No Bandwidth for Outrage

Why scandals and gaffes are no longer a political death knell

Media gathered at a 2013 House Ways and Means hearing on the IRS scandal surrounding the alleged targeting of conservative groups. (CQ Roll Call)
Media gathered at a 2013 House Ways and Means hearing on the IRS scandal surrounding the alleged targeting of conservative groups. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 28, 2016 at 7:00am

Have you noticed that scandals and gaffes just aren’t what they used to be?  

Donald Trump has nine political lives and a busload of personal peccadilloes. None of that seems to matter. Flimsy allegations suggesting that Ted Cruz had multiple affairs were obsessed over for days on end, and then quickly discarded in favor of some other story (it’s hard to even remember exactly when we decided they were a big nothing burger).  

But this is a bipartisan phenomenon. Barring an indictment, Hillary Clinton’s email scandal seems unlikely to derail her White House plans. Meanwhile, President Obama’s second term has been deemed “scandal free,” despite the Benghazi, the VA and the IRS scandals, just to name a few. And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s numerous gaffes are generally laughed off.  

So here’s the question: Why don’t most scandals and gaffes stick these days, and does the reason reveal something much deeper about our changing civilization?  

Some of this might be due to the lowering of standards and expectations, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think things might simply be moving so fast and furiously that we no longer have the time or the bandwidth to hold grudges.  

To be sure, we still occasionally sacrifice people to the gods, especially if their sins are un-P.C. But it does feel like one of the many trends afoot is the death of sustained outrage. And this, I think, is problematic.  

At the risk of sounding prudish, some good things can be derived from a civilization that is judgmental. Not that long ago, doing “good” and doing well were mostly synonymous, even in the “dirty” business of politics.  

To be sure, charlatans have always sought to skirt the rules, but karma would eventually catch up to most bad actors. They became morality tales.  

“In politics, you have your word and your friends; go back on either and you’re dead,” advises Morton Blackwell’s “Laws of the Public Policy Process.” Such lessons weren’t solely about teaching ethics; they were sagacious survival values for a long and fruitful career. (Or if you prefer a ‘pop culture’ example: “You gotta think about life in the long term,” advised comedian Chris Rock back in the old days. “People tell you life is short. No it’s not. Life is loooong. Especially if you make the wrong decisions!”)  

In a post-Donald Trump world, though, such axioms seem almost quaint. And one of the big, if underrated, reasons for our more “tolerant,” less judgmental, culture is that we are conditioned to have short attention spans.  

It wasn’t always this way. Consider this: If you lived in a small hamlet in an era when time moved slowly, you effectively lived in a classist society with high social capital. Mistakes made in this milieu might haunt you forever. Your opportunities were based at least partly on your lineage, to be sure, but your personal reputation was also important. This created an incentive to keep your nose clean and cultivate a good image, but it also meant you could never really shake your old mistakes. Things were permanent and sacred, not temporary and temporal.  

But this is only half of our story. If America is about small, tight-knit communities, it is also about reinvention and opportunity. The pioneers who moved to the Wild West — or to the anonymity and hustle and bustle of the big city — were at least partly answering the siren call of new beginnings. Cities are always full of busy strangers — too many people to keep tabs on, even if you wanted to. In this setting, the brave outcasts, the ambitious entrepreneurs, and the unethical heathens all prospered at about the same rate.  

In a way, our current media environment has reached “big city” status. No longer do we the people sit around barbershops or bowling alleys, holding people accountable for their actions and comments. There are too many distractions. Instead, we shame them, and move on. We briefly enjoy the schadenfreude, voyeurism, and entertainment value, but we don’t hold too many grudges, because after all, we’re no angels, either. There’s always something new to get agitated or aroused over.  

So we hit refresh.  

Returning to the analogy of the country and the city, today’s more forgiving media environment is a double-edged sword. We should not destroy careers and families over mistakes of the past. But we also don’t want to create a world where there are actually perverse incentives for bad behavior. Yet that’s where we are today, thanks partly to those who cover politics the way TMZ covers entertainment and ESPN covers sports.  

This trend has continued for a long time now, but I think we may have finally reached a tipping point. When everything is overblown, then nothing matters — at least, not for long. A New York Times headline summed it up this way: “In This Snapchat Campaign, Election News Is Big and Then It’s Gone.”  

This worries me for several reasons. First, of course, it is important to hold politicians accountable. Second, we are incentivizing bad behavior. And lastly we are setting up people for a big fall when we decide to selectively enforce our somewhat arbitrary standards. History is replete with predictions that the old truths no longer apply. This is folly. So many of our “rules” have come about as the product of time-honored experience. What we are witnessing now is not truly the new normal.  

The safe assumption is that just because someone else can get away with it, doesn’t mean that you will. Don’t be fooled.  

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter at @MattKLewis .  


Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.