likely that among politicians (and other powerful men such as athletes, religious leaders, the super wealthy) rates of extramarital affairs will continue to be considerably higher than among the general male population.
Would the attainment of political power by large numbers of women change this? Or would women’s much lower testosterone levels protect them from excessive sexual risk taking? The fact that power in women does not seem to serve as an aphrodisiac to most men — who appear to be primarily attracted by women’s looks and youth — further decreases the probability of female sexual misbehavior while in office. How likely is it that a president Hillary Clinton would be caught in a White House tryst with a young male intern?
When author Hanna Rosin, in a July 13th, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, argued that when it comes to sex, “as we get used to women in power, we are likely to discover that they behave much like men,” she used the television show Veep, in which the fictional female vice-president “has a bag man who worships her, and an ex-husband she still lusts after,” to support her argument! She also draws support from real-life British sociology professor Catherine Hakim, who in her book and in articles encourages women to use their “erotic capital”– sexy good looks — to their advantage in the marketplace. Rosin conveniently omits the fact that Hakim’s argument is based on men wanting more sex than women. Hakim points to cross-cultural research indicating that male sexuality is more pronounced than female sexuality.
It Will Take Major Effort to Achieve the Desirable Goal Political Gender Parity
A study by the Women & Politics Institute at American University found that “there is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it; and women don’t.” The study surveyed close to 4,000 people who fit the bill to be potential candidates — community leaders, lawyers, activists, etc. Sixty-two percent of the men and 46 percent of the women said that they had thought of running for political office, and men were more likely to think they were qualified for office.
Spokeswomen for Emily’s List, which lends support to female candidates, have also commented on the difficulty of recruiting women.
An awareness of women’s lesser self-assurance and political ambition probably plays a role in the mandating of percentages of women in government in so many countries including Costa Rica, Sweden, Belgium, and Rwanda. Our lack of such mandates goes far to explain our ranking 27th worldwide in female legislative representation.
In a June 11, 2011 article, Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, explained that when women do run for office, their motivations are often quite different from their male counterparts: Women are more likely run for office “because there is some public issue that they care about, some change they want to make, some issue that is a priority for them, and men tend to run for office because they see this as a career path.”
Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, and Members of Congress Jan Schakowsky and Carolyn McCarthy exemplify this. Mikulski started out as a social worker and community organizer who helped save Fells Point — a Baltimore neighborhood — from being destroyed by a sixteen-lane highway. Of Polish descent, she drew national attention when she gave an impassioned speech at Catholic University of America about the mistreatment of ethnic Americans. Her activism earned her a seat on the Baltimore City Council in 1971, and in 1974, she became a Democratic U.S. senator.
Carolyn McCarthy’s husband was killed and her son Kevin severely injured In December 1993, when a gunman opened fire on passengers on a Long Island Rail Road Commuter train killing six and wounding nineteen. This led McCarthy to launch a campaign for stricter gun control. Her activism led to her election to Congress in 1996 on the Democratic ticket.
Jan Schakowsky was a Chicago homemaker back in 1969 when she helped lead a campaign to ensure fresh products in supermarkets. These efforts led to the ubiquitous “use by” labels on our foods. She went on to become program director of Illinois Public Action, the state’s largest public interest group, was eventually elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, and in 1999 won the Democratic seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Weeding out the bad sexual apples and electing more women would lead to increased confidence that politicians’ sense of responsibility towards constituents will outweigh illicit sexual urges. It would help restore confidence in elected officials, and have the added bonus of increasing the quality of our government.
Dr. Myriam Miedzian (myriammiedzian.com) is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues. She is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence.
Gary Ferdman is a not-for-profit executive and former grassroots organizer.