The Atlantic

What If Voters Don't Care About Infidelity at All?

The shrugs that have met credible recent allegations of affairs by Donald Trump force a reconsideration of the post-Bill Clinton narrative about voter morality and politicians’ sense of shame.
Source: Reuters

Right up until 2016 or so, there was a clean narrative about political infidelity. Back in the day, the story went, politicians had affairs with abandon—John Kennedy, of course, but also Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and plenty others. (It’s a curiosity that Richard Nixon, the most famously unethical president, is one of the few without serious allegations of infidelity.)

The voters would have been appalled, of course, but the press discreetly ignored these infidelities, for whatever reasons—prudishness, excessive closeness to sources, whatever. When Jimmy Carter copped to having “committed adultery in my heart many times,” it was laughable, but not that that far beyond the puritanical mores of American society. Perhaps the press was wise to look away from mistresses to the presidents.

Then something went off the rails, perhaps around the time of stories of infidelity that chased Gary Hart from the 1988 presidential election. The climax came with Bill Clinton’s impeachment amid his, who ultimately got the gavel.) Suddenly the press was eagerly searching out and finding affairs in many politicians’ pasts. The see-no-evil attitude of the Camelot years had evaporated, leaving in its place a regime that was puritanical, or at the very least meant that morality overshadowed all else, pundits complained, and chased perfectly good politicians out of the public sphere, merely because they chased a skirt or six.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic6 min readPsychology
Dear Therapist: My Husband and I Don't Have Sex Anymore
The Atlantic6 min read
In Defense of Big Little Lies’ Second Season
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
The Dirty Secret of Mueller’s Testimony? Voters Might Not Care.
Rather than expecting fireworks from the former special counsel’s appearance before Congress, many seem wary of getting their hopes up.