Tuesday evening, Mark Sanford won a House seat in a very Republican district. It’s a big turnaround for Sanford, who famously disappeared for six days during his governorship to have an affair with a woman in Argentina. Sanford was censured and fined, and many said his political career was over.
Well today, I’d like to welcome Mark Sanford back to politics. Seriously.
Sanford just beat the politics of sexual puritanism. His victory is another setback for the idea that we should run politicians out of office based on their personal lives and sexual activity. Of course, it’s an argument that’s applied selectively and often hypocritically especially by Republicans.
While affairs are as old as marriage, the rise of sexual puritanism is relatively recent in American politics.
One turning point came in the 1988 presidential race, when Gary Hart’s campaign was torpedoed after reports of his affair. Some debated whether the topic was fair game for the press, but by 1992, obsessing over Bill Clinton’s sex life was commonplace.
The voters decided to elect Clinton anyway, but that didn’t stop the trend. Republicans impeached Clinton over an affair.
There may be no better description of that ridiculous period than Phillip Roth’s account in “The Human Stain”–when the country went on “an enormous piety binge,” giving in to “its most treacherous and subversive pleasure, the Ecstasy of Sanctimony.” The Congress and the press, Roth wrote, gleefully enacted “the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch.”
After Clinton there were other Democrats blasted for bad sex and bad judgment, from Eliot Spitzer to Anthony Weiner. There were Republicans exposed for hypocritically backing impeachment while conducting their own affairs – like Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston – and Republicans linked to prostitution, like David Vitter –and to gay affairs, like Larry Craig.
But there is nothing unusual about affairs in America. One out of five men admit to having affairs, according to surveys, and University of Chicago researchers estimate the actual figures are higher–that affairs occur in over 40% of marriages.
There is very little evidence that personal infidelity and dishonesty, while tragic for the families involved, makes people worse at their jobs, whether they work in government or not.
The other argument we hear that some of these political incidents “are not about sex”–they’re about bad judgment, or wider dishonesty, or even hypocrisy–has never amounted to much. There are many examples of politicians evincing bad judgment and dishonesty, we cover them all the time. They don’t arouse as much attention because they’re not about sex.
And while the hypocrisy certainly rankles, that Sanford belongs to a party that wants to restrict your marriage rights while he defiles his own, that’s a complaint, not an answer.
So as yet another election, this time in a Republican district, shows voters can put sex aside, maybe we should go back to evaluating politicians by how they work, not how they play.