Political Scandal Research Paper

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The word ‘scandal’ is used primarily to describe a sequence of actions and events which involve certain kinds of transgressions and which, when they become known to others, are regarded as sufficiently serious to elicit a response of disapproval or condemnation. A scandal is necessarily a public event in the sense that, while the actions which lie at the heart of the scandal may have been carried out secretly or covertly, a scandal can arise only if these actions become known to others, or are strongly believed by others to have occurred. This is one respect in which scandal differs from related phenomena such as corruption and bribery; a scandal can be based on the disclosure of corruption or bribery, but corruption and bribery can exist (and often do exist) without being known about by others, and hence without becoming a scandal.

1. The Concept Of Scandal

The concept of scandal is very old and the meaning has changed over time. In terms of its etymological origins, the word probably derives from the Indogermanic root skand-, meaning to spring or leap. Early Greek derivatives, such as the word skandalon, were used in a figurative way to signify a trap, an obstacle or a ‘cause of moral stumbling.’ The idea of a trap or an obstacle was an integral feature of the theological vision of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the word skandalon was used to describe an obstacle, a stumbling block placed along the path of the believer, which could explain how a people linked to God might nevertheless begin to doubt Him and lose their way. The notion of a trap or obstacle became part of Judaism and early Christian thought, although it was gradually prised apart from the idea of a test of faith.

With the development of the Latin word scandalum and its diffusion into Romance languages, the religious connotation was gradually attenuated and supplemented by other senses. The word ‘scandal’ first appeared in English in the sixteenth century; similar words appeared in other Romance languages at roughly the same time. The early uses of ‘scandal’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, broadly speaking, of two main types. First, ‘scandal’ was used in a religious context to refer to the conduct of a person which brought discredit to religion, or to something which hindered religious faith or belief. Second, ‘scandal’ and its cognates were also used in more secular contexts to describe actions or utterances which were regarded as scurrilous or abusive, which damaged an individual’s reputation, which were grossly discreditable, and/or which offended moral sentiments or the sense of decency.

It is these later, more secular senses which underlie the most common modern uses of the word ‘scandal.’ Although the word continues to have some use as a specialized religious term, ‘scandal’ is used mainly to refer to a broader form of moral transgression which is no longer linked specifically to religious codes. More precisely, ‘scandal’ could be defined as actions or events which have the following characteristics: their occurrence involves the transgression of certain values, norms or moral codes; their occurrence involves a degree of secrecy or concealment, but they are known or strongly believed to exist by individuals other than those directly involved; some individuals disapprove of the actions or events and may be offended by the transgression; some express their disapproval by publicly denouncing the actions or events; and the disclosure and condemnation of the actions or events may damage the reputation of the individuals responsible for them.

While scandal necessarily involves some form of transgression, there is a great deal of cultural and historical variability in the kinds of values, norms, and moral codes which are relevant here. What counts as scandalous activity in one context, e.g., extramarital affairs among members of the political elite, may be regarded as acceptable (even normal) elsewhere. A particular scandal may also involve different types of transgression. A scandal may initially be based on the transgression of a moral code (e.g., concerning sexual relations), but as the scandal develops, the focus of attention may shift to a series of ‘second-order transgressions’ which stem from actions aimed at concealing the original offence. The attempt to cover up a transgression—a process that may involve deception, obstruction, false denials, and straightforward lies—may become more important than the original transgression itself, giving rise to an intensifying cycle of claim and counterclaim that dwarfs the original offence.

Scandals can occur in different settings and milieux, from local communities to the arenas of national and even international politics. When scandals occur in settings which are more extended than local communities, they generally involve mediated forms of communication such as newspapers, magazines, and, increasingly, television. The media play a crucial role in making public the actions or events which lie at the heart of scandal, either by reporting allegations or information obtained by others (such as the police or the courts) or by carrying out their own investigations. The media also become a principal forum in which disapproval of the actions or events is expressed. Mediated scandals are not simply scandals which are reported by the media; rather, they are ‘mediated events’ which are partly constituted by the activities of media organizations.

2. The Nature Of Political Scandal

Scandals are common in many spheres of social life; not all scandals are political scandals. So what are the distinctive features of political scandals? One seemingly straightforward way of answering this question is to say that a political scandal is any scandal that involves a political leader or figure. But this is not a particularly helpful or illuminating answer. For an individual is a political leader or figure by virtue of a broader set of social relations and institutions which endow him or her with power. So if we wish to understand the nature of political scandal, we cannot focus on the individual alone.

Another way of answering this question would be to focus not on the status of the individuals involved, but on the nature of the transgression. This is the approach taken by Markovits and Silverstein, two political scientists who have written perceptively about political scandal. According to Markovits and Silverstein (1988), the defining feature of political scandal is that it involves a ‘violation of due process.’ By ‘due process’ they mean the legally binding rules and procedures which govern the exercise of political power. Political scandals are scandals in which these rules and procedures are violated by those who exercise political power and who seek to increase their power at the expense of due process. Since due process is fully institutionalized only in the liberal democratic state, it follows, argue Markovits and Silverstein, that political scandals can occur only in liberal democracies.

One strength of Markovits and Silverstein’s account is that it analyzes political scandal in relation to some of the most important institutional features of modern states. But the main shortcoming of this account is that it provides a rather narrow view of political scandal. It treats one dynamic—the pursuit of power at the expense of process—as the defining feature of political scandal. Hence any scandal that does not involve this particular dynamic is ipso facto nonpolitical. This means that a whole range of scandals, such as those based on sexual transgressions, would be ruled out as nonpolitical, even though they may involve senior political figures and may have far-reaching political consequences.

Markovits and Silverstein’s claim that political scandal can occur only in liberal democracies should also be viewed with some caution. It is undoubtedly the case that liberal democracies are particularly prone to political scandal, but this is due to a number of specific factors (such as the highly competitive nature of liberal democratic politics and the relative autonomy of the press) and it does not imply that political scandal is unique to this type of political organization. Political scandals can occur (and have occurred) in other types of political system, from the absolutist and constitutional monarchies of early modern Europe to the various forms of authoritarian regime which have existed in the twentieth century. But political scandals in these other types of political system are more likely to remain localized scandals and are less likely to spread beyond the relatively closed worlds of the political elite.

An alternative way of conceptualizing political scandals is to regard them as scandals involving individuals or actions which are situated within a political field (Thompson 2000). It is the political field that constitutes the scandal as political; it provides the context for the scandal and shapes its pattern of development. A field is a structured space of social positions whose properties are defined primarily by the relations between these positions and the resources attached to them. The political field can be defined as the field of action and interaction which bears on the acquisition and exercise of political power. Political scandals are scandals which occur within the political field and which have an impact on relations within this field. They may involve the violation of rules and procedures governing the exercise of political power, but they do not have to involve this; other kinds of transgression can also constitute political scandals.

We can distinguish between three main types of political scandal, depending on the kinds of norms or codes which are transgressed. Sex scandals involve the transgression of norms or codes governing the conduct of sexual relations. In some contexts, sexual transgressions carry a significant social stigma and their disclosure may elicit varying degrees of disapproval by others. Financial scandals involve the infringement of rules governing the acquisition and allocation of economic resources; these include scandals involving bribery, kickbacks and other forms of corruption as well as scandals stemming from irregularities in the raising and deployment of campaign funds. Power scandals are based on the disclosure of activities which infringe the rules governing the acquisition or exercise of political power. They involve the unveiling of hidden forms of power, and actual or alleged abuses of power, which had hitherto been concealed beneath the public settings in which power is displayed and the publicly recognized procedures through which it is exercised.

3. The Rise Of Political Scandal

The origins of political scandal as a mediated event can be traced back to the pamphlet culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the period of the English Civil War, for instance, there was a proliferation of anti-Royalist pamphlets and news-books which were condemned as heretical, blasphemous, scurrilous, and ‘scandalous’ in character. Similarly, in France, a distinctive genre of subversive political literature had emerged by the early eighteenth century, comprising the libelles and the chroniques scandaleuses, which purported to recount the private lives of kings and courtiers and presented them in an unflattering light. However, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the use of ‘scandal’ in relation to mediated forms of communication began to change, as the term was gradually prised apart from its close association with blasphemy and sedition and increasingly applied to a range of phenomena which displayed the characteristics we now associate with scandal.

By the late nineteenth century, mediated scandal had become a relatively common feature of the political landscape in countries such as Britain and the USA. In Britain there were a number of major scandals, many involving sexual transgressions of various kinds, which destroyed (or threatened to destroy) the careers of key political figures such as Sir Charles Dilke (a rising star of the Liberal Party whose career was irrevocably damaged by the events surrounding a divorce action in which he was named as co-respondent) and Charles Parnell (the charismatic leader of the Irish parliamentary party whose career was destroyed by revelations concerning his affair with Mrs. Katharine O’Shea). There were numerous political scandals in nineteenth-century America too, some involving actual or alleged sexual transgressions (such as the scandal surrounding Grover Cleveland who, it was said, had fathered an illegitimate child) and many involving corruption at municipal, state and federal levels of government. America in the Gilded Age witnessed a flourishing of financial scandals in the political field, and the period of Grant’s Presidency (1869–77) is regarded by many as one of the most corrupt in American history.

While the nineteenth century was the birthplace of political scandal as a mediated event, the twentieth century was to become its true home. Once this distinctive type of event had been invented, it would become a recognizable genre that some would seek actively to produce while others would strive, with varying degrees of success, to avoid. The character and frequency of political scandals varied considerably from one national context to another, and depended on a range of specific social and political circumstances. In Britain and the USA, there were significant political scandals throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, but political scandals have become particularly prevalent in the period since the early 1960s. In Britain, the Profumo scandal of 1963 was a watershed. This was a classic sex scandal involving a senior government minister (John Profumo, Secretary of State for War) and an attractive young woman (Christine Keeler), but it also involved issues of national security and a series of second-order transgressions which proved fatal for Profumo’s career. In the USA, the decisive political scandal of the twentieth century was undoubtedly Watergate, a power scandal in which Nixon was eventually forced to resign as President in the face of his imminent impeachment.

Many countries have developed their own distinctive political cultures of scandal which have been shaped by, among other things, their respective traditions of scandal, the activities of journalists, media organizations, and other agents in the political field, the deployment of new technologies of communication, and the changing political climate of the time. Political scandal has become a potent weapon in struggles between rival candidates and parties in the political field. As fundamental disagreements over matters of principle have become less pronounced, questions of character and trust have become increasingly central to political debate and scandal has assumed increasing significance as a ‘credibility test.’ In this context, the occurrence of scandal tends to have a cumulative effect: scandal breeds scandal, because each scandal exposes character failings and further sharpens the focus on the credibility and trustworthiness of political leaders.

This is the context in which President Clinton found that his political career was nearly destroyed by scandal on more than one occasion. Like many presidential hopefuls in the past, Clinton campaigned on the promise to clean up politics after the sleaze of the Reagan administration. But he soon found that members of his own administration—and, indeed, that he and his wife—were being investigated on grounds of possible financial wrongdoing. He also found that allegations and revelations concerning his private life would become highly public issues, threatening to derail his campaign is 1992 (with the Gennifer Flowers affair) and culminating in his impeachment and trial by the Senate following the disclosure of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. What led to Clinton’s impeachment was not the disclosure of the affair as such, but rather a series of second-order transgressions committed in relation to a sexual harassment case instituted by Paula Jones, in the context of which Clinton gave testimony under oath denying that he had had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, thereby laying himself open to the charge of perjury, among other things. Clinton’s trial in the Senate resulted in his acquittal, but his reputation was undoubtedly damaged by the scandal which overshadowed the second term of his presidency.


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  2. Garment S 1992 Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. Doubleday, New York
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  4. Markovits A S, Silverstein M (eds.) 1988 The Politics of Scandal: Power and Process in Liberal Democracies. Holmes and Meier, New York
  5. Allen L et al. 1990 Political Scandals and Causes Celebres Since 1945: An International Reference Compendium n.d. Longman, Harlow, Essex, UK, Chicago, IL, USA: Published in the USA and Canada by St. James Press
  6. Schudson M 1992 Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. Basic Books, New York
  7. Thompson J B 2000 Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age. Polity, Cambridge, UK
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