Nothing quite like a good scandal to make American politics feel a little less paralysed and remote, argues Lee Siegel ...


The boilerplate criticism of the media used to be that it trivialised politics by turning it into entertainment. Yet as Anthony Weiner, a New York Congressman, tearfully apologised at a press conference for sending out erotic photographs of himself to women over the internet, it became clear that the cycle of scandal and disgrace has become a legitimate dimension of politics itself.
Faced with the front-page, prime-time coverage of Weiner’s blunder, I felt a reflexive revulsion against the media’s crass sensationalism. What’s more seductive to a harried, web-traffic chasing editor than the spectacle of a public figure undone by sexual perversion and Twitter? How, I instinctively asked, can so much precious print real-estate and newscast airtime be devoted to something so minor, when Americans are beset by rising unemployment, escalating foreclosures, impoverished state treasuries and shrinking resources for education and healthcare? When ideological loggerheads are making it impossible for any of these problems to be seriously addressed, let alone effectively dealt with?
But such conditions are the very reason that episodes like Weinergate have acquired a significance that surpasses their salacious appeal. American politics have become so legislatively stagnant that scandals have become a way to let the electorate feel they can effect change in the public realm. As the media coverage of Weiner—or of Arnold Schwarzenegger, or John Edwards, or Mark Sanford, or John Ensign, or Eliot Spitzer, or Chris Lee or Dominique Strauss-Kahn—builds, our outrage seems to drive its momentum. We end up feeling that we ourselves—our dread and disgust—have had a hand in a powerful figure's downfall. Unable to affect our stalemated politics, we can at least help to destroy a politician.
A scandal also forces the politician’s personality to emerge from the fog of ideological rhetoric and anodyne positions. As social media and forums for self-expression multiply, the politician’s self-concealments grow ever more intolerable. That is why a politician’s slightest flub or slip is like a loose thread that gets punitively tugged, in hopes of unravelling professionally packaged personalities. This in turn makes politicians—or any public figure—increasingly cautious about what they say, which only intensifies the suspicion that they are hiding their true thoughts and feelings.

Perhaps this swelling intolerance for the stiff forms and rituals of conventional politics accounts for Sarah Palin’s strange longevity, and for the startling, if brief, traction of Donald Trump as a possible presidential candidate. Both figures are, in a sense, pre-scandalised. They lead with their weaknesses and flaws; they themselves are responsible for exposing their own worst aspect. This makes them personalities before they are politicians. In other words, it makes them accessible and relatable beyond politics’ paralysis and opacity. Their flagrant shortcomings create the illusion that they can be influenced by the people's anger or affection, making them a red-blooded counterpoint to what is remote and intractable about politics.

There is nothing “entertaining” about all this. For all its depressing comedy, Weinergate is American politics at its most serious, and its most intense. Just as a blocked libidinal drive creates a neurotic symptom, so too does stymied political rage create a ceaseless appetite for therapeutic scandals. The question is: how long can America’s democratic energies stay repressed before American society has, as it were, a complete nervous breakdown?

Lee Siegel is a New York writer and cultural critic who has written for Harper's, the Nation, the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Times, among other places. His book "Are You Serious?: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly" will be published by Harper in America later this month. Picture credit: Anthony Weiner