Who doesn’t love a political scandal? In our Age of Outrage, there’s almost nothing that we want more. Scandal comes from feet on the Resolute Desk or the Oval Office couches, from vouching for friends or appointing them to your Cabinet, from firing Deputy Attorneys General because they wouldn’t affirm your political goals, and from sexual harassment with a cigar. In fact, it almost seems like we can turn anything into a scandal, which has the disconcerting effect of making almost anything normal.
When anything becomes normal, then scandals bring a shrug. We start slinging accusations back and forth depending on our political slant. We want to vindicate “our” side; we seek absolution for being duped as much as we want to punish those who oppose us. This brings the temptation to turn minor slights and annoyances up to the level of something that will get a woefully inappropriate “-gate” suffix. Millions of dollars go into investigations. Committees are called to order. Detectives get overtime. At some point, the American people get answers: just none that we want to hear.
It’s really a massive waste of time.
But I’m here to help. Together, we’re going to get rid of fake scandals and focus on the ones that really matter.
To illustrate, I’ll use the quintessential political scandal: Watergate.
We’ll start by defining the harm. Real scandals have real, ongoing harm from these actions. Truly terrible scandals start to dismantle systems of trust and responsibility, so that future harm comes of it. If you’re really upset that the President tapes his tie or eats arugula on his burger, you are not in scandal territory. There’s really no harm except to our personal sensibilities.
When it started, the real problem with Watergate was that someone had broken into a national political institution to steal information. Shrug at this and you give criminals freedom to break into your house and office, the houses and offices of your associates, and steal from anyone else they think would be pertinent to get information to destroy you. Politics where you can’t make a mistake throwing something in the garbage, even ten-year-old crayon drawings or moldy sweatshirts, is not open, fair or free.
That’s the second step: imagining the worst-case scenario from this scandal. Who will benefit? Who will lose? How could this possibly come back to bite your side? Scandals reset what we accept in our politics if we don’t address them. If everyone does things like Scandal X, what happens to our politics? Who has a voice? Who gets ignored? Who can be stopped and how?
The worst-case scenario once the Watergate burglars were verified as former government workers or had checks redirected from the official Nixon campaign deposited in their bank accounts, was that the sitting President of the United States or someone with authority vested in him by the President, had weaponized the Executive Branch to win elections. With only the President’s restraint stopping any truly egregious action, the whole federal government could be used against you if you spoke out as political opposition.
That’s pretty dark.
That brings us to the third step: assess the narrative. It’s easy to get into conspiracy theory territory on stuff like this. The President ordered or knew of a break-in targeting his political opponents? Are you arguing against fluoride in the water too? But to keep things from going too far afield, ask how innocent people would act. Politicians love public approval and want erroneous narratives off the board as soon as possible. If it won’t disappear (and real harm won’t), then they will act to fix the harm. They will want to be transparent and to have their name cleared. This can basically be summed up as: it’s the cover-up, not the crime. The more an official tries to cover-up what is being investigated, the more likely they’re guilty. If they try to be as forthright as they can, they’re probably trying to fix the harm or accept responsibility.
This also goes for accusers. Faux-scandals rely on lots of noise and outrage for murky or undefined purposes. If the focus is on the fact that something bad happened, but not the means or the process, then you might have someone who is less interested in figuring out how the harm came to be than seeing how they can blame someone for it.
Fourth: check the periphery. Sure, the behavior at the center of the scandal is a signal, but look for lots of smaller, clear connections whose behavior is in line with a crime. Real-life conspiracies have too many people who know things to be easily shut down. There is always an incentive for someone with enough of the story, if not the complete story, to come forward to save themselves at the expense of everyone else. And if no one breaks down in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, then some enemy that the conspirators made will come through and break it down for them. That includes Mark Felt as Deep Throat, and the Saturday Night Massacre, as honest officials would not violate their oaths to cover for the President’s malfeasance.
Fifth: prove the harm. We go all the way back to the beginning to affirm that the harm we defined actually happened. This is where evidence comes in. It’s not enough for everyone to sound guilty or look guilty; with enough political pressure you can make a fake scandal seem pretty real simply by being perpetually outraged. No, for a scandal to be a real, bonafide scandal, you need to show what someone did with their power. An actual break-in happened. Someone close to the President did pay money to the burglars. The President either knew or was unwilling to cut his losses (because he was going nuts trying to fire anyone who dared investigate). Evidence was tampered with. Justice was obstructed. Getting a smoking gun is super hard in these situations, but sometimes you’ll find a cold gun barrel, casings, a body with a bullet wound and bloody fingerprints everywhere while someone desperately tries to wipe down surfaces.
Sixth, and final: check your emotions. Real scandals have bad effects for everyone. They’re not moments to celebrate. If you’re not a hypocrite, a scandal means someone abused the power they were trusted with. They sold out their constituents, their principles, possibly even the safety and welfare of the people they represent. Celebrating the revelation of a scandal is like finding out that your significant other is cheating one day and cheering when they tell you that they have weeks-old chlamydia the next day. I’m just sayin’…you should get yourself ready for some penicillin.
Scandals are easy to whip up in this era of 24-hour news and conspiracy sites. They’ve got the elements of a story we can’t help but watch: intrigue, power, lies, abuse and, if we’re lucky, comeuppance. But these aren’t just stories to throw ourselves into; true scandals have real consequences and real damage. They can hurt and kill real people. And they sabotage our trust in the very process of handing power to our systems.
So whether it’s misinformation about war, false-flag operations, rigging 57 state elections or colluding with a foreign power in espionage to gain political advantage, ask yourself how many of these steps you can get through and keep the scandalous nature of the narrative intact.
- Define the precise harm that this scandal creates, now and in the future
- Establish the worst-case scenario, so you know what happens if you don’t intervene
- Check the narratives of innocence and guilt and assess whether the actions fall cleanly into one or the other, on the part of agents and accusers
- Check to see how peripheral members of the conspiracy are acting, including offering explanations, disappearing from public view or giving misleading statements
- Prove that harm actually occurred because of these actions
- And: watch yourself for eagerness or cheer in the face of a verdict