The Impacts Of Political Scandals On Politics

Today, corrupt and unethical practice is becoming increasingly difficult to conceal.

Scandals have always been commonplace in every political sphere, but the technology of recent years and the interconnectedness of individuals and states means that news of events is instant and widespread, such as a political scandal, which reaches almost everyone, instantaneously. In conjunction with this, the rise of social media has provided a platform for reaction, and outrage can quickly become magnified (Slumkoski, C. 2012). People; like young people; who have been isolated from partaking in political discussions in the past can now have an influence- but can also be influenced. As a result, scandals in modern times can have massive knock on effects. Lack of trust in an individual due to a misdemeanor can be exacerbated to a distrust of a party, or even the entire political system; which can have a significant influence on voting behaviour. Political scandals have negative consequences for public evaluations of politicians (Welch and Hibbing, 1997). Scandals can also affect the dynamics within the party, and depending on the severity of the incident, can lead to impeachment or forcible removal from office. Because of this, the impacts of political scandals on politics are diverse, and finding a singular common impact is hard. The many extenuating factors mean that it is hard to identify an impact that is certain.

There are examples of the political impacts of scandals being negligible. They can sometimes be partially or temporarily overshadowed by an individual’s popularity, as in the case of Bill Clinton, wherein his success overrode his misconduct. Clinton increased taxes on the rich, and made cuts to defence spending and welfare, which made his incumbency economically beneficial. People separated his transgressions from his fitness for the presidency. Public reaction polls to the Clinton – Lewinsky affair seemed inconclusive at first, just over two-thirds of the people were under the impression that Clinton had, in one way or another, lied. However, they continued to support him. His approval rating continued to slowly rise despite the continued elucidation of incriminating evidence. A year after the scandal, they were just under 70%, higher than at any other time during his tenure (Newport, June – 1999). President Clinton was barraged with criticism over his private conduct with Lewinsky but experienced a negligible drop in his overall public support. However, unlike Nixon’s Watergate and Reagan’s Iran Contra scandal, the public nor peers ever could directly link Clinton’s misconduct to his suitability for the presidency. He lied under oath, but this is dramatically overshadowed by his other positive attributes that lead to his high approval rating. The public tends to be far more outraged by scandals directly related to the individual’s role, and private sexual scandals tend to create more noise at first- and then fade into near obscurity. One can draw a distinction between the effects of these private scandals and misdemeanours involving money. Research has shown that the public reacts in a more negative way to financial scandals, (Funk 1996). This is perhaps because it is easy for people to feel the presence of elitism, and the notion that those in power are above the law. However newer observational work refutes this, (Welch and Hibbing 1997). This separation from the ruling body can have severe political impacts; archaically, an example of this is the French Revolution of 1789, caused by national outrage at having to bear the financial burden of the monarchy. Scandals involving money are always interconnected with elitism, and thus elicit the most widespread outrage.

It could be said that voters’ responses to scandals have become far less severe, the response to the recent impeachment of President Trump and the Clinton Affair pales in comparison to the outrage felt by many during the 1963 Profumo scandal. The Conservative Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s government, John Profumo, publicly denied all sexual misconduct between himself and a 19 year old; a denial which was later proved to be dishonest, and it is widely regarded to be a contributing factor in the Labour party’s success in the 1964 general election (Pringle, 2015). The Profumo scandal had myriad political impacts. The condemnation of the individual was extended to the entire Conservative government, and Profumo’s fade into obscurity is only ever interrupted by discussion of the scandal. This can be contrasted with Clinton, whose scandal is still one of his defining descriptors, but one of many. Arguably, People have become accustomed to misconduct, and see deceit as an elemental characteristic of all politicians. Over the years, it could be said that every single incumbent government has experienced a scandal, to varying degrees of severity- which has caused the public to become increasingly acclimatised. A British Social Attitudes survey concluded that trust in politicians has dramatically declined over the years: in 1986 around 40% said that they had confidence that politicians would prioritise the needs of the country, and not their party – but twenty years later, it had halved. After briefly rising again, the 2009 MP’s Expenses scandal reduced trust to 18%. The scandal involved the abuse at the hands of MP’s of the expenses system put in place to allow members of parliament to claim back money for costs directly related to their job. After it appeared that some had in fact exploited the system, a review was organised. Over a period of four years, Conservative MP Peter Luff claimed around £17,000 for goods including crockery and lavatory seats, costing over £600. It was clear that the impacts could be more severe than simply political- Tory MP Nadine Dorries said in a BBC interview that ‘Everyone fears a suicide, If someone isn’t seen, offices are called and checked.’

It was a watershed moment for British politics; there was an immediate loss of trust and an abundance of evidence of MPs desperately covering up their tracks, which unsurprisingly led to multiple high profile resignations, including Michael Martin, then Speaker of the House of Commons. The political impacts of this scandal were significant, it wasn’t just an embarrassment, it was criminal. A notable direct impact was the Creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), It is intended to manage Members’ expenses to eliminate the culture of exploitation. Despite this, the scandal seemed to have had little impact on the way people voted. This could be because the scandal involved those from every mainstream party, and thus everyone was exposed to scrutiny. The declining trust after the expenses scandal widened the division between the public and politicians; they became incredibly out of touch, as a result of the culture within the institution of parliament. (Allen and Birch, 2012). This detachment felt by the public explains why MP’s are constantly vying to be considered relatable.

The Watergate scandal was a federal political scandal in the US involving the Nixon administration in the early to mid 70s. The scandal started with the June 1972, break-in of the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C, specifically the democratic National Committee (DNC), and the Nixon administration’s attempts to hide its involvement in the crime. The Justice Department found evidence to believe that the money that was involved in the break in had links to money used in Nixon’s re-election campaign. The scandal lead to Nixon’s resignation. Similarly to the 2009 Expenses scandal, the political effects of this were significant. It had the impact of prematurely ending the term of a president, and continued to divide those in power form the general public. This created the need for more transparent in the political process, and more stringent checks for corruption and fraud.

The severity of the impacts of political scandals fluctuates, with many socio-economic and cultural factors. This is partly due to the fact that the definition of Misconduct changes over time. For example, before 1975, it wasn’t classed as misconduct to conceal any external financial obligations. In addition to this, social movements have rightly changed attitudes towards racial inequality, sexism, homophobia et cetera. For example, Jeremy Corbyn was rightly held to account for his failure to fully eradicate antisemitism in the Labour Party. The political impacts of this were profound, as public outrage is affected by societal attitudes to the affected group.

In conclusion; misdemeanours may jeopardize an individual’s political career, but their success after the scandal depends upon a plethora of factors, including the severity or type of the accusations, the candidate’s other personal traits, or if they can provide positive social or economic outcomes if they are in power (Funk 1996; Welch and Hibbing, 1997). The moral/financial distinction, however useful; has a key shortcoming in the sense that a significant portion of scandals involves both. They often involve an ‘entanglement’ of the two (Doherty 2011). Political scandals always lead to a significant decline in trust. However, this decline in trust is not always directly related to approval ratings or votes, and sometimes has negligible or no impact on the individual’s success, or on the political system.