People vote for the person they trust, so politicians use their personal life to gain trust. Is this a mistake?
A great article in Inside Story explores the increasing focus on the personal lives of politicians, and politicians’ willingness to allow it. The author, James Panichi, concludes that politicians should keep their personal lives out of their campaigning because it invites a search for hypocrisy.
The article is based on a book by James Stanyer (Intimate Politics: Publicity, Privacy and the Personal Lives of Politicians in Media Saturated Democracies). Stanyer finds that Western countries have widely varying cultural expectations of the level of exposure of the intimate lives of politicians.
Panichi believes that politicians invite scrutiny by exposing their lives in the first place. He is baffled as to why they do it. In countries where politicians refuse to involve their personal life in campaigning, they are able to fend off coverage of trouble in their personal life by claiming that it is not public nor political territory.
Where politicians do make something of their personal lives, Panichi believes they expose themselves to successful charges of hypocrisy. He lists numerous examples of politicians caught out by apparent double standards.
My interpretation is that politicians uncover their personal lives in response to social expectations, and as a shortcut to establishing trust with voters.
All politics is local – and in local contexts we know who our politicians are.
But on the national stage, and in the era of professional politicians, voters have little evidence with which to assess trustworthiness of a politician.
The shortcut to trust is to expose personal lives to scrutiny. It works, because we CAN assess people by who they choose as friends, family, interests, and choices in daily life.
It doesn’t work when its shallow, a smokescreen, or stridently self-righteous.
Professional era politicians do a sort of intimacy by the numbers: here’s my wife and kids, here’s my best friend, here’s my dog, and here’s the place where I do community work. This approach does work because it uses broad code to allow the voter to infer meaning and values. But it often fails because the politician is not naturally personable, and requires an artificial ‘intimacy’. It can also fail when the intimacy is simply too contrived and too shallow.
Panichi cites many examples where morally upright politicians have been brought down by hypocrisy. But this is not the fault of intimacy – it’s the fault of duplicitous intimacy. As in real life, this always results in loss of trust – as well as anger from those who are misled.
Panichi believes that revealing intimate facts invite more attention. But they don’t. The public and media have a reasonable sense of where to halt their interest in intimate details and where not to hold politicians responsible for occurrences in their lives. There’s plenty of examples of ordinary-life troubles involving politicians’ families that don’t get much or any attention.
My own discomfort is that politicians are organising that State to interfere in the private lives of citizens while keeping their own lives private, or releasing only packaged marketing of their lives. This is simply a form of hypocrisy.
Accurate and well balanced revelation of politicians’ personal lives are important – especially in cultures which value this sort of information. Politicians simply need to give authentic insights.