Thursday, May 19, 2016

How does Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct relate to Hillary's presidential fitness?

Bill's infidelity is often conflated with allegations about past sexual violence

Based solely on his conduct towards women, Donald Trump clearly shouldn't become president. Recently, issues about Bill Clinton's past conduct (rape, sexual violence) have been raised, calling into question Hillary's fitness for the presidency. I think most of these critiques are in bad faith designed to decrease the chances of a Democratic victory, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and take a look.

Bill almost definitely couldn't get elected to anything today, and this reflects an overwhelmingly positive cultural shift in attitudes about sexual violence and gender inequality. But how evaluations of him relate to evaluations of her is complicated. I see three main considerations.


1. Judgement. Bill's problems might reflect poorly on Hillary's judgement to the extent that she chose to marry him and stay married to him, implicitly validating his moral standing. If she can get this wrong, what else might she get wrong? I don't think the initial marriage thing makes much sense due to the inherent difficulty in predicting other's behavior, but staying married does raise a question about Hillary's adaptability and commitment to legacy moral systems which are changing rapidly.

Hillary is obviously free to make pragmatic decisions about how to balance the personal life turmoil and electoral effects of disavowing and divorcing Bill, but voters are under no such obligation. Holding public officials to a higher standard in some domains is generally great, but it's unclear whether divorce and family life should be among those domains.

If Hillary were to have divorced and disavowed Bill years ago, her electoral future would have probably been destroyed, even if it reflected positively on her "judgement" about the importance of sexual violence. This would not have been a great loss for the country, but as a general framework it sets up a terribly unfair incentive structure for other women (and some men) seeking public office who don't want to get divorced at the first sign of spousal misconduct. Perhaps ironically, critiques of Hillary's judgement about Bill imply a standard of purity that is unreasonable and would result in fewer good politicians.

Norms and values about divorce and spousal commitment are deeply personal, and change more slowly in individuals than in populations. Holding politicians to current moral standards is desirable in most areas (that's what democratic change is, after all), but for many personal matters things get murky real fast. Demanding perfect responsiveness in an area like divorce essentially condemns a huge subset of potential politicians who personally value marriage more than they value electability. The solution in my view is to heavily discount vague notions about "judgement" in personal matters and focus more on policies and accomplishments. In the areas of sexual violence and inequality, Hillary would likely push positive changes.


2. Team considerations. When electing presidents, voters must also consider the vast staff and appointed positions that each administration brings. This matters in evaluating candidate judgement (e.g. McCain's VP pick provided information about his appetite for high-risk, high-reward strategies and a utilitarian inclination), but it also matters for its own sake.

As First Laddie, Bill will occupy an informal role with tremendous practical and symbolic power. Electing Hillary will necessarily increase his ability to influence decisions as a close confidant. To the extent that Bill's bad judgement would affect Hillary's decisions, this is bad.

Having Bill back in the White House would also enhance his already-significant public stature, and implicitly validate his past misconduct by not proving it decisively disqualifying. This is the best line of argument that Bill's misconduct should matter when considering Hillary, and one that could be mitigated by emphasizing a minimal public role for Bill. She appears to be moving in the opposite direction.


3. Is this really just reflexive moral shaming? Most cultures have evolved some sort of family unit, and moral systems tend to imbue these with significance. Ethically-linking individuals together via institutions like marriage and family exposes them to upside benefits (trust, reputation), but also downside risks (shame, guilt by association). I won't say whether this downside risk is a feature or a bug, but it seems like a necessary quality in most family systems.

Because the psychological machinery of shame and disgust is inherently wrapped-up in cultural structures like sexuality, marriage and family, it seems likely that at least some of the unease over Bill's conduct as it relates to President Hillary is simply reflexive unconscious bias. Bill's behavior causes a loss of status, which causes Hillary to lose status. Does it need to be more complicated than that?




Side-note: The fact that millennials are now grappling with this issue surely prompts a mix of cynicism and bemusement among older generations. That this age-old question is back in the news is a good reminder that a Hillary Clinton presidency is likely to be really tedious and unbearable, with plenty of scandal and political wrath.

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