By Emily Shields
Political scandals involving infidelity are not a new phenomenon in American society. From Bill Clinton to Anthony Weiner, the American public has become accustomed to the intense media coverage and subsequent scrutiny that follows politicians during and long after an admission of infidelity. However, the response and reaction of the American public has become a fascinating and unpredictable area of concern for political scientists. Some politicians have been able to win re-election after a scandal breaks, while others are forced to resign from office. Jeffrey Alexander’s concept of collective representation becomes key in making infidelity into a scandal, as politicians have failed to collectively represent one of the values the American public holds most dear, family (Alexander 17). If Alexander argues that successful politicians are able to collectively represent the public, how have some politicians managed to overcome this breach in values while others have become disgraced in the eyes of the electorate?
Two politicians that have failed to revive their careers since admission of infidelity are John Edwards and Anthony Weiner. John Edwards, a former Democratic vice presidential candidate and presidential hopeful, admitted to having an affair and fathering a child with Rielle Hunter, a videographer he hired to document his 2007 presidential campaign. It was later revealed that Edwards persuaded an aide to pose as the father of Hunter’s daughter and that he used campaign donor money to house Hunter and his child. However, what really catapulted this situation into scandal territory was that Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, had re-entered treatment for cancer during the whole ordeal (Grier).
Anthony Weiner, former New York congressman, first found himself under intense media scrutiny after a graphic picture of himself was posted on his Twitter. Weiner initially denied that the photo was of him, but later confirmed that he had engaged in inappropriate conversations with multiple women on Twitter. During these conversations, Weiner was married to Huma Abedin, staffer for Hillary Clinton, and it later came out that Abedin was pregnant. Weiner was forced to resign from office. After some damage control, which included a People Magazine story with Abedin, Weiner announced his candidacy for mayor of New York. Initially, it seemed that his story of recovery, reflection and putting family first was resonating with voters , but after series of new explicit texts and images were released and speculated to have occurred after Weiner’s resignation, public support dwindled and Weiner lost his bid for mayor.
The underlying issue in both of these scandals is that both Edwards and Weiner failed to uphold the symbolic importance of family to voters. With Edwards’ wife undergoing cancer treatment and Abedin being pregnant during their respective affairs, the public was just not ready to forgive and forget. But here’s where things get tricky. Both Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford also clearly failed to adhere to Alexander’s principle of collective representation and the upholding of the family value. But Clinton and Sanford were not just able to overcome their respective scandals, they were able to thrive. So what makes Clinton and Sanford the exceptions to Alexander’s model of collective representation?
Perhaps the most widely covered political scandal in history, Clinton initially denied, but later admitted to, having an affair with a 24-year-old White House intern while serving as president. Clinton was married to Hillary Clinton and had a daughter. Clinton was actually impeached by the House but the Senate failed to eject him from the office. Strangely enough, Clinton’s approval ratings were at an all time high during the controversy (Newport). Today, Clinton is one of the most respected figures in politics, having introduced President Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Mark Sanford, Republican governor of South Carolina, found himself at the center of an infidelity scandal when it was discovered he was not hiking the Appalachian trail, but was in Argentina with his mistress. And like Clinton, and all of the other politicians discussed, Sanford had a family, including a wife and four children. Sanford was forced to resign as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. However, Sanford experienced high approval ratings when he left office and remarkably, won his Congress seat back in 2012 with a decisive margin.
So where’s the differences? Essentially, all of these politicians failed to represent family values. Why does Alexander’s theory that successful politicians are able to uphold values important to the public not apply to Clinton and Sanford? There are a few reasons worth exploring.
One of the reasons has to do with the position of power a politician currently holds. Essentially, how indispensable is a candidate (Masket)? Even though Clinton’s scandal was by far the most publicized, Clinton’s position as president meant it would be hard to abandon support for him. Clinton had already made a lot of progress with his policies and impeaching him would have created headaches, both for the government and the nation. Politicians like Weiner and Edwards can be replaced. There were plenty of other competent people running for mayor in Weiner’s case and Edwards was never really the front-runner in the presidential race. Even though all failed to collectively represent public values, Clinton’s position ultimately outweighed any moral issues.
Another important reason that Alexander’s idea of collective representation may not translate to all politicians is based on how a candidate originally positioned themselves to voters. Alexander did stress the importance of “performance politics” in appealing to a wide array of voters and many candidates have definitely positioned themselves as “family oriented” during elections (Alexander). One of those candidates was Edwards. As Jonathan Bernstein points out, Edwards’ 2008 campaign was very much about his tragic family story and how loyal he was to his wife during her first bout with cancer (Bernstein). With the infidelity scandal, Edwards disregarded who he sold himself as during the campaign. In contrast, Clinton and Sanford’s campaigns weren’t’ run this way. Yes, they were “family men,” but none used a family narrative to help get elected. Incidentally, voters felt betrayed and confused, which led to a distrust in Edwards and his future political prospects.
In addition, the nature of the infidelity itself, including legal repercussions, could also cause some politicians to be forced out of the political arena (Bordoni). If a politician is accused of breaking the law in some way during a scandal, the public is less likely to forgive and forget. Let’s compare Edwards with Sanford. Both had mistresses and both used money to keep their affairs secret. The big difference was that Sanford did not use any public funds for his Argentina trip, while Edwards used campaign dollars to house and take care of Hunter and his baby. The public is definitely less likely to forgive if their money is directly being used in a way that creates a breach in values.
Finally, it’s essential to look at demographics of the politicians (Goodman). The demographic aspect is perhaps most important when looking at Weiner and Sanford. Weiner’s demographic is New York and Sanford’s is South Carolina. Both states hold different values and politicians must be aware of these values to collectively represent. As Goodman points out, New York is less forgiving than South Carolina, perhaps because of another important value, religion. Evangelicalism, a predominant religion in South Carolina, values the importance of sin and eventual redemption (Goodman). This likely helped Sanford win re-election, while Weiner didn’t have this type of support to fall back on.
As one can see, political scandals involving infidelity is a very multi-layered topic. Alexander’s concept of collective representation is key in creating a scandal in the first place, but how politicians come out of a scandal is hard to predict. However, it will be interesting to see how these infidelity issues take shape as the values that Alexander discusses shift and change over time.
Alexander, Jeffrey The Performance of Politics. Oxford, 2010. Print.
Bernstein, Jonathan . “John Edwards, Bill Clinton and the Concept of Representation.” Washington Post. n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2013. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/john-edwards-bill-clinton-and-the-concept-of-representation/2012/04/26/gIQAr1aZjT_blog.html>.
Bordoni, Vincent. “Mark Sanford vs John Edwards, a study in contrasts.” Examiner. n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2013. <http://www.examiner.com/article/mark-sanford-vs-john-edwards-a-study-contrasts>.
Goodman, Lee-Anne. “Spitzer, Weiner hoping for forgiveness, perhaps Sanford-style comeback.” Yahoo News. n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2013. <http://news.yahoo.com/spitzer-weiner-hoping-forgiveness-perhaps-sanford-style-comeback-201306980.html>.
Grier, Peter. “Political Sex Scandals, Who Survived and Who Didn’t?.” CS Monitor. n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2013. <http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Elections/2011/1202/Political-sex-scandals-Who-survived-who-didn-t-and-why/John-Edwards-goner>.
Masket, Seth. “How Anthony Weiner Isn’t Like Bill Clinton.” Pacific Standard. n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2013. <http://www.psmag.com/politics/how-anthony-weiner-isnt-like-bill-clinton-63481/>.
Newport, Frank. “Presidential Approval Ratings.” Gallup. n. page. Web. 24 Sep. 2013. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/4609/presidential-job-approval-bill-clintons-high-ratings-midst.aspxr>.