A few weeks ago there was a row in the US about one of the presidential candidates (John Edwards) having an expensive haircut. If I thought about it at all (I got the story from Obsidian Wings), it would have been as an example of the tendency of the media (UK as well as US) to focus on political trivia as opposed to substance.
And then I started reading Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Harvard UP, 1996) and a chapter on how Roman politics was precisely about this kind of manoeuvring. As she puts it:
If a mans enemies were bent on discerning in his private life an intemperance that could compromise the fulfillment of public duty, it was his task to undermine the plausibility of such revelations by a deft broadcasting of his probity.
This hostile observation of others in political terms extended to all aspects of their behaviour. Cicero allegedly said of Julius Caesar:
In all his schemes and all his policy I discern the temper of a tyrant; but then when I see how carefully his hair is arranged, how delicately with a single finger he scratches his head, I cannot conceive him likely to entertain so monstrous a design as overthrowing the liberties of Rome.
Because Roman public life offered such opportunities for a man to gain personal advantage, a powerful moral language was needed to deter corrupt behaviour and denounce those who committed such offences. Cooper focuses on how much classical discussions of a mans marriage and sexual behaviour were used as a symbol of his wider political fitness. By metonymy, sexual temperance was understood vividly and memorably to index the self-control of a male protagonist in matters other than the sexual.
A lot of US and UK political rows start to make sense in this framework. For example, Bill Clintons affair with Monica Lewinsky becomes significant less because of any perjury involved than because it implies that he is likely to misuse the privileges of office in other ways. He is the kind of man who will take what he can because he can. Similarly, John Edwards expensive haircut is not just used as a sign of being out of touch with the common man; the implication (even if unstated) is that a man who spends private money in a wasteful way will do the same with public money.
The Roman analogy suggests that this political emphasis on a candidates moral life is not new and not simply a result of the mass media. Another obvious but incorrect conclusion is that it is used in political contests where there is no substantial policy difference between the candidates. But some of the same images were used by politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who did have very distinctive policies. (Thatcher was presented as the prudent housewife, for example).
I would call the focus on such character issues virtue politics, in a rough analogy with virtue ethics. As I understand from my limited knowledge of moral philosophy, unlike ordinary ethics (which focuses on developing rules for how you make an ethical decision), virtue ethics focuses on how someone becomes a person who will make a correct decision. Similarly, virtue politics focuses not on the specific policies of a candidate, but on the fact that the candidate is the sort of person who will make the right political decisions.
It seems to me that theres been a big move towards this kind of virtue politics in both the US and the UK in the last thirty years (although maybe other will say its always been there). In the US, where it is a president being elected, theres obviously a greater tendency to focus on the man more than the policies, in contrast to a party political system like the UK. I think that virtue politics has become more common in the UK not just because of the Americanisation of politics, but because there has been a series of attempts to make substantial changes to what political parties stand for: the Tories under Thatcher, New Labour, David Camerons Conservatives. Focusing on the personality of the leader is not necessarily a substitute for new policies, but a way of embodying them memorably to the electorate.
The other reason that I suspect virtue politics is on the rise is because of the unpredictability of the world. Having a coherent policy on current political issues doesnt help you with black swan events (see previous post) such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the September 11th attacks. Maybe politicians being chosen because theyre virtuous (i.e. their instincts are good) isnt so bad after all. Perhaps the problem is just that the virtues the spin-doctors are emphasising and the electorates are choosing are the wrong ones (is being a person youd like to share a beer with really a sufficient virtue for a politician?)