Scandals must make us smarter voters

Since President Clinton’s second-term inauguration, Congress, the news media and special prosecutors have shelled the White House with subpoenas and accusations. But Clinton’s approval ratings have never been higher: Poll after poll paints a sunny picture for the president. Although Clinton’s popularity has escaped largely untouched, the litany of scandal reports has taken a toll on America’s political psyche. This apparent contradiction points to a peculiar phenomena: that the gradual increase, over decades, in the quantity of scandals reported has callused the electorate. In essence, we’ve built up a kind of immunity.
Scandals in the highest political echelons are not new. But starting with Watergate and developing through the Iran-Contra hearings, the news media has honed their skills at investigating and reporting politicians’ ethical and legal violations. During the Clinton administration journalists have bombarded us with reports of improprieties; some petty, some egregious. The current hot topic is “Donorgate,” which may show that the president was influenced in international policy decisions by huge foreign donations to his campaign. If it’s true that campaign donors bought influence, it could bring down the administration. But many Americans are too tired and disillusioned to care.
We have hit our saturation point; so used to the scandal de jour that they have lost their impact. Anthropologist Manisha Roy wrote, “Decadence, in most societies, rather than inspiring positive reform or rebellion (leads) to ill-attempted compromise and grudging acceptance accompanied by cynicism and frustration.” In our case, this compromise shows itself in Clinton’s high poll ratings. Despite our distaste for corruption, we approve of the president. We distrust him, but still believe he’s doing a good job leading us.
This may not be such a contradiction, however. Historians and political scientists point out that the government is held more ethically accountable than ever before. The news media investigate all lapses they can find and inundate us with information. Although it may be motivated by partisan bickering, the government also polices itself much more carefully than in the past. The American people also have demonstrated that when provided with information, we can choose which scandals are important. For example, voters decided that Clinton’s allusions, during his 1992 campaign, to prior marital infidelity did not compromise his leadership ability.
Although reports of corruption or impropriety disillusion Americans, it is vitally important that we are privy to the information. The media might blow some scandal stories out of proportion, but voters want government held accountable and need to be informed to make wise choices. We certainly wouldn’t prefer not to know. But with more scoops than ever, Americans have to be smarter political consumers.
Although the threat of the deluge of exposÇs is a tendency toward cynicism, the access to information ultimately helps us make more informed decisions about our leaders’ ability to fairly and honestly represent us. Americans can take advantage of the reports provided us to relearn what is acceptable from our government leaders and what is not.