June 26, 2009

Why Do Politicians Cheat?

You all are not going to believe this-- the answer is not completely narcissism.

One possible explanation, said Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at City University of New York: "Narcissism is an occupational hazard for political leaders. You have to have an outsized ambition and an outsized ego to run for office."


Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics, suggested adrenaline as the common denominator, saying, "For some individuals, the excitement of illicit sexual activity might feed the same desire" as "the excitement of politics."


These are men who love themselves deeply, need to be recognized and relish approval. These are men who adore getting praise and who often are surrounded by swarms of sycophants. These are men who, in some cases, need to exercise power and sometimes can become drunk from it. These are men who think the rules don't apply to them and who think they're untouchable.

These all sound plausible, but only if you don't look too closely at the details of each case.  These men had obviously different psychological forces at work in their infidelity.

Simple examples: Mark Sanford appears genuinely to have fallen in love (or something) with "Maria," while Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton saw the dalliances as... recreational.  So while narcissism may have explained a single individual's cheating, it doesn't apply to all. 

Some affairs were homosexual.  Sometimes the wife was surprised, sometimes she suspected, and sometimes (as in the case of McGreevey's wife) she was allegedly a participant.

No consistent motivation attributable to "power" or "dominance" or "thrill of the chase" can be generalized here.

Neither is there much to grab onto with the standard variables.  Some women are younger, older, good looking and bad looking. There's no relation to length of time married, or number of prior marriages.

There is, however, one important unifying characteristic of political infidelities that makes them very different from the average joe on AshleyMadison.com: everyone knows these guys are going to get caught.


So instead of asking, "why do they cheat?" ask, "why don't they simply not cheat?"

Seriously consider this question.  Unless we are positing that these men are all addicted to infidelity, or compelled by genetics or voodoo to make that specific gigantic mistake and not others; a mistake which other people can't empathize with-- "he destroyed his career and marriage-- for her?!?!"-- then they should be able to resist the temptation, if for no other reason than self-preservation. 

Neither are these drunken accidents at a snowed in convention hotel.  There was no impulsiveness.  They had plenty of time to consider their actions.  They decided that this was a good idea.

They slowly and methodically planned it, and did it.  For them, there is no element of resisting temptation. They didn't do it despite themselves; they did it because, in their mind, this was worth it.


In other words, there must be some other benefit beyond the sex act itself. 

An interesting paper explored the reactions to infidelity.  As you might expect, men would be more upset by a woman's sexual infidelity and women by a man's emotional infidelity.

However, when men and women are first asked to contemplate their own death, sexual infidelity was even more important to men, and even less important to women:

death and infidelity.JPGFor men who already place a high value on having sex, being reminded of one's mortality makes the sex even more important.

None of these guys think they are dying, but they do see themselves at the end.  You might think being Governor is a major accomplishment, but he sees the next 40 years as all downhill.  What's he going to do after Governor?  Last July he was meeting with McCain to be VP-- we know how that turned out.  His life is over, and he's only 49.


An identity crisis of sorts kicks in around 40: "for the past forty years I was the guy trying to become something.  Now what am I going to be?  The guy who was something?"

When your memories outnumber your dreams, you're getting old.

Meanwhile, your wife doesn't particularly want you to grow, or change, or evolve.  She wants you status quo.  Even innocuous attempts at change are met with bemusement: "oh, God, he suddenly decided he wanted to take up biking, and he bought all this biking equipment..."

But an affair lets you be someone new, and get seen by new eyes.  Politicians spend so much energy maintaining a constant public persona.  And their family also has a constant perception of them.  And now suddenly someone else sees you differently, and you even get to penetrate her...
Having an affair is a creative act.  No one leaves an affair saying, "oh God, I feel ten years older."  When someone sees you, experiences you, in a different way, you feel more alive.  It's all illusory, of course, but that doesn't seem to stop people from feeling it.


If I go to Moldova and have a fling with a woman and choose not to put it on my blog, I'm probably going to get away with it.  This is partly because I figure no one is monitoring me,  and partly because I had the common sense to go to Moldova where I am absolutely sure no one is monitoring me.

Yet these men take absolutely no precautions against detection.    Why don't they go to Moldova? They don't even take ordinary precautions.   Instead, these men are ludicrously indiscreet, clumsy, and careless.  They may as well write an op-ed in the Times-- "I will now penetrate this hooker."    Who disappears for days and doesn't even attempt an alibi?  Who emails their mistress from their government email account?  Who uses airport bathrooms for anything?  Who names a boat "Monkey Business?"

Neil Thigpen, a political science professor at South Carolina's Francis Marion University, said that judging from Sanford's behavior, the governor wanted to be caught.

"I almost feel like he did this whole thing with the intention that it would all come out," Thigpen said. "It's like the guy wanted it out. Why did he draw attention to himself in this fashion? Even with rudimentary scrutiny, he should have known something would bring it to a head."

Not quite caught; but if so much of their identity comes from public perception of them, then "getting caught" is external validation that they are still alive, still growing.  Cheating wasn't the point: getting caught was the point.   It is trying to show the world that you are actually what this new woman thinks you are.   It is a form of exhibitionism.  It's a four year old: "look what I can do!"

And when they apologize on TV, that isn't analogous to pleading guilty at a criminal trial.  It's analogous to releasing a sex tape.  "In case there is anyone out there who wasn't aware of what I can do, let me now apologize for it, slowly, over the next few months, in every possible media outlet I can use."


This is unrelated to the above, and I have no idea what to make of it, but I made an odd discovery about the famous political sex scandals since Clinton:

SC Governor Mark Sanford (R)  5/28/60

Nevada Senator John Ensign (R)  3/25/58

Idaho Senator Larry Craig (R) airport bathroom nonsense. 5/28/60

Louisiana Senator David Vitter (sigh, R) admits to having been involved with an escort service. 5/3/61

Senator John Edwards (phew, D) 6/10/53

Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) 6/10/59

Gov. David Paterson (D) 5/20/54

Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) 8/6/57

Bill Clinton (D) 8/19/46

Newt Gingrich (R) 6/17/43

Rudy Guiliani (R) 5/28/44

Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston 4/30/43

OK Rep. Gary Condit 4/21/48

All of these men were born in late spring-summer.  No fall or winter births?  Any astrologers want to tell me why 8/13 are Geminis?