The Private Life of Politicians

Saturday 6 February 2010, by Dennis F. Thompson

Thèmes : Vie privée

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Politicians who wish to keep their private life private, it used to be confidently said, are safer in France than in the United States [1]. The public attention to President Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades is only the most dramatic of several decades of exposure the private lives of presidents, senators, candidates and state and local politicians. Sexual relationships, drinking habits, family troubles, personal health have been fair game for the American press at least since the exposure of presidential candidate Gary Hart’s adultery in 1987. In contrast, the private lives of French politicians have long been assumed to be off limits. The affairs of Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand were not widely reported, and attracted little coverage when finally publicized (even though Mitterrand was supporting a second family, partly at government expense).

For many years, France and the U.S. represented polar paradigms of the privacy of politicians. Other European countries stood between the poles though most lay closer to France than to the U.S. This sharp contrast is now fading, as France and other countries begin to succumb to many of the same forces that have shaped public discourse in the United States [2]. Candidates increasingly open their personal lives to the press. Nicholas Sarkozy talked openly about his marital difficulties. Ségolène Royal’s childbirth, her « free » marriage, and even her techniques for dealing with cellulite became prominent stories. The erosion of the boundaries between the private and the public in politics is eroding in most democracies.

No doubt the trend has many causes—the increasing competition in the media, the personalization of political campaigns, the expansion of the internet, among other forces that are shaping democratic politics in the globalized society. And no doubt the trend will continue despite the persistent criticism of some commentators and the occasional disapproval of some citizens. But this escalating publicization of private life should be resisted as far as possible. It gains more legitimacy than it deserves from mistaken assumptions about the basis of privacy of politicians, and about the nature of criteria that could justify publicizing their private lives. The reason to resist this trend, I wish to argue, is to protect not the rights of privacy of politicians but the integrity of the democratic process.

The Rights of Politicians

Privacy involves the protection of information about an individual that he or she is entitled to control: personal activities that should not be known, observed, or intruded upon without his or her consent. The most common justification for this claim invokes the right of privacy that all citizens should possess. Like all politicians, officials have some right to the kind of control implied by this right. No democracy should make the price of public service the sacrifice of all one’s rights, especially when the consequences may be permanent and follow the individual long after leaving office.

Although political culture in the United States is generally thought to be more rights-centered than in other democracies, its norms and laws protect the privacy rights of politicians less. The contrast with France is especially striking. In addition to cultural and professional norms against publicizing private lives, French law threatens severe sanctions for violations of privacy rights (violations of the intimité de la view privée even more severely than the vie privéee) [3]. Unlike U.S. jurisprudence, French law does not sharply distinguish between the rights of public figures such as politicians or celebrities, and those of ordinary citizens. Even photographs of public figures are subject to protection by means of the droit à l’image: the images are treated as private property.

Another (related) justification for privacy of politicians refers to effects on the recruitment. If the press constantly probes the private lives of politicians, some worthy candidates may be discouraged from running for office. The prospect of exposing to public scrutiny one’s personal finances (and those of one’s family) or any past indiscretion (however minor) is hardly a positive incentive to seek public office. This justification at least has the virtue of pointing to an effect on the democratic process—the potential loss of talented officials. But it still rests on an individual right. Until we decide how extensive a right of privacy a politician should have, we cannot assess whether an individual is warranted in avoiding public service. If someone declines to serve because he is claiming more than he has a right to, then he is not likely to be the kind of person we should want to hold public office.

Although many complain about the glare of publicity, many more continue to seek public office in spite of it. The question is not whether some decide not to seek office because of the possibility of public exposure, but which kinds of people decide not to seek office because of it. No doubt some admirable citizens who would be fine public servants decline to serve. But certainly some less admirable citizens, who have much to hide, decline to serve because they fear that their past (and present) transgressions may come to light. If the latter group is larger (and the number of quality people who are willing to serve does not diminish), we should consider the prospect of public exposure a favorable effect on recruitment.

However, grounding privacy on individual rights, especially without distinguishing between public officials and ordinary citizens, is misconceived. Citizens become public officials by choice: they may be presumed to consent to whatever limitations on their privacy are reasonably believed to be necessary for the effective functioning of the democratic process. What their rights are should depend on what these limitations are. What the democratic process requires should determine what rights officials have. Moreover, giving politicians such a strong right of privacy also gives them greater control over the public discourse than is desirable for healthy democratic debate. The « familialization of political life » and the « publicization of the private », according to some commentators, has already contributed to the « dumbing down » of political debate in France [4]. (In the personal diary kept during the 2002 campaign, Sylviane Agacinski (candidate Lionel Jospin wife) complained that the media’s obsessive interest in candidates’ spouses and partners led to the « trivialization of political debate » [5]. Some commentators complained that her own actions contributed to the trivialization.

The Demands of Democratic Accountability

The common failing of any justifications based on the rights of politicians is that it does not connect the rationale for privacy to the needs of the democratic process [6]. Once we recognize that public officials do not have the same rights as ordinary citizens, the right to privacy argument does not provide much help in determining what the limits on publicity of politicians’ lives should be.

Any adequate justification for privacy must rely on a view about what the democratic process requires. Although there are many different conceptions of democracy, we can posit a minimal requirement that should be acceptable on almost any conception. The requirement is accountability: citizens should be able to hold public officials accountable for their decisions and policies, and therefore citizens must have information that would enable them to judge how well officials are doing or are likely to do their job [7].

It should sufficiently clear that the requirement of accountability provides a reason to override or diminish the right of privacy that officials would otherwise have. The requirement would clearly justify making some conduct public that is ordinarily private, such as information about mental or physical health that could affect performance, the finances of family members that could create conflicts of interest, and other activities that directly affect performance in public office.

But the accountability requirement has another implication that is less noticed but no less important. The requirement provides a reason to limit publicity about private lives. When such publicity undermines the practice of accountability, it is not justified. How can publicity undermine accountability? The most important way is through the operation of a political version of Gresham’s law: Cheap talk drives out quality talk. (The mechanism itself is not quite analogous. The cheap talk dominates not because people hoard the quality talk in the hope that they might be able to enjoy it later, as Gresham thought people would hoard higher-value currency. Rather, the cheap talk attracts readers and viewers, even those who in their more reflective hours would prefer quality talk.)

Talk about private lives is « cheap » in two ways. First, the information is usually more immediately engaging and more readily comprehensible than information about job performance. Most people (understandably) think they know more about sex than tariffs. Second, the information itself is less reliable because it is usually less accessible and less comprehensive. Even if citizens happen to know more about the private lives of politicians than their public decisions, they may not be able to make reliable judgments about the effects of private conduct on public decisions. To make those kinds of judgments in a present case, they need information about past cases to establish reliable generalizations about the effects of private conduct on public performance. That kind of information is usually not readily available.

Given these characteristics, information about private life tends to dominate other forms of information and to lower the overall quality of public discourse and democratic accountability. Informing citizens about some matters makes it harder for them to be informed about other matters. To take a salient example: Even during the first six months of its public life, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair dominated media discussion of not only important new policy proposals on social security, health insurance, and campaign finance reform but also attempts to explain the U.S. position on Iraq in preparation for military action [8].

Journalists argue that they are only responding to what the public wants, and if the only test is what the public reads or views they may be right. But the considered judgments of most citizens in this and similar cases is that they do not need to know so much about the sexual affairs of their leaders [9] and that the press pays too much attention to their private lives [10]. It is perfectly consistent to believe that the political process would be better with less publicity about such matters, and even to prefer to know less about them, while at the same time eagerly reading whatever the press reports about them.

The Relevance of Private Life to Public Office

Democratic accountability permits some exposure of the private lives of officials if such information is necessary for assessing past or likely future performance in office. This is the basis of a familiar « relevance » standard: private conduct should be publicized to the extent that it is relevant to the performance in public office. But an essential point, often neglected in applying this standard, is that relevance is a matter of degree. The standard does not draw a bright line between private and public life, which would allow that once the conduct is deemed relevant it may be legitimately publicized without limit. The standard, properly interpreted, seeks a proportionate balance between degree of relevance and extent of publicity. We can see more clearly how this should be understood by considering the criteria that should guide decisions about what facts to publicize about the private lives of public officials even when the facts are presumptively relevant. These criteria (necessary conditions) may also be regarded as a series of questions that must be answered satisfactorily before otherwise private conduct of politicians may be legitimately made public.

How public is the conduct? This criterion involves two different ways in which conduct can be public—the extent to which it is already known, and the extent to which it may be presented as requiring a governmental response. Simply because a matter is known to some journalists and some citizens is not a sufficient justification for publicizing it more widely. That Mitterand had an illegitimate daughter was common knowledge in Paris newsrooms for many decades but was not publicized until a year before he left office. One editor said later of the silence: « In retrospect, it was a mistake, because Mitterand was devoting significant government resources to his daughter » [11]. Notice that the editor’s justification does not appeal to the fact that the Mitterand’s conduct was well known but that it was relevant to his job.

Similarly, the fact that the story is likely to be published elsewhere (« If we don’t run it, somebody else will ») is not in itself sufficient. With this justification, almost any story can be considered legitimate, whether actually public already or imminently so. The respectable press often tries to avoid the dilemma violating privacy and missing a story by a technique that may be called metareporting: writing about the fact that the less respectable press is writing about private scandals. Thus the New York Times (Scott 1998) publishes a story about unsubstantiated rumors that the Daily News has published about Clinton and Lewinsky—complete with miniature reproductions of the front pages of the News. This technique might be less problematic if the respectable press were not inclined to engage in metareporting about stories that feature sex so much more than about stories that reveal other failings of their fellow journalists.

To be sure, some sexual conduct should be publicized more than it is. Sexual harassment is not a private matter. Sexual conduct that would otherwise be private becomes a legitimate subject for investigation and reporting by the press when it violates the law, or violates what should be the law. Although the greater tolerance and sophistication that the French compared to Americans show toward sexual behavior is widely admired, it has a darker side. The French press publicizes cases of sexual harassment much less frequently than the U.S. press, and more often treats those it does publicize as stories of abuses in personal relationships rather than as examples of discrimination that affect professional careers [12]. The French publicity also tends to be less sympathetic to the woman in the case, more often than in the U.S. press framing the story as one about « greedy plaintiffs trying to get rich in lawsuits ». According to a recent analysis, sexual seduction practiced by male politicians, « far from being a flaw… is almost a civic imperative… to cast yourself in the role of seducer is without a doubt an important quality in our political life » [13].

How public the conduct is, it should now be clear, depends not only on how widely it is known. It also depends substantially on how it is presented it when it is publicized.

How extensive is the character defect?

A second criterion is that the private conduct must reveal a substantial character defect that is relevant to the job. Citizens may reasonably want to know, for example, about someone’s tendency toward domestic violence when he is responsible for enforcing the law and regulating the finances of other people. But the appeal to character must be more specific than the common use of the character argument, which is undiscriminatingly general. The general claim that private conduct reveals character flaws that are bound eventually to show up on the job is a psychological version of the classical idea of the unity of the virtues. It assume that a person who mistreats his wife is likely to mistreat his colleagues; or that a person who does not control his violent temper is not likely to resist the temptation to lie. We should be wary of this argument because many people, especially politicians, are quite capable of compartmentalizing their lives in the way that the idea of the unity of virtues denies. Indeed, for some people, private misbehavior may be cathartic, enabling them to behave better in public. And private virtue is no sign of public virtue. We should remember that most of the leading Watergate conspirators in the Nixon administration led impeccable private lives. So did most of the nearly 100 political appointees who were indicted or charged with ethics offenses during the early years of the Reagan administration [14].

As far as character is concerned, we should be primarily interested in the political virtues—respect for the law and Constitution, a sense of fairness, honesty in official dealings. These virtues may not be correlated at all with personal ones. And the vices in which the press seems most interested—the sins of sex—are those that are probably least closely connected with the political vices.

Character is sometimes thought to be relevant in a different, more symbolic way. Officials represent us by who they are as much as by what they do. We need to know if they have the character fit for moral leadership—for serving as role models for our youth and virtuous spokespersons for our nation. But this conception of public office is too demanding, as most citizens seem to recognize. They seek leaders whose characters display the political virtues (such as honesty), but most do not believe that even the president should be held to higher moral standards in his private life than are ordinary citizens [15]. The question is not whether it would be desirable to have a leader who is as moral in his private as in his public life, but whether it is worth the sacrifice of privacy and the distortions of public debate that would be required to make private probity a job qualification.

How legitimate is the public reaction? Private conduct may affect job performance not only because of what the officials themselves do but also because of the reactions of other people when they find out about the conduct. In the early days of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, many people said that although they themselves did not think the conduct was relevant to his performance, the expectation that other people, including foreign leaders, would have less confidence in him made it relevant.

But we need to be careful about appealing to reactive effects. The anticipated reaction of other people should almost never count as a sufficient reason to publicize further what would otherwise be private. The missing step in the argument—the factor that is often ignored—is the assumption that the private conduct itself is morally wrong, and that therefore the anticipated reactions of other people are morally justified.

Why this step is essential can be seen more clearly if we consider cases of homosexuals in public office being outed. The fact that constituents will vote against their conservative congressman if they find out he is gay is surely not a reason for publicizing his sexual orientation. Exploiting popular prejudices for political gain is not a practice that a worthy democracy should favor. However, the press probably should have written earlier than they did about the conduct of Representative Mark Foley, who was forced to resign in September, 2006. For many years he had sent on solicitant e-mails and sexually explicit instant messages to the teenage pages who work in Congress, and allegedly had sexual encounters with former pages. Foley was chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, which introduced legislation targeting sexual predators and created stricter guidelines for tracking them. But the justification for the exposure of this and other such cases should not be that these politicians deserved to be punished for their hypocrisy or even that hypocrisy is in itself inexcusable, but that their hypocrisy is serving a morally wrong cause [16].

If we invoke reactive effects when applying the relevance standard, we cannot escape making substantive moral judgments. Even when editors decide to disclose on the grounds that citizens themselves should decide whether the conduct is justifiable, they are in effect judging that the anticipated reactions are not bad enough to outweigh the value of informing citizens about the conduct. Once the story is out, the decision has been made. Without judging to what extent the reactions they are anticipating are justifiable, editors (and citizens more generally) will not be able to distinguish between outing a homosexual and exposing a wife beater.

How distracting is the disclosure?

The last criterion relates private conduct to other public issues. To what extent does knowing about this conduct help or hinder citizens’ knowing about other matters they need to know to hold officials accountable? The focus is on the Gresham effects: is cheap talk driving out quality talk? Even when private vices bear some relation to the duties of public office, public discussions of politicians’ ethics have an unfortunate tendency to dwell on private conduct to the neglect of conduct more relevant to the office. In the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, the press, the public, and the Senate Judiciary Committee paid more attention to Clarence Thomas’s relationship with Anita Hill than to his judicial qualifications. The Gresham effects are especially damaging when, as in this case, irreversible decisions are made under tight constraints of time, so that any distortions in the process of accountability cannot be corrected as they might be in the normal course of politics. The Gresham effects go well beyond particular cases such as Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton. The cumulative consequences of many cases, as they increase in number and prominence, create a pattern of press coverage that distorts our common practices of deliberation. Habits of discourse—the considerations we easily identify, the distinctions we readily make, the reasons we immediately accept—become better adapted to controversies about private life than to public life. The more citizens hone their skills of deliberation on the finer points of sexual encounters (would he have really put her hand there?), the less they are prepared to develop their capacities to deliberate about the nuances of public policy (should he support this revision of the welfare program?). Democratic deliberation is degraded, and democratic accountability thereby eroded.

Publicity about the private lives of public officials can damage the democratic process by distracting citizens from more important questions of policy and performance of government. When deciding whether to publicize what would otherwise be private conduct or when judging such decisions made by others, including the press and officials themselves, the key questions concern the effects on accountability. Is the conduct of a type about which citizens generally need to know in order to hold officials in this position accountable? If the conduct is relevant in this sense, is the degree of the publicity proportionate to the relevance? Are the character flaws revealed by the conduct closely and specifically connected to the office (are they political rather than only personal vices)? If negative public reaction to the conduct is part of the reason for publicizing it, is the reaction morally justified? Is the publicity about the conduct unlikely to distract citizens from paying attention to other political matters they need to know to hold officials accountable (will there be no Gresham effects)? If more citizens, journalists, and officials themselves would more often consider these questions seriously, and more regularly restrain their penchant for publicity when they cannot honestly answer them in the affirmative, we might notice some improvement in the quality of democratic discourse. In the meantime, citizens in the U.S. and increasingly in Europe will remain hostage to the vagaries of a political version of Gresham’s law.

by Dennis F. Thompson

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[1] This article is based on « Private Life and Public Office », in Restoring Responsibility: Ethics in Government, Business and Healthcare, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[2] For a useful survey and comparison of trends in the U.S. and European democracies, see « Public Images, Private Lives: The Mediation of Politicians around the Globe », special issue of Parliamentary Affairs, 57 (January 2004).

[3] Helen Trouille, « Private Life and Public Image: Privacy Legislation in France », International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 49, January 2000, p. 199-208; and Raymond Kuhn, « ‘Vive La Différence’? The Mediation of Politicians’ Public Images and Private Lives in France », Parliamentary Affairs, 57 (January 2004), pp. 24-40.

[4] Kuhn, pp. 34-35.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Although Thomas Nagel justifies politician’s privacy in part by appealing to individual rights (privacy is necessary to protect against « gross invasion of the individual’s personal life »), he emphasizes equally the importance of protecting the public space from « unmanageable encroachment » and « uncontrollable conflict and offense » (Concealment and Exposure, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 28-29).

[7] For analysis of the principle as part of deliberative democracy, see Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 128-164. Also see the discussion of « publicity » at pp. 95-127.

[8] A comparative content analysis of the press coverage of Gary Hart in the 1988 campaign and Bill Clinton in 1992 found that the stories of the affairs dominated the coverage of Hart’s campaign though the coverage « did not fully eclipse » discussion of Clinton’s stand on issues because the press « cast more doubt on the accuser, Gennifer Flowers, and the medium, The Star » (J. G. Payne and K. Mercuri, « Private Lives, Public Officials: The Challenge to Mainstream Media », American Behavioral Scientist, 37, November 1993, pp. 298).

[9] Sixty-four percent of respondents in a February 1998 survey said it is not important for the public to know « what the relationship was » between Clinton and Lewinsky. Distinguishing the relationship from legal testimony about it, 61 percent said it is important for the public to know whether Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to lie (J. Bennet with J. Elder, « Despite Intern, President Stays in Good Graces », New York Times, February 24, 1998, pp. Al, A16).

[10] n a 1998 Roper Center national survey, 80 percent of the respondents said they thought the media coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story was « excessive ». Sixty percent agreed with the more general proposition that the media have « gone too far in disclosing the details of Clinton’s private life, » while only 9 percent thought the media had not gone « far enough » (Roper Center for Survey Research and Analysis, Clinton-Lewinsky News Coverage, conducted January 30–February 4, Public Opinion Online, Storrs, Conn.: University of Connecticut, February 6, 1998). Even before this scandal, 60 percent of respondents in 1994 said that the news media pay too much attention to Clinton’s private life(Roper Center, Princeton Survey Research Associates, Newsweek, conducted May 6, Public Opinion Online, Storrs, Conn.: University of Connecticut, May 1994.) Since the 1980s there has been a steady and substantial increase in the number of people who say that the « increased attention being given to the private lives of public officials and candidates » is a « bad thing » — from 39 percent in 1989 to 47 percent in 1993 (Gallup Organization, Gallup, Newsweek, conducted June 1–2, 1989; March 9-10, 1993, Public Opinion Online, Storrs, Conn.: University of Connecticut, June 1989; and March 1993.

[11] Britta Sandberg, « A Taboo is Broken: French Politics Go Populist », Spiegel Online¸October 17, 2006.

[12] Abigail C. Saguy, What is Sexual Harassment?: From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.

[13] Christophe Dubois and Christophe Deloire, Sexus Politicus, Albin Michel, 2006, quoted by Elaine Sciolino, « Sex and the Path to Power in France », New York Times, October 16, 2006.

[14] G. Lardner, Jr., « Conduct Unbecoming an Administration », Washington Post National Weekly Edition, (January 3, 1988), p. 31-32.

[15] About 53 percent of the respondents in a national survey in 1998 in the aftermath of the Lewinsky publicity said that « when it comes to conduct in one’s personal life, » the president should be held to the same standard you hold yourself, while 44 percent said he should be held to a higher standard. An overwhelming majority, 84 percent, agree that « someone can still be a good President even if they do things in their personal life that you disapprove of » (Roper Center, CBS News, New York Times, conducted February 19–21, Public Opinion Online, Storrs, Conn.: University of Connecticut, February 23, 1998).

[16] If the politician flagrantly and for no public purpose disregards moral sensitivities, in effect inviting scrutiny of private conduct that offends many people, the press may be justified in exposing it, whether or not it is in itself seriously wrong. The politician is guilty of failing to take into account the reasonable reactions of citizens. Politicians who behave in such ways display a form of the traditional vice of « giving scandal » (Thomas Aquinas, Question 43, « Scandal. » in T. C. O’Brien, ed. and trans., Virtues of Justice in the Human Community, London: Blackfriars, 1972, vol. 35, pp. 109-137).

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