'Both Sides Do It' Differently: Scandals In US Politics

Evan an “evenhanded” analysis of scandals over 30+ years reveals profound right/left differences.


Hard to tell the difference, but this Luke Russert interview is just a parody.

In my previous Al Jazeera English column, “'Scandal' and the Politics of Definition”, which I excerpted at Crooks & Liars here, I argued that scandal narratives have an asymmetrical character, that in general, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans understand and pursue political scandals differently, primarily based on the distinction between logos—which is concerned with how the worlds works--and mythos—which concerned with making meaningful sense of the world--as described by Karen Armstrong in her 2000 book The Battle For God (in the introduction, available online at the New York Times here) .

Liberals generally understand scandal in terms of logos as a breaking of the rules, once hidden, brought into the light. It is very much about the facts of the case, an empirical investigative process. Conservatives generally understand scandal in terms of mythos, as unmasking a violation of the sacred order of things—the sacred order being that conservatives and those they favor are on top, and everyone else is beneath them. In this view, the very existence of liberalism is scandalous, because liberalism posits a fundamental equality of people, rather than an immutable hierarchy. For conservatives, scandal is a spectacle, a morality play, whose facts are largely determined by how well they resonate with pre-established meanings.

I also argued that these differences have figured prominently in the post-Watergate era, as a proliferation of baseless scandal narratives —BillyGate, Whitewater, Birtherism, Benghazi, and the like— have become increasingly important for conservatives in place of policy disputes as conservatives, redefining themselves while pretending not to, move farther and farther to the right, while Democratic presidents repeatedly—and fruitlessly—try to narrow the gap, moving closer to conservative positions.

In this post, I want to demonstrate how this asymmetrical account of how scandal narratives funciton in American politics is perfectly consistent with new work which takes a contrasting symmetrical view of scandal—treating Democrats and Republicans as exactly the same and drawing conclusions applicable to both. Despite the symmetrical thrust of this work, it still provides asymmetrical evidence of how Democrats and Republicans differ. The co-existence of symmetrical and asymmetrical features should not be confusing or confounding for us. Rather than argue which view is right, the more sensible path is to simply ask, “In which respects are scandal narratives symmetrical? In which are they asymmetrical?” Broadly speaking, while many of the mechanics are symmetrical between Democrats and Republicans, both their meaning and significance (mythos) and relationship to truth (logos) tend to differ as a whole, although some scandals — involving non-presidential figures — are relatively similar regardless of which party is primarily responsible.

On May 13, the day that the AP phone record scandal broke, Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put up blog post summarizing his just-completed research into the preconditions for what he identified as “media scandals”, explaining in the research paper that he “develop[s] a new theory that focuses on media scandal—the widespread recognition of a controversy as a scandal in mainstream press coverage.” He goes on to say, “According to my theory, these media scandals reflect a widespread elite perception of official wrongdoing, corruption, or misbehavior that is jointly created by the opposition party and the press in the contemporary era.”

Nyhan's formulation intentionally side-steps the question of evidence (whether there actually is a “there” there at the heart of the scandal accusations), and he makes a good argument for the usefulness of the approach.

Still, it should be obvious that what Nyhan is talking about belongs more to the realm of mythos than of logos: It's more about socially shared meanings (“widespread elite perception”) than empirically discovered facts (which may or may not be present: Clinton, for example, was twice exonerated in Whitewater, without bringing an end to the Whitewater investigation.)

The elite obsession over impeaching Clinton (nurtured by Whitewater, but brought to a boil by the Lewinski scandal) exemplifies a case in which elite perception was deeply at odds with both public opinion and with historians who found it ludicrous to pretend Clinton had committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Instead of a sober logos-based process, what unfolded fit very well within the framework Karen Armstron articulated, when she noted that “Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies.”

Media scandals may involve matters of actual wrongdoing proven by the methods of logos, but they absolutely must involve elite-perceived violations of how the world is supposed to be. And as such, they carry with them a distinct conservative bias.

Although Nyhan does not discuss or embrace the mythos/logos distinction, it is clearly reflected in his paper, when he says, “The recognition of scandal in the press is not strictly a reflection of ethical transgressions by public figures but a socially constructed event in which the actions of a public figure or institution are successfully construed as violating ethical norms. [emphasis in the original] As such, while evidence plays an important role, the likelihood that allegations of wrongdoing, corruption, or misbehavior are portrayed as a scandal in press coverage will also vary with the political and news context.” And, in fact, his approach only attempts to deal with that context — not with questions of logos, questions of whether there is actually a “there” there.

Nyhan's approach was entirely symmetrical, as were his conclusions: first, that scandals are more likely to appear when presidents are extremely unpopular with the opposition party's base, and second, that scandals aremore likely to appear when competition from other major stories wanes. The data he used spanned 30+ years, from 1977 through 2009, and drew on polling data along with front-page coverage in the Washinton Post.

Despite this, however, three different aspects of his paper support an asymmetric of how scandals function. The first was already noted: it relies on a mythos-based definiton which carries with it a distinct conservative bias, which only becomes more pronounced when conservatives and media figures concur on employing a rhetoric of individual moral judgement. By the terms of this logic, any individual conservative's failings are, at worst, theirs alone, personally, but any liberal's failings are ascribed to liberalism in general, since liberalism is construed as “lacking principles”, “eroding character,” “being value-nuetral”, etc., etc., etc., quite apart from the fact that conservatives routinely attack liberalism generally while denying that conservatism itself can ever be at fault. (In the case of Iran/contra, conservatives like Peggy Noonan have even gone so far as trying to portray President Reagan as a victim of his subordinates!)

Second, somewhat relatedly, Democrats and liberals are considerably less committed to constantly pressing scandal narratives, much more frequently choosing to focus on governing instead, even when that means compromising with conservatives on unfavorable terms. Although Nyhan doesn't make this point himself, he touches on two illustrative examples, writing “potential scandals concerning the Bush administration’s connections to Enron and the Florida recount 'died in the absence of sustained opposition campaigning or effective uses of political processes.'” In fact, this gloss significantly understates the case. With regard to the Florida recount, dozens of House Democrats, overwhelmingly representing minority voters whose votes were uncounted in Florida, tried to challenge the election process in January 2000, only to have their challenge die because no Democratic Senator would even support their right to be heard.

Democrats' reluctance (at best) to push scandal narratives persisted throughout the Bush Administration, which brings us to the third sort of evidence for asymmetry: Nyhan's list of scandals that made the Washington Post's front page. Although imperfect, it's nonetheless a useful measure, and one thing it reveals is the presence of pseudo-scandals against Democratic Presidents—BillyGate, Whitewater, TravelGate, etc.—and the absence of certain actual major scandals against Republicans, such as Reagan's October Surprise deal to prevent the Iranian hostage release before the 1980 election, or the Downing Street Memos scandal exposing Bush's deliberate pattern of fraud and deception in leading the US and its allies into an illegal war against Iraq.

Suppression of the October Surprise scandal was so extensive and long-lasting that readers can be excused for being unfamiliar with it, or being perplexed by its mention: Democratic elites never wanted it taken seriously, which helps explain why it has almost disappeared from public memory - despite the fact that there's much stronger evidence supporting it than made-up scandals like Whitewater or Benghazi.

To briefly explain: Throuhgout the 1980s, accusations swirled that the 1980 Reagan/Bush campaign had struck a secret deal with Iran to prevent the release of hostages before the election, in order to prevent President Carter's re-election. Eventually, more than a decade later, a House investigation was undertaken, which issued a report dismissing the charges as unsupported, just as President Clinton was about to be sworn into office.

However, a few years later, in 1995 long-time national security journalist and author Rober Parry uncovered archival evidence that Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton—who chaired the investigation—had buried a report from Russian intelligence which confirmed the basic allegation of Reagan/Bush officials meeting with Iranian officials. (Parry has written about this extensively in the “October Surprise X-Files” section of the Consortiumnews website.) White House tapes from LBJ have recently been released concerning similar interference by Richard Nixon's campaign to prevent the signing of a peace treaty before the 1968 election—another such scandal that's never been recognized as such. It initially occurred well before the time-period in Nyhan's study, but it clearly indicates a pattern in which Republican presidential campaigns engage in scandalous activity verging on treason—giving aid and comfort to America's enemies—which noentheless never receive sustained media scrutiny, much less official elite condemnation. In both cases, top Democratic politicians acted to keep Republican scandals secret.

What about the exception that proves the rule? What about the Iran/Contra Affair? By trading arms for hostages, Reagan arguably gave aid and comfort to our enemies, and the affair became the most high-profile scandal of the decade. But even before investigations could begin, Democratic congressional leaders declared that impeachment was “off the table”—a move that not only forgave possible unknown crimes in advance, but that also removed credible threats from the investigative arsenal, making resistence to lawful investigation all the easier. In the end, the Iran/Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, a lifelong Republican, concluded that there had been a successful coverup preventing the full truth from coming out—including the facts of George H.W. Bush's involvement, contrary to his claim he had been “out of the loop”. The title of Walsh's book says it plainly: Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up.

The cover-up was not limited to those involved on the inside, it involved the press as well, which provides an additional perspective on how Nyhan's model fails to capture existing political asymmetries. In the case of Iran/Contra, pioneering reporters like Robert Parry, who wrote the first story six months before the scandal “broke”, had their careers stymied, while those who dismissed or downplayed the scandal were advanced into higher profile positions, including management, where they could retroactively discredit and disremember what was already known. This was part of a broader elite political realignment, which had its foreign policy manifestation clearly spelled out in the New Republic's support for much of Reagan's Central American policy.

As Parry himself recently explained, this dynamic was partly responsible for the 1996 elite media attack on Gary Webb's “Dark Alliance” series, exposing the CIA's role in helping to fuel the 1980s crack epidemic, which has recently been partially apologized for. Thus, not only has the Iran/Contra scandal been minimized in public memory, but a whole set of related scandals have been effectively blocked from ever fully surfacing—all reinforced by the elite political realignment mentioned above.

It should be noted that a CIA Inspector General's report actually supported Webb's findings, contradicting the elite media attacks against him, yet the elite media attacks were never retracted, and the attacks on Webb essentially ended his career as a journalist. Several year later, he took his own life in despair.

The complex of scandals revolving around Iran/Contra is worth considering for a variety of reasons, one of which is the role played in suppressing them in order to (intentionally or unintentionally) stabilize a conservative worldview account of foreign policy. The more that various overseas misdeeds are hidden from public sight in America, the more that foreign resentment of US actions appears irrational, arbitrary, even “evil”, and the more “necessary” the unquestioned unilateral use of US military force appears to be. On the other hand, the more those actions are exposed, the more that foreign resentment, and resistence become comprehensible, even justifiable, thus strenghtening the case for an egalitarian, values-based, non-military foreign policy approach.

Thus, not only does exposing such misdeeds directly discredit conservative leaders responsible for them, it indirectly serves to undermine the conservative mythos of heroic Americans fighting against blind and/or malevolent forces in a “dangerous world” and strengthen the liberal logic of engaging with self-determing foreign nationals with sometimes differing interests, whom we can nonetheless learn to live with peacefully and prosperously.

This even helps shed light on the so-called “Benghazi scandal”. Ultimately, it's a scandal in conservative eyes, because they believe that it discredits Obama's too-soft approach and his record in fighting al Qaeda — even though that approach is much more a continuation of Bush's second term foreign policy than it is a repudiation. The fact that conservatives believe that four deaths in Benghazi are worse than Watergate, while most of them can't even remember the 241 Marines and other servicemen killed in Beirut on Ronald Reagan's watch in 1983 speaks volumes about how much it matters to them to defend their own mythos, and how utterly unconcerned are about the mere facts of logos.

The added domestic dimension of drug war blowback revealed by Webb's “Dark Alliance” reporting has similar consequences for undermining the conservative mythos. If kids just take drugs for no good reason, then the fault is theirs—the should “just say no!” in Nancy Reagan's famous phrase. And if they will not, then the logic of war seems justified—and the more it fails, the more it will seem necessary: There's no success like failure. But if kids take drugs for complicated reasons (including deliberate covert decisions overseas allying the US with international drug traffickers), then both the simplistic mythos and the contradiction-riddled logos of the war on drugs quickly fall apart, and space opens up for a much more nuanced, more critical and progressive harm-reduction approach, as opposed to an authoritarian moralistic one.

There are multiple reasons for the dynamic of rightwing scandal suppression within the press described above, but one clear outcome is that Republican scandals tend to be increasingly suppressed from public memory over time, just as conservatives expend energy more or less continuously to keep Democratic scandals alive. This process aids and abets the continued primacy of conservative mythos by systematically suppressing the facts of logos that would shoot it full of holes.

The resulting asymmetry is a deeply-embedded part of the American political system, which both feeds off and contributes to the conservative/Republican advantage in terms of mythos in multiple different ways, touching on virtually every policy area there is.

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