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Cawthorn in Crisis: Private Vice, Public Mediocrity | Insight

The social media generation’s first House member is showing how hard it will be to balance privacy with public service.

The Briefing: Cawthorn can’t catch a break.

  • Recent revelations
    • The 26 year-old Republican representative's latest scandal hit social media Wednesday
    • In a video, Cawthorn can be seen naked, aggressively thrusting his hips while on top of a friend
    • He dismissed the video released by the "American Muckrakers" PAC as mere horseplay
    • Not long before that, other pictures and screenshots surfaced suggesting potential sexual misconduct
  • Significance + consequences
    • Cawthorn has alleged this is part of an attempt to blackmail him
    • The only other time nude photos of a Congressional representative were released, it was career-ending
  • Why it's happening
    • Just before all this, Cawthorn alleged that prominent political figures had invited him to orgies and offered him cocaine
    • Some, encouraged by Cawthorn's talk of blackmail, speculate it's retaliation by maligned Republicans
    • Others argue Cawthorn's strife with the GOP goes further back, and he made those claims to preempt the revelations and cast himself as a victim

The Big Question: Is this our future?

There’s no stereotype of hardball politics more familiar than the manila envelope of incriminating photos: the press-ready proof of drug use, extra-marital affairs, or any number of other vices used to compel party loyalty or ruin a rival. And it’s long been a fear that we were going to see a lot more of this once the social media generation began to enter politics, especially at the national level.

2010 was perhaps the turning-point for us, when camera phones started to become ubiquitous, when one’s college antics started to get harder to sweep under the rug and move past. But by that time, every member of Congress would have graduated from college already or been close to finishing. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as much a reputation she may have for being a young firebrand, is six years older than Cawthorn.

As such, it’s not too surprising to find Cawthorn in the line of fire; he’s uniquely exposed in a way nobody’s ever really been before. I think a lot of young people share my concern that this is a worrisome trend for our politics to take, whatever you think of Cawthorn, because everybody’s done or said stupid or heinous stuff. There’s now a permanent risk that a rise to political prominence could lead to compromising posts, photos, or videos resurfacing.

It’s especially concerning, because if this is our future, that’s liable to bring us face-to-face with a tricky dilemma for liberal democracies. In a society where individual rights to live and let live are enshrined but political power is delegated to some, how do we draw a line between…

The Theory: Private vice and public virtue?

Few ideas are as central to liberal and American democracy as the concept of personal liberty: the right to live as one may wish, as long as it doesn’t impede on others’ right to do the same. By guaranteeing basic rights to individual liberty and the right to own property, liberalism draws a line—much sharper than in, say, a theocratic or communist regime—between the public and private spheres.

Whether or not there exists a tension between private “vice” and public virtue is a longstanding source of debate. Some, like the American founders, believed that our tendencies to indulge in greed or vanity could be turned to the common good by well-designed institutions. As James Madison wrote in the famous Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” A core belief of the founders was that man, by his natural self-interest, is bound to commit acts of viciousness.

Under those terms, vice can be bent more or less to public ends. But those are very specific vices—ambition in politics and greed in the free market—with public consequences. Modern liberals tend to view our proclivities towards things like alcohol or sex as the kinds of harmless vice in which we’re entitled to engage but, thanks to our liberal rights, should expect not to hound us in the public sphere.

Social media challenges that notion in profound ways. Whatever one’s view of pre-marital sex, raucous drinking, or cross-dressing on a cruise with friends is, we’re in an era where the line between public and private spheres is blurring rapidly. And that’s difficult to deal with, especially because it’s hard to avoid a feeling of revulsion when vulgar images of someone else’s intimate life—sexual or otherwise—become a matter of public knowledge.

Moreover, our historical consciousness is populated by many mythologized figures who rise above those low expectations. We remember George Washington couldn’t tell a lie and imagine Lincoln as a man of incredible stature both physical and moral. American democracy is a system torn between a realism, a willingness to take men as low as they are, and a desire to elevate politics and our leaders as something quasi-sacred.

The Takeaway: Don’t overthink it.

Madison Cawthorn is a mess, and this is hardly the start of it. If you’re not a MAGA Republican, you hardly need a reason to despise him, but the many allegations of sexual misconduct from college classmates, his absurd and frequent run-ins with the law, and his apparent accusation of a white man working with Cory Booker as a race traitor sure are plenty enough. Even if you are a MAGA Republican, you might not be a fan of the guy who beat a Trump-endorsed candidate for the seat and seemed to accuse Republicans rather than Democrats of being D.C.’s reigning sexual perverts.

That said, the most salacious of the recent revelations have no clear bearing on his fitness for office. What elected officials choose to do privately with other consenting adults or their college-era partying habits don’t really need to be the public’s business.

The less salacious recent revelations—of insider trading and other ethics violations—are, on the other hand, much more worthy of public scrutiny. So too is the fact that Cawthorn seems more interested in putting out sloppy and low-effort content on Twitter than he is in doing his job. He’s a 26 year-old who flunked out of college, and he’s probably going to flunk out of Congress too.

Genuine causes for resignation aside, it seems like we ought to get used to separating out personal or private vulgarities from public responsibilities. We’re going to have to get pretty good at telling where there’s a real problem and where there’s nothing really noteworthy, because hopefully soon we’re going to start seeing more people in Congress from Cawthorn’s generation.

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