The Science of Political Sex Scandals
Why politicians risk it all for a little nookie
By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 07, 2011 | Comments (0)
Anthony Weiner has admitted his virtual affairs. What makes powerful men (and I say men because it seems so far to be predominantly a male trend, but as more women enter public office that may be revealed not to be the case) - what makes powerful men risk it all? On the surface of it, it seems crazy. But there are reasons from neuroscience. Let's start by looking at a short list of recent political sex scandals. More after the fold.
Anthony Weiner - Representative (D-NY): a virtual sex scandal - Weiner tweeted lewd pics of himself to women he didn't know. Has not resigned.
Larry Craig - Senator (R-ID): caught by an undercover cop soliciting gay sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Resigned.
David Vitter - Senator (R-LA): a prominent family values champion, was caught on the phone list of a Washington, D.C. madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Withdrew from a bid for governor but retained his senate seat.
Bill Clinton - President (D): caught after semen stains proved he had oral sex with a White House intern. Impeached.
Jim McGreevey - Governor (D-NJ): admitted having an extramarital gay affair with an Israeli citizen after news organizations investigated why he had appointed him NJ homeland security adviser. Resigned.
Mark Sanford -Governor (R-SC): a disappeared while in office. Upon his return he admitted he was out of the country and having an extramarital affair with Maria Belén Chapur, an Argentine journalist. Censured.
John Ensign - Senator (R-NV): was a member of Aimee Semple McPherson's Foursquare Gospel Church, and the fundamentalist organization The Felklowship when his extra marital affair was revealed. Resigned.
Eliot Spitzer - Governor (D-NY): caught transporting a woman across state lines for purposes of prostitution. Resigned.
Mark Foley - Representative (R-FL): caught sending sexually suggsting emails and text messages to to teenaged boys who had formerly served as congressional pages. Resigned.
Eric Massa - Representative (D-NY): caught groping and tickling male staffers in his congressional office. Resigned.
Chris Lee - Representative (D-NY): the married congressman emailed a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he had met on Craigslist. Resigned.
Arnold Schwarzenegger - Governor (D-CA): carried on a lengthy extramarital affair and fathered a child with Mildred Baena, a Guatemala-born housekeeper. Affair revealed only after he left office.
John Edwards - Senator (D-NC): Had an extramrital affair and fathered a child with campaign worker Rielle Hunter. Forced out of race for presidency. Indicted for allegedly using campaign funds to keep the affair out of the public eye.
Mark Souder - Representative (R-IN): Resigned to avoid an ethics investigation into his admitted extramarital affair with a female staffer. Famously, he and the staffer had made a public video in which they both extolled the virtues of abstinence.
Tim Mahoney - Representative (D-FL): Elected to Mark Foley's seat. Hired his mistress, Patricia Allen, to his congressional staff and then fired her, saying, "You work at my pleasure," then paid her hush money. He later admitted to multiple affairs. Lost a reelection bid.
Randall Tobias - Deputy Secretary of State (R) and "AIDS Czar" under George W. Bush: Argued that U.S. funds should be denied countries that permit prostitution. Was caught as a customer of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the DC Madam. Resigned.
Ed Schrock - Representative (R-VA): Fought against gay rights. Caught soliciting sex from a male prostitute. Admitted he was gay and dropped out of his reelection bid.
Newt Gingrich - Representative (R-GA): Admitted to having had an affair with his intern Callista Bisek, while he was married to his second wife, and at the same time he was leading the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
So why do they do it? Arrogance? Pride? Loneliness? A compulsion to take risks?
A friend of mine suggested an interesting theory. He's in a recovering alcoholic, and he described why Alcoholics Anonymous has proved so successful: "It's our social connections with other people that keep us sane," he says.
This is an interesting take on rationality that increasing evidence suggests may be correct. Reason may not be the faculty of a lone mind. Driven by powerful urges, be they addictive, sexual, or simply for emotional connection, the mind can rationalize away any risk. Recovering alcoholics call it "cunning, baffling, powerful."
Mix intense scrutiny with immense stakes, a purient press, a moralizing public, a demanding schedule, adoring staff and constituents, and the need to maintain a superhuman reputation for political correctness, one can begin to see how emotionally isolated elected officials can become.
It turns out this has measurable effects on their brains and bodies. We can see this even at the cellular level. Research shows molecular markers associated with the subjective feeling of social isolation (loneliness), and it even affects our health: genes are expressed differentially in the immune cells of lonely individuals.
Neuroscientists refer to the ‘integrative intelligence’ that allows us to read social cues. Research shows it becomes severely impaired when we become lonely, causing us to have inaccurate impressions of social interactions, and what neuroscientists call ‘loss of executive control’. When this happens, our frontal lobes incorrectly regulate our judgment of the external world, and we become unable to accurately assess risks, relationships, and the relative rationality of our own actions. Otherwise brilliant or moral or moralizing people literally lose control of their senses.
This is quite a frightening idea when one considers the power vested in these people and the decisions we entrust them with.
It also suggests that the kinds of things conservatives like to harp on - the government waste of programs for elected leaders that provide opportunities for social interactions, the scandals of drinking and partying with other elected colleagues at the capitol, and other easy targets - may actually help to keep our elected leaders sane, and ensure better quality representation and more rational leadership.
It really is lonely at the top.
Tags: Republicans, Democrats, Politics, Neuroscience, Sex, Health