President Obama’s eldest daughter Malia has been videoed smoking what appears to be a joint. Cue uproar. First from the critics and secondly from the critics’ critics. This all seems a little over-blown. Neither her nor her younger sister Sasha have put a foot wrong during their fathers’ 8-year presidency, and even if they had I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business but the first family’s.
However, there is a wider point here – does anyone benefit from holding politicians and their families to unachievable standards? Particularly in the age of social media when anyone with a camera phone has an audience. The UK and the US have a particularly juvenile attitude to the private lives of their leaders. The Italians, on the other hand, take a far more liberal approach to what is and is not acceptable in office – Berlusconi’s approval ratings took years to fall to the low of 33% after multiple sex scandals and corruption allegations. With the notable exception of Boris Johnson – who has managed to bounce back from his wrongdoings (romantic or otherwise) with exceptional velocity – most who step out of line or are forced to divulge personal information in the public political sphere don’t get another look in. I should make it clear I’m not talking about actions linked to their office, such as the MPs expenses scandal, but actions or issues which the rest of us reasonably take for granted as unrelated to our professional life.
If we want to encourage the best and the brightest into politics they need reassurance private details of their youth, or indeed adulthood, won’t automatically rule them out. I’m not saying we should actively encourage bad behaviour or take a soft approach to criminality, but if something has been done or said in the past- or in someone’s private life – there is no reason why it should have a bearing on their politics or their ability to do their job. Someone’s past misdemeanor shouldn’t be held against them indefinitely. In fact I would go so far as to say I would rather be represented by someone with a past rather than the squeaky clean, well polished, do-no-wrong class of politician we seem to encourage today.
Having a history and a personality gives people something to relate to. Take Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black, I don’t agree with her party but as an example of a politician she’s great. Her Twitter famously contains gems from her teenage years such as ‘maths is shite’ and ‘Celtic, yer a joke! #scum’. It shows not only does she have a life – or had a life- outside politics but one that is hugely relate-able to many voters, and she’s right – maths is shite.
The case is different, I would argue, for their families where I don’t believe the public has a right to know pretty much anything other than they exist. Were Malia Obama to have a Kardashian style Instagram account, feature on Rich Kids of Instagram alongside Tiffany Trump, have Snapchat or even a Twitter account I would be less sympathetic, but she doesn’t. If she was smoking a joint that’s a matter for her parents (although she is 18) and law enforcement, not for the politically charged and frankly slightly hysterical grasp of the American public. This is teenage daughter of the President, not the President – who will probably have to have the same conversation with her as millions of American parents have had before him.
If we want leaders who truly reflect us and represent our values we need to accept they, and their families, are going to be like us – make mistakes, have indiscretions. We have to let politicians show us who they really are because whitewashing personality runs the risk of electing individuals we know nothing about. There is a palpable desire among western electorates for authentic , more colourful, less polished politicians, just look at the success of Trump and Farage; Boris was Britain’s favourite politician before Brexit.
We need to normalise imperfection in politics lest we get swept away by the first person who is bold enough to show it regardless of their policies. Normalising imperfection would allow the press and electorate to focus on an individual’s politics, not their personality, and we would be better governed for it.