In politics, as in other areas of life, the indications are there for us to recognize lack of good character, morals and standards, yet we fail to see these warning signs, and repeatedly place our trust in people who are likely to abuse it.
It’s now semi-official (i.e. at least, according to some sources in the US media): the days when politicians’ careers can be threatened or ended as a result of their sexual misbehavior are over. This observation, pronounced by no fewer than four prime time TV news commentators earlier this month comes on the heels of the decision by two longtime and formerly disgraced politicians to re-enter the political arena. Both had resigned or were pressured out of office a few years ago as the result of scandals related to their sexual conduct.
First, there is the case of Anthony Weiner, the one-time congressman from New York who publicly lamented the humiliation he had to bear for most of his life because of people making off-color jokes about his last name, but then showed himself to be without shame after begrudgingly admitting he’d been sending sexually explicit photos of himself to various women from his cell phone. Weiner is now making a bid to be the next mayor of New York City and, by some accounts, is leading in the polls. Then there is the case of Eliot Spitzer, once the zealous enforcer of New York’s laws as Attorney General, and subsequently the state’s 54th Governor, who fell from grace when it was learned that he’d been violating the very laws he purported to defend by purchasing high-priced prostitution services (at an estimated $1,000 per hour) regularly for several years, and racking up a tab of over $80,000 in the process. Mr Spitzer is now engaged in a petition drive to take a stab at becoming the New York City Comptroller. And if he’s successful getting into the race, one of the contenders he’ll face for the position he’s seeking will be none other than the madame involved in the prostitution ring he once patronized. Both Spitzer and Weiner say they think the public understands and has forgiven them. They also insist they simply want to serve. The TV talking heads are saying that perhaps voters need to take another look at things they once thought mattered, and give these poor souls a second chance. After all, they’re talented and experienced politicians, and that’s what really counts, right?
Those who assert that the era of the political sex scandal is coming to a close are probably correct. But it’s also possible that they’re understating the reality of what’s happening. True, voters just don’t seem to care as much anymore about the sexual habits of those for whom they might cast a ballot. But I think one could easily argue that what we’re seeing is not just the end of the sexual scandal as we once knew it. What we really could be witnessing is something more insidious and ominous: the death of outrage with respect to all sorts of character issues. It’s arguable that we’ve become fully desensitized to the morality of our politician’s conduct. We fully expect them to misrepresent, lie, cheat, and even skirt or break the law. Something that used to matter to us a lot — character — matters little anymore, and in many spheres of life, especially in politics. The only thing we really seem to demand from our politicians is that they deliver on at least some of the major things we put them in office to get for us. Give us what we want. That’s what matters. How you get it, and whatever else you do, doesn’t matter all that much. It’s a new age, and a new reality.
Like it or not, and whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, there will always be a price to pay for the low expectations we place on those who would lead us. When character is lacking, we can expect all manner of unseemly things to happen. And as the old adage goes, there’s simply no honor among thieves. There’s no trust to be had in a person without integrity. Anything can happen — and given the right time, opportunity, and circumstance, just about anything bad you can think of happening eventually will. In the end, you always get what you’re willing to tacitly endorse with your indifference. And when you’re willing to pay little heed to the character of those you choose to represent your interests, you truly deserve the betrayal you’ll inevitably experience.
It’s been my sad experience that people make the mistake of ignoring, under-weighting, or misjudging character all the time in relationships, and my books Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome are full of examples of the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual toll this mistake can take. There was a time when people were much more careful about testing the character of their would-be lifetime partners through lengthy and well-scrutinized engagements. Today, people often “hook-up” for all kinds of reasons, and simply hope for the best. And it’s remarkable to me how “surprised” folks are when they later find themselves misled, exploited, lied to, cheated on, or otherwise abused to the point that they just can’t take it anymore. And it’s unfortunately often only at that point that they begin to think that perhaps character really does matter after all. It’s bad enough that some manipulators are pretty good at charming others and concealing their true character. In those cases, even the best of us can be duped. But many times numerous red flags about the character of a potential partner appear early on, and the person who pays them heed instead of ignoring them is likely to spare himself or herself a lot of heartache.
I don’t think we’re on the verge of learning any great lessons about the importance of character in our politicians any time soon. As bad as things are, they’re just not bad enough yet. We haven’t paid a high enough price yet for our indifference. The “relationship” we have with our politicians is not so clearly and severely abusive that we have to abandon ship and re-assess our judgment about how much character really matters. We’re still very much in denial and too easily manipulated by the promises made to us and the trinkets bought for us (all of which, ironically enough, are purchased with our money). And we’ve allowed ourselves to become so dependent upon what we think our politicians can do for us that we’re too often willing to look the other way when they show us their true stripes. As long as they give us a few morsels, we’ll let the unscrupulous go on with their primary agendas of padding their egos and amassing the power they ravenously crave. It’s the very definition of an abusive relationship. And if history is any teacher, we won’t put an end to it until we just can’t take it anymore.
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