Politics & Policy

A Thousand Cuts

Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina appears on Good Morning America, April 2, 2012. (ABC)
Unscrupulous personal attacks can drive women out of politics.

‘One of Margaret Thatcher’s defining characteristics as a politician was a need for enemies. To fuel the aggression that drove her career she had to find new antagonists all the time to be successfully demonized, confronted and defeated.”

John Campbell in his book The Iron Lady devotes an entire chapter to this unusual premise. In simple terms, Campbell maintains that the “power” attributed to Mrs. Thatcher was partly of her own making, an aura created by picking fights with adversaries she knew she could defeat. Since there is no way to verify this contention, let us consider a larger and more fundamental question: Do women in politics set themselves up to be attacked, or are women in politics attacked because they can be — because it is considered acceptable?

#ad#Speculation about the potential downfall of Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has spanned her entire tenure. The rumors have been constant and rampant. Since her election, legal and ethics challenges have regularly been filed against her. Lest we forget, it was claimed that the governor had misused health-care-reform funds; this case made national news when a Democratic congressman piled on. The Department of Justice eventually dropped the case, and late last month, a circuit court ruled that there were “no ethics violations” in the actions taken by the governor.

Then, late last week, new rumors crescendoed of an indictment that was purportedly forthcoming. A writer for the Palmetto Public Record website asserted:

Two well-placed legal experts have independently told Palmetto Public Record they expect the U.S. Department of Justice to issue an indictment against South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on charges of tax fraud as early as this week. A highly-ranked federal official has also privately confirmed rumblings of an investigation and possible indictment of the governor, though the official was not aware of the specific timeframe.

The next day, a writer for the American Thinker website, Rick Moran, picked up the story, claiming that

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley may be in trouble with the IRS. Specifically, the investigation that is currently underway centers on a Sikh temple built by her father, that she managed the finances for as late as 2003. Fraud is alleged in the handling of the contracts.

In a mea culpa article the next day, Moran wrote:

My face is a little red this morning having printed what we now know is a false story about the imminent indictment of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for tax fraud relating to the construction of a Sikh temple involving her family. I’m not the only one with egg on my face this morning. Most major media outlets picked up the Palmetto Public Record report, supposedly sourced by three independent government officials, about the coming indictment of Haley.

According to Moran, the IRS wrote a letter to the Sikh organization that was building the temple, telling it that no investigation was pending.

Repeated erroneous allegations like these can create a scenario of death by a thousand cuts. The metaphorical death is not just that of the public figure under attack, but also that of the political system itself, which becomes an object of contempt over time, resulting in voter apathy. After a while, the general public as well as the politician under attack become worn down. This happens slowly, in many unnoticed increments; often the cut is not perceived as unfair until it’s too late.

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To a certain extent we — the public — are all complicit in the personal destruction of our public figures. For whatever reason, we do not hold the liars accountable. We read and discuss their lies, thus empowering them. Then sometimes, on rare occasions, an apology is quietly issued — as if to say, “Oops, I am sorry I maligned you, your reputation, your position” — and that quiet apology somehow is supposed to make it all right.

Why is this behavior tolerated, and where are the governor’s defenders? If allegations continue to be leveled against her, we should demand proof. If none is forthcoming, then we must stop listening. Every minute, hour, or day spent focusing on the conjecture of those wishing to destroy a public figure is wasted time. We share in that responsibility.

#ad#How does one react to lies? Repeating them, even to refute them, fuels the lie and empowers the liar. By engaging an allegation, we give it wings. But ignoring a lie just breeds more of the same. Where once we relied on a journalistic code of ethics to distinguish truth from fiction, today anyone can write anything, and unless expensive lawsuits are brought, the lies will continue. Those in public office therefore often do nothing.

And women bear the brunt of it. Melinda Henneberger, a political writer for the Washington Post, wrote in a March article:

A major reason there aren’t more women in elected office is that, having seen how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, among others, were treated when they ran, a number of prospective female candidates have decided they’re not up for more of the same. . . . For a 2007 book I wrote about women voters, I traveled to 20 states and talked to hundreds of women of all political stripes. And the thing I heard most often, in all regions of the country and from women of every age, race, tax bracket, and political leaning, was that the toxicity of the process was such a turnoff that they could barely stand to tune in at all.

She continues:

What can those of us who do not sit on the Supreme Court do? Stop supporting the extremes and rewarding negative attacks, that’s what. We all play some part in the tone of the conversation and, as consumers, in defining what’s fair and unfair commentary. . . . I have to wonder if anyone who’d describe Michele Bachmann as the “queen of rage” ever heard her extremely conservative but calm, low-decibel pitch. When magazine covers like that stop selling, they’ll stop being printed.

Women are not asking for anything but a level playing field. The intensity of the scrutiny they are subjected to, coupled with an acceptance of the way they are vilified, must be acknowledged and stopped. If women in politics set themselves up to be attacked by their own actions, they should be held accountable. But if women in politics are attacked because they seem especially tempting targets, because it is considered acceptable, because no one speaks out, we will all lose.

— Karen Floyd is the publisher of www.palladianview.com, a digital magazine for conservative Republican women.

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