Mudslinging has existed in one form or another for as long as politics has. Recent years, though, have seen it devolve from the exaggerated “new lows” of 2012 to something even worse. Although embarrassing gossip about public figures is no doubt entertaining, it’s time to ask whether we’re ready to accept the excavation of ancient Twitter posts, informal writings, and—for crying out loud—high school yearbooks as legitimate sources of criticism of political figures and celebrities.
If so, we must accept an uncomfortable fact: the only people who will survive such thorough opposition research are either ill-socialized Boy Scouts or the utterly shameless. It’s an insane way to pick our leaders, and instead of becoming comfortable with it, we should focus on what actually matters: relevant qualifications.
All too often now, we witness someone’s career being ruined because of inane mudslinging. Opponents of Texas Senate challenger Beto O’Rourke dragged him through the mud in early October for comments he’d made about actresses in a 1991 review of a Broadway musical. On the Left, meanwhile, there was endless speculation about Brett Kavanaugh’s high school drinking habits, when the real concern should have been whether or not he committed sexual assault. This phenomenon isn’t limited to politics either—not by a long shot.
O’Rourke’s allegedly disqualifying activities had nothing to do with the position he was trying out for. What he thought about the skill and breasts of an actress when he was 19 years old cannot possibly be relevant to his duties as a United States senator. And the drinking habits of a high schooler, no matter how scandalous, mean nothing with respect to a judge’s qualifications.
It is in our best interest to be represented by our peers: people with whom we share qualities, values, experiences, and ideas. The connection between those representatives and their constituents lies at the core of many theories on the legitimacy of government. If we dive so deeply and use a comb with teeth so fine that virtually everyone becomes ineligible, what are we left with?
The 18th-century poet Alexander Pope made a venerable if trite observation when he wrote that “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Real people—average people—make mistakes. It’s part of growing. If any adult can say, with confidence, that he thinks the same way he did when he was 16, then he’s either a bore or has failed to mature since high school. The fact that we treat decades-old dirt as credible evidence of character is hypocritical at best.
For our republican democracy to function, it’s imperative that we look for leaders who represent us as a people. But as the pasts of our public officials are increasingly expected to be spotless, we’ve excluded more and more of those people from consideration. And as the pool we deem qualified continues to shrink, the chance that those representatives will truly represent us shrinks along with it.
Could it be that this mudslinging is just a byproduct of America’s ever-increasing political polarization? It’s a phenomenon that’s presently blamed on President Trump, though the divide has been coming for decades. Still, no matter the cause, we’ve reached the point where any ammunition used against the opposing side is good ammunition—even if it’s been weakened by time.
As the standard for what is relevant to a person’s qualifications sinks ever lower, the double edge of deep-dive mudslinging becomes ever more obvious, to the point of taking on the characteristics of an incredibly dangerous form of modern McCarthyism. As former senator Margaret Chase Smith said in her “Declaration of Conscience,” the right to hold unpopular beliefs was once a basic principle of Americanism. Clearly, something has changed.
In order to restore proper standards of relevance to our national discourse, we need to accept that outrage farming, while good for ratings, is no good for America. There is only one way to correct our course, and that is to reject irrelevant mudslinging. The perfect is the enemy of the good. We are a nation of people who have made mistakes and hopefully grown from them. We owe it to ourselves to accept that also from those in public office.
Matthew Larosiere is a legal associate at a Washington, D.C. think tank. He holds a J.D. and LL.M in taxation and is licensed to practice law in Florida. He is a Young Voices contributor and can be found on Twitter @MattLaAtLaw.