The Role of Political Spouses – A Discussion

From: Bronwyn Stippa
Sent: 20 July 2011 19:23
To: Jack Campbell
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Concerning the question of whether spouses should matter:

As far as I can tell there are two camps: One argues that politicians’ personal lives (including personal relationships) are irrelevant to their public work. If they do a good job, it shouldn’t really matter what their spouses are doing.

This is a nice ideal, but I think it’s naïve.

Personal character is largely factored into assessing political merit. After all, politicians are chosen to not only DO, but to BE representatives. Thus, it may be argued that as public figures, politicians’ personal lives should be scrutinized. Since spouses (generally) are the central ‘others’ in people’s lives, following their activity can be particularly telling.

Thoughts?

________________________________________

From: Jack Campbell
Sent: 21 July 2011 11:41
To: Bronwyn Stippa
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Bronwyn,

I agree that it is naive to attempt to completely detach politicians from their spouses given that we inevitably do scrutinise politician’s personal lives. Similarly, I also accept that following the activities of politician’s spouses may be ‘telling’. However, some political spouses are, or have been, more than merely one of many aspects of a politician’s personality.

Some political spouses have been able to wield real power, simply by virtue of being in a relationship with an elected politician. From where do ‘activist’ political spouses gain legitimacy for their overtly political actions (for instance, Hilary Clinton’s work on healthcare reform in the 1990s)? Whilst spouses will undoubtedly play some role in politics, it is important for a successful democracy that they do not become unelected politicians.

Thanks

________________________________________

Jack,

But is the political power that a spouse can wield really any different from the power that any celebrity wields? (i.e. Geri Halliwell,  Angelina Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Ronald Reagan were all public figures before they became successful activists and politicians). Purely in virtue of their status, public figures have a better chance of getting the ears of people and access to forums that us plebs can’t.

And besides, I’d rather have spouses pushing their agendas openly rather than exerting covert Lady Macbeth-style influence over their partners.

What do you think?

________________________________________

From: Jack Campbell
Sent: 24 July 2011 18:17
To: Bronwyn Stippa
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Bronwyn,

Sorry it’s been a few days-I came down with a chronic case of man flu.

The analogy comparing the power of political spouses to those of other high profile public figures is fundamentally flawed. I acknowledge that a range of public figures do possess influence without the legitimacy that popular election confers. However, the key distinction with political spouses that this analogy ignores is that they are (usually) extremely close to the real levers of power- closer even than many elected politicians who do have this legitimacy.

Whether spouses are pushing forward their agenda in the open or in secret is irrelevant. The fact is that some political spouses are, at times, able to wield power far beyond that which democratic theory suggests they should.

Cheers,

Jack

________________________________________

From: Bronwyn Stippa
Sent: 29 July 2011 16:23
To: Jack Campbell
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Hey Jack,

While spouses can throw their heft behind an Act, they can’t themselves introduce an Act in Congress. You cited Hilary Clinton earlier: She was actually put in charge of the task force to sell Clinton’s health care plan to the public. While she certainly served a quasi-offical role in it’s promotion, it was still Bill’s brain-child.

Or take Michelle Obama and the Child Nutrition Act — she’s hailed as the Act’s champion, but she doesn’t have special powers to push it through Congress.  It stalled in the House of Representatives and she couldn’t do anything about it.  It’s not as if the Act would in no way have been passed or introduced without Michelle, she just gave a voice to a not-so-glamorous issue.

So, at least concerning American politics, I still maintain that spouses are a species of celebrity lobbyist: they have the ear of the President and the heart of the public. This being so, they can be the face of any piece of legislation they choose to back, but this power still does not come any closer to the power of an elected official.

Hope you’re feeling better. This stateside heat-wave has been like living with a fever….

Bronwyn

________________________________________

From: Jack Campbell
Sent: 02 August 2011 00:07
To: Bronwyn Stippa
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Bronwyn,

I think that you overstate the importance of constitutional formalities at the expense of the importance of informal political power. The actual legislative procedure is but one small part of the political process that political spouses (and anyone else in a position of influence-elected or otherwise) are able to influence in many different ways.

Ultimately, you seem to be suggesting that, as political spouses are nothing more than ‘celebrity lobbyists’ (in the case of American politics at least), their power cannot come close to that of elected politicians and therefore they do not play a particularly significant role. In contrast, I suggest that, irrespective of the level of power they hold (which incidentally I believe is, in many cases significantly greater than elected politicians and more significant than you acknowledge), the fact that they have some degree of power which they do not legitimately hold is problematic.

Thus, in an ideal democratic system, political spouses would not matter.

Best,

Jack

________________________________________

Hi Jack,

Your argument does not seem inconsistent from my previous point: namely, that spouses’ informal political power derives from their being members of the larger set of influential people in general, whose power derives from their wealth, celebrity status or job description (i.e. politicians, lobbyists). While we don’t cast a ballot for public figures, by not either (1) refusing/ failing to take heed of them and their doings, or, (2) if we don’t like what they are advocating for, actively fighting against them, we bestow and acknowledge their informal power upon. Public figures exist because we, the public, sustain them. I’m unclear as to what circumstances spouses might have MORE power than elected officials.  Perhaps a few examples of problematic spousal activity would have been helpful on this point?

So, in sum, I agree with your final statement and would push it further:

In an ideal democratic system, politicians would not have personal lives or relationships.

But, as it stands, the activities of political spouses don’t seem to me to be an especially dire threat to the democracy.

This has been fun! Enjoy your vacation!

Bronwyn

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