In The Era of Trump, Does Shame Still Matter?

Yes, it has led to political corruption. But the death of shame may help Democrats avoid the timidity that has previously sunk their agenda.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump at a 2016 debate. Source: Flickr

In the past three years, shame has gone from a significant aspect of American political life to yet another shattered norm. Shame used to be powerful enough to provoke resignations and firings throughout the political world. It was one of the cornerstones of political leadership and the politician’s relationship with the public. The power of shame pushed countless governors, senators, and cabinet officials to quick resignations, sometimes even before the news release detailing their embarrassing deeds. While it no longer led to fatal duels like in the 19th century, shame could still push a politician to take action or do better.

But with the ascent of President Donald Trump, it became clear that shame no longer has the power it once held. There are a wide variety of books and articles declaring the death of shame. Shameful actions seem to occur on a daily basis. This trend arguably began after the Republican campaign, when Trump’s humiliated former opponents all bowed in acquiescence and became staunch supporters. “Ted Cruz’s embarrassing ode to Donald Trump is why people hate politicians,” Chris Cilizza wrote in 2018 on Cruz’s acceptance of the president. He continued, “people already believe that politicians will say and do anything to get (or stay) elected. That they have no backbones. That all they care about is winning. [Cruz’s fawning portrayal of Trump in a 2018 Time article] will — and should — only reinforce that view.”

The collapse of shame has accelerated since the Trump inauguration. Cabinet officials who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money continue to serve in their posts. Federal officials ignore demands to recuse themselves in cases that may benefit them. Disgraced political candidates soldier on through even the most embarrassing revelations.

The death of shame has mostly been viewed, like almost every political problem over the past three years, through the lens of Trump. But in fact, it can apply to Democrats in much the same way. Ending shame can even push Democratic leaders out of the complacency that has held them back over the past two decades.

A lack of shame has driven many of the Democrats currently running for president. Some of these men and women have been severely criticized from all corners of political media. They have been pilloried for their lackluster standings in numerous polls, their bland policy prescriptions, and their refusal to run for more promising Senate seats. For instance, a Salon article published after Montana Governor Steve Bullock announced his run quipped, “Outside of Helena and Butte, the national reaction to Bullock’s candidacy was two words: ‘Who?’ followed almost immediately by ‘Why?!’” Shame should have pushed Bullock back to Montana and John Hickenlooper back to Colorado to prepare for Senate bids. Their resilience shows that shame, while sometimes powerful online, has little power over these determined office seekers.

In addition to expanding the presidential field, the end of shame may also result in a different approach to governance once Democrats are again in power. Republicans became adept at shaming Democrats throughout the Obama presidency, mainly for contributing to the deficit. Their ability to make Democrats feel ashamed for their policies was a factor in the weakening of Obama’s health care and stimulus laws. Such decisions influenced the anemic economic recovery and the lingering discontent that eventually played a role in Trump’s 2016 victory. Democrats were too ashamed of their own policies to embrace them in a way that would protect their political futures.

Democrats must learn to overcome the feeling of shame when they once again regain power. They will be blasted on a daily basis for every action they take. Republicans will broadcast numerous alleged hypocrisies and violated taboos via their media partners in an attempt to embarrass Democrats and stymie their agenda. Like Republicans, Democrats need to remember that their political fortunes depend not on avoiding shame but on delivering policies for their constituents. The death of shame seems awful now. But it may end up being the key to saving the Democratic Party.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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