By Bryson Piscitelli, Editor-in-Chief
This post was originally published in our September-October 2020 magazine, which you can view here.
Cal’s heart was racing. His fingers trembled in excitement as he gripped his phone, totally immersed in the chat. He knew
it would end his career if it ever got out… but wasn’t that the most thrilling part?
3:02 PM, a message from her. “Almost time for my afternoon nap,” he thought, “but I’ve got time for a little fun before I have to go home and see my kids.”
Good Lord! He almost couldn’t contain himself. His heart throbbed. And that she was a disabled veteran’s wife made it ten times more exciting… the guy was contemplating killing himself because his wife was cheating on him with ‘the politician,’ too, and that was the real maraschino cherry on top of the adultery sundae. A little nugget of conscience bit at him from in the back of his mind, telling him that it was wrong, but it was swept up into a current of lustful, digital intoxication. He knew he had to think of a reply that was as ‘historically sexy’ as his mistress.
Cal racked his brain through the thesaurus of lexical knowledge he had picked up in JAG school. He knew just what to say, and his fingers flew across the touchscreen.
He hit send. “You’ve still got it Cal!” He said aloud. “That old Cunning Ham charm!”
What you’ve just read is a slightly dramatized, yes, but we know from Senate-hopeful Cal Cunningham’s own public admission that all the information related to the adultery scandal is completely factual. Not ‘former Senate candidate Cal Cunningham,’ but still running, and supposedly still leading in the polls, candidate for Senate James Calvin Cunningham III.
How can this be? In most of American history, an adultery scandal was enough to take down even the mightiest political giants, and an immediate disqualifier for comparatively puny hopefuls like Cunningham. Alexander Hamilton, author of the Federalist Papers, Revolutionary War hero and father of the National Treasury, saw his prospects for the presidency vanish the moment he admitted to having a secret affair. Bill Clinton became only the third President of the United States to be impeached after an affair was revealed with White House staffer Monica Lewinsky. And who can forget Cal’s idol, NC Senator John Edwards, whose 2008 presidential run was destroyed after he admitted to fathering a child in an affair to escape his cancer-afflicted wife?
Since the 2010s, but especially since 2015, this rule has seemingly evaporated. The most obvious maverick to buck the requirements of marital fidelity was Donald Trump, current President of the United States. Remember that when Trump’s idol Ronald Reagan was running for President in 1980, it was scandalous that he had even been divorced! Trump’s three wives and countless accusers made that a trifle. In the same trend, 2017 Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore only received 1.7% less of the vote than his opponent, Democrat Doug Jones, even after a series of sexual accusations led to most all of the Republican Party withdrawing their support.
The reason is as simple as it is reflective of our national polarization: for the political world of 2020, decency doesn’t matter.
Consider what would happen if Joe Biden was caught on tape molesting a child— most of UNC’s student body would turn a blind eye. This is not unbelievable considering that Biden’s own son has done worse while under Joe’s protective wing, yet the student body (and most of urban America) remains nearly unanimous in its milquetoast social-democratic voting habits. The same is true of Donald Trump; we all remember how certain tapes about ‘grabbing,’ and a stripper named Stormy,
were ultimately inconsequential in Trump’s election performance.
In the so-called #MeToo era, (though we are really in the #BeKind #WearAMask #BLM era now), one would expect admitting to sexual misconduct would be a swift end to any man’s federal election campaign. Yet if the polls are right, in a few weeks Mr. Cunningham will be elected as one of North Carolina’s two U.S. Senators.
I dislike the word ‘polarization’ because it implies that the electorate is coalescing around two poles; crowding the bow and the stern of the same ship that is the American political spectrum. The truth is more that the country has boarded two very different ships— like the old frigate that is the USS Constitution versus a free-love nudist cruise ship perhaps— with very different courses and even different manifests, different nautical slang, and different laws of the sea.
This concept is explained brilliantly in New York Times columnist Christopher Caldwell’s new book The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, where he asserts that instead of polarization, America has two segments
of the population adhering to two different constitutions. The right generally reveres the actual U.S. Constitution and is in the same continuum of aesthetics and historical values originating in the founding era, while the left follows a revolutionary set of values, texts and norms that find basis in the various progressive social revolutions of the 20th century. Where the right has the Constitution, the left has the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Obergefell v. Hodges and Roe v. Wade. Where we have the Federalist Papers, they have The Feminine Mystique.
These two moral structures (not necessarily the laws themselves) are irreconcilable, particularly because the left ultimately regards the basis of American society and government as illegitimate. America’s original sin— foundation by slaveowning white patriarchs— can be used to declare void practically any moral, aesthetic, or political value originating in the era before 1963.
Thus the reason for the modern electorate’s disregard for infidelity is obvious. The two great political tribes of America consider their own success, i.e. their own power, as more important than the conduct of their leaders. And because the two tribes have disparate moral compasses, they regard their opposite’s victory as a triumph of infidels. From this we see why the two sides are more interested in outpopulating their opponents (facilitating foreign migration to urban areas where immigrants vote overwhelmingly Democratic, or the ‘Conservative Moving Service’ that hopes to bring Californian refugees to keep Texas red in the face of Hispanic settlement). In other words, hoping for bipartisanship is about as unrealistic as hoping
for the Crusaders and Saracens to jointly write the laws of Jerusalem.
So what can we expect of this situation? In the same way that the Tsarists and the Bolsheviks didn’t exactly sit down and negotiate a Compromise of 1850, (their negotiations looked more like Sharpsburg) I personally believe this fundamental rift is going to reach a head at some point, probably after the election on November 3rd. But for the time being, politicians are off their usual leash.