Politicians Make Bad Role Models

[Epistemic status: trying to explain an intuition, not sure that the intuition is correct or even that I’m capturing and recording it accurately]

Alright, so there’s this thing where politicians sometimes do things that are not necessarily connected to their policy prescriptions or the job they’re doing as a politician, and we fight about them. I’m going to give a couple of examples of what I’m saying, and I hope it’s okay at gesturing vaguely at the general cluster of things I’m talking about. I’m not trying to pick a fight about any of the examples, and if you respond to this post by telling me how one of my examples is bad or that they’re not equivalent without addressing the main thrust of the dynamic I’m talking about, I will happily concede that you’re right but you’ve missed my point.

1) Nancy Pelosi who attracted controversy when footage emerged early last September of her visiting a hair salon in San Francisco while this was banned.
2) Ted Cruz who took a family vacation to Mexico during a pandemic and a winter storm that knocked out Texas’ power grid.

The common thread I’m trying to point at is situations wherein someone is upset by a politician’s behavior not because of the direct result of that politician’s political actions (or lack thereof) but because of how they think those actions will influence their constituents.

Now, let me get some caveats out of the way here.

I’m not saying that’s there’s no reason at all to be mad about a politician’s personal lack of virtue. Maybe you don’t know much about economic policy but you figure convicted fraudsters are probably not making decisions which align with your interests. Maybe you’re trying to evaluate what sorts of policies a person is likely to advocate in the future and so you’re looking what preferences are revealed by their actions. Maybe you think Rob Halford’s crack addiction is evidence that he probably is not doing a good job as mayor. Maybe you really do, in your heart of hearts, believe that Obama wearing a tan suit lowered other nations’ estimations of America in ways that have real effects. Maybe you’re just mad that a politician is being stupid or contemptible in the normal way that we sometimes get mad at people for being stupid or contemptible, and not because of what their actions are signaling to their constituents.

I’m also not saying that there’s no sense or mechanism or case wherein a politician’s base will take their cues from the politicians, or that when this happens they’re not responsible for those effects. Politicians advocating conspiracy theories which are then picked up by their base seems like a pretty plausible case of this, as does vaccine hesitancy being alleviated by politicians making a show of publicly being vaccinated. I acknowledge that others exist too which I have not enumerated here, and that politicians in general have some duty to think about those cases in which their personal behavior does influence the general public and act in ways that do not use that influence recklessly.

But with those caveats aside, it seems really strange to me to get conspicuously mad about Pelosi’s haircut or Cruz’ vacation on the grounds that they’re setting a bad example. It seems patronizing to me, honestly. Do you make decisions about whether to get a haircut or travel during a pandemic or care about Texans without power based on whether your Senators do same? Have you ever met anyone who does? Is the idea that there is some other critical mass of people who are too dumb to evaluate things on any level deeper than “my politician does X so I will do X” out there, and they would not have gone to a hair salon except that Pelosi did? And if this is true, is it true on any level other than political affiliation as a reaction to the media coverage of same, in that “the libs/cons are mad about X, so I’m gonna go do X to spite them” kind of way? Surely no one thinks that these hypothetical people are combing through Cruz’ vacation schedule to make their own travel plans and/or opinions on Texas’ infrastructure.

I also think that, typically, there is a lot more to get mad about if you look at a politician’s actual policy priorities than there is when you look at their personal behavior. However many people Cruz or Pelosi have harmed with their haircut and vacation, surely they have harmed (or failed to help, when it was their job to do so) many more people through their actual job as a Senator? Specific examples of legislative harm left as an example to the reader. And while there’s nothing incoherent about being mad about more than one thing at once, it still seems like an unusually salient mismatch, like being upset that your neighbor is a murderer and a jaywalker.

And I also kind of just think that politicians are mostly horrible lizard-people, even the ones I’m rooting for, or at least not virtuous enough we should expect that they’re a source of information for how you should live your life, from an ethical standpoint. And I think this is mostly universally accepted – there aren’t many professions it’s easier to casually lambast and expect widespread agreement than politicians.

By way of example, imagine you know a woman named Dorothy and she’s got a son in elementary school named Terry, and let’s say she spends all of her money on lottery tickets. There are a number of reasons you might be upset by Dorothy spending her whole paycheck on lottery tickets, and one of them is that she’s not setting a very good example for Terry. But if Dorothy has a friend named Christina, a capable adult woman responsible for her own finances, it would be pretty strange to be mad at Dorothy for setting a bad example for Christina. Christina’s going to make her own mistakes and even if it’s true that she’s more likely to buy lottery tickets if Dorothy does, we would not typically say that Dorothy is responsible for Christina’s actions. Mostly I think the American public is Christina, not Terry.

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