Blair: The Personal is Political

by Peter Blair | 7/28/11 10:00pm

The second major congressional sex scandal of the summer broke this Tuesday, when Rep. David Wu, D-Or., joined Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., in the ever-growing number of national political figures whose sexual dalliances have forced them to resign their positions. In the past few years we have also seen, among others, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign, and John Edwards fall prey to their libidos.

Meanwhile, our nation faces a ballooning national debt, continued reverberations from the recent housing crisis, and polls showing that most Americans want both lower taxes and higher government spending. Many people may be unsure what the sexual scandals have to do with our financial woes, and that is exactly the problem.

The politicians caught in these scandals were all married. This means that they made a promise, an oath, to be faithful to their spouses. Thus, the first thing we know about them is that they are unable to keep one of the most important promises that they make. The second thing we know about them is that they lack the virtues of temperance and self-control. They lack the ability to forgo short-term pleasures in light of their chosen obligations and even long term self-interest (like maintaining their careers, which they knew would not be possible if the scandals were discovered). Is it any wonder that a nation captained by a political class that lacks self-control, fidelity and restraint finds itself in such a perilous economic situation?

Our current troubles are just the natural result of an ideology that has been spreading, like a slow but sure poison, over our national discourse for many years. This ideology holds that people can separate out their private lives from their public ones, and that things done in private have no bearing on the public fate of the nation. In the political realm this has manifested itself in the popular belief that a politician's private life especially his private, sexual foibles are utterly irrelevant to his competency as a political representative.

This belief, however, is based upon an inadequate understanding of how people actually exercise morality. People are not passionless automatons who can turn their character on and off they cannot go on behaving dishonorably in their private life, and then flip a switch and act honorably in their public capacity. Our character is whole, integral and cannot be divided into public and private parts. In it is in private, mostly, that our character is formed, and we carry that character with us no matter where we go. If politicians break promises in private, they become the kind of people who break promises in public, which will ultiamtely affect us all. If politicians cannot refrain from adultery in their private lives, they are less likely to be the kind of people who exercise the virtues of temperance and restraint in their capacity as politicians.

We are seeing the fruits of this moral atomism everywhere in our nation, not just in the lives of weak-willed politicians who have been shepherding our economy into disaster. Take the housing crisis of 2008. Obviously the economy is a complex machine and there are many reasons why the housing bubble collapsed. It is indisputable, however, that one of the major causes of the crisis was congressional measures like the Community Reinvestment Act that forced banks to give loans to people who couldn't afford them. And so people began, with the help of the government, to buy houses they couldn't afford. Buying things you can't afford is the definition of shortsightedness, and the negation of all virtues of restraint and frugality. The failure of both the government and the populace at large to be virtuous in this regard had disastrous public effects.

Citizens' characters, their ability to exercise habits of restraint, prudence and fidelity, matters to the health of the nation. Politicians' characters matter to how they do their job. And it is largely in private that people fail or succeed in obtaining the kind of character that our nation needs to flourish. This is precisely why the disappearance of restraint from the private lives of our politicians and citizens whether manifested in adulterous affairs, consumerism or the hook-up culture is the harbinger of disaster for our public life. We should abandon the foolish belief that the private is separate from the political, and set about coming up with creative ways to rebuild virtue in our nation.