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It was around 300 years ago that the philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that lies are wrong since they arise when someone creates for themselves an exception to the rule ‘Deception is wrong’ – a rule the deceiver himself would expect to be followed by everyone else around him in every other situation. The singular exception to this rule, when a “[transgressor puts himself] above others and [assumes] a position of superiority by breaking a rule that others obey” is what makes the deception that scandalous (Halmburger, Rothmund, Schulte & Baumert 2012 8).
We live in a world in which we expect others to be truthful – basing our “actions [and] judgments” on this expectation (Schultz). And yet, in our societies that are so dependent on honesty, the fine line between truth and falsehood is daily manipulated, the truth is bent to serve ones selfish needs, transgression and misconduct is covered up in deliberate deception of others and, when all else has failed, corruption uncovered is still denied in a desperate attempt to retain ones spotless image. Schultz rightly asserts that “liars profit by taking advantage of … trust”. It therefore only makes sense that people are naturally drawn to integrity as much as they are repelled by its opposite.
This is especially true for politics, a domain in which deceitfulness and untruthfulness result from an abuse of power that makes the deception of politicians that much more tangible and shocking. But is there more to deception in politics than merely the widespread shock following its discovery and unveiling? In this paper, I would like to examine the impact of political scandal on the American culture, using as my model scandal the presumably most prominent political scandal in the United States: ‘Watergate’. I will begin by giving a short definition of what is to be understood by political scandal, and then move over to a closer examination of ‘Watergate’ and its consequences for the American culture. It will be my aim to show that the aftermath of political scandal, as seen through ‘Watergate’, can have serious and long-term effects on a culture.
“Scandals are as old as the republic itself” (Williams 1). They surround our life, our relationships with others, the way we view others, and especially our relation to government and politics. As Thompson puts it, “scandal matters because, in our modern mediated world, it touches on real sources of power … [and it has] become interwoven with the transformation which have shaped the modern world” (Thompson Preface). But is the study of scandal – albeit political scandal – not too trivial a subject to study? , someone may ask. Should the study of scandal be left to the tabloids? Thompson disagrees, remarking that “scandals are … not merely to be understood as giving evidence for moral decline (Ibid? ) or a product of gain-seeking journalism, [but are] an important social phenomenon which can have serious consequences on the culture in which they occur” (Williams Preface? ).
These consequences are due, in part, to the fact that “individuals acting within the political field depend crucially on the use of symbolic power to persuade and influence others and the shape the course of events” (Williams? ). According to Thompson, scandal and the political scandal in particular, is an important issue which deserves more attention and study than assumed at first, as it is a “revealing issue in terms of what it tells us about the kind of world in which we live today” (? ). He goes on to say thatIf we want to understand the rise of political scandal and its prevalence today, then we must view it in relation to some of the broad social transformations which have shaped the modern world. We can understand the current prevalence of scandal only if we see that this phenomenon, which might seem so ephemeral and superficial to the impatient observer, is rooted in a series of developments which have a long history and which have had a deep and enduring impact on social … life (Ibid). This impact of political scandal on social life in the United States through the example of ‘Watergate’ is what I will seek to examine in the following paper.
Before moving on to the centerpiece of this paper, I would like to begin by examining the true meaning of the word ‘scandal’, in particular the political scandal, and what is to be understood by the term. Thompson suggests that the modern sense of the term ‘scandal’ refers to “actions or events involving certain kinds of transgressions which become known to others and are sufficiently serious to elicit a public response”. According to Thompson, ‘scandal’ refers first and foremost to actions, events or circumstances marked by the following characteristics: “1 their occurrence or existence involves the transgression of certain values, norms or moral codes;2 their occurrence or existence involves an element of secrecy or concealment, but they are known or strongly believed to exist by individuals other than those directly involved (who Thompson calls ‘non-participants’);3 some non-participants disapprove of the actions or events and may be offended by the transgression;4 some non-participants express their disapproval by publicly denouncing the actions or events;5 the disclosure and condemnation of the actions or events may damage the reputation of the individuals responsible for them” (SOURCE).
This definition can easily be extended to political scandals, which becomes further clear in light of Williams’ definition who adds that, for political scandals, “it is … not the conduct itself but its relation to a public role and the attendant expectations of that role which matter. [Political] scandals involve damage to reputation and conduct which is perceived to disgrace a public office or position in society” (Williams 6).
Generally, political scandals are more complex in thatthey tend to involve the use of public office for private benefit and/or the abuse of power in pursuit of policy goals. A large proportion of scandals relates to the cost of elections and the raising of campaign finance. Although every political scandal is different, they all usually involve allegations of violations of the political process and the illegitimate exercise of power (Ibid). To sum it up, then, it is this additional aspect of the abuse of power which constitutes the main difference between a mere scandal and a political scandal. Further, according to Doherty, Dowling and Miller, political scandal is more devastating in its impact than mere scandal as it is the abuse of power inherent to political scandal which leads to “more negative responses from resondents (Doherty et al. 2011 8).
Although there are two main phases of political scandal, i. e. the actual transgression and the cover-up, which SOURCE calls “all those forms of political response which serve to conceal, justify, deny or mitigate the behavior identified with the substantive scandal” (7ff), the process of political scandal is generally the same. It involves…allegation, denial, exposure, inquiry, cover-up, fresh allegations, further enquiries and sometimes even a conclusion. Questions are posed and, if unanswered, they heighten the sense of scandal. If answered the answers provide new facts to check and rebut. The search [then] goes deeper and backward in time to look at the accused’s record. … Like tree roots, scandal-hunters burrow beneath the façade of public office to disturb long-buried skeletons (SOURCE).
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