Late on Wednesday evening, news broke that will likely end the career of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens: the ex-husband of Greitens’ ex-mistress came forward with evidence that not only did Greitens engage in an extra-marital affair with that woman, but that he blindfolded her, taped her to rings hanging from a doorway, and took a picture of her naked. The ex-husband alleges that Greitens then blackmailed his wife to keep the story quiet.
Greitens, for his part, acknowledges the affair but denies the blackmail part of the story:
The governor has now seen the TV report that ran tonight. The station declined to provide the tape or transcript in advance of running their story, which contained multiple false allegations. The claim that this nearly three-year old story has generated or should generate law enforcement interest is completely false. There was no blackmail and that claim is false.
So, here’s the question: if Greitens had engaged in the affair, we’d all likely shrug and move on with our lives. It’s only the element of alleged threatened blackmail that makes us take notice. Isn’t that an effect of defining deviancy down?
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) coined that phrase back in 1993, when he argued thusly regarding crime:
[O]ver the past generation, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.
That logic doesn’t just apply to crime. It applies to the behavior of our politicians.
Thirty years ago, Greitens would have been forced from office for his obvious immorality; today, we all say that such behavior is unpleasant, but not a barrier to holding high office. That’s thanks to the Kennedy family, Bill Clinton, and now Donald Trump.
The natural next step: we only get exercised if something worse happens.
But how long will it be before we define deviancy down again? Both parties now accept that their politicians can utterly lack character and still earn votes. Why, then, are we shocked that those with severe shortcomings in character seem to be outpacing people of character in politics? We can’t have it both ways: either we have standards, or we don’t. Once we don’t, are we surprised that character-less people seem to become more and more common in positions of power?
Critics will respond that our politicians always engaged in nasty behavior, they just hid it. But that’s the point: they had to hide it. Hiding it meant that society didn’t normalize such behavior, lowering the standard of decency still further. Perhaps bad men can govern well. But that’s an exception to the rule, not the rule itself. If not, we should at least stop pretending to care about the personal character defects of the people we elect. Or perhaps we already have.