Sunday, June 28, 2009

are republicans more prone to extramarital affairs?

The story of Gov. Mark Sanford's extramarital affair, coming shortly on the heels (so to speak) of similar disclosures by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, has many observers buzzing about the alleged hypocrisy of conservative Republicans and (more playfully) asking what exactly was in the water at last year's GOP convention. The issue is hardly limited to Republicans--witness Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and almost anybody named Kennedy--but there do seem to be an awful lot of "family values" types falling by the wayside lately. Is it coincidence or is there a pattern here?

I can think of three possible reasons why Republican males might be more prone to such affairs than their Democratic counterparts, along with some reasons they might be less so. On the positive (or should I say negative) side:

1. More repressed, misogynistic, or simply unpopular men might choose to become Republicans; their early difficulties with women would then give rise to hostile, or at least childish, behavior later in life. The problem is that there is not much empirical evidence to support this: people tend to choose parties on the basis of ideology, inheritance, or simply convenience rather than personality types. It does seem likely that politicians in general are more repressed, childish, and narcissistic than the overall population, but that is a different question.

2. Even if they don't start out that way, Republicans--especially social conservatives--tend to exaggerate the virtues of marriage, family, and so forth: having set a standard that they cannot possibly live up to, they fall farther and deeper once the contradictions catch up to them. As I noted in a previous post, the Virgin Mary is a powerful symbol, but somewhat less fun to be married to, and men who idealize their wives and children are arguably more susceptible to the wily, "darker side" women of whom there no shortage in political life. The problem here is that Democrats play the family game no less than Republicans, and seem to be not much less prudish, at least in their official personae. The problem of human frailty is moreover hardly unheard of in religious circles, and one would expect certain support mechanisms to kick in and prevent the nearly universal fantasies about younger/wilier women from becoming reality. I think this is somewhat more persuasive than #1, but not very much so.

3. The percentage of liars, cheats, and adulterers is pretty evenly spread among Republicans, Democrats, and the Socialist Workers Party: it is simply more fun to catch a conservative, "family values" type in bed with another woman (or man) and therefore attracts significantly more media attention. I must confess that I have never quite understood the logic here: religions universally concede that people are sinful (that's why we have religions), and making "hypocrisy" rather than conduct the issue would allow any politician to inoculate themselves against criticism by simply announcing that they were a liar, cad, or degenerate in advance. (Something like this make actually have happened with Bill Clinton, although not early enough to prevent his impeachment.) But people are only human, and it's simply more fun to find out that (say) the latest Pope or Ayatollah has a girlfriend than yet another revelation about Clinton, Edwards, and so forth. The "man bites dog" aspect of the story thus proves irresistible to all but the most forgiving among us.

So I think there is not much to #1, a little bit to #2, but most of the story is #3: not a Republican but a political (or male) problem that is simply more fun to talk about it when people try to deny its existence. One could argue that this is a good reason to keep politics about things like budgets and foreign policy that politicians can actually change rather than about personal virtue which they are unlikely to. But neither party seem likely to do this anytime soon, so we are probably stuck with the pontificating and hypocrisy--from both sides of the aisle--for the foreseeable future.


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