Why Scandals Are A Necessary And Healthy Part of A Liberal Democracy

By Alicia Dawn Peterpaul

In this essay I will argue that scandals are a necessary component of liberal democracies. I will do this by first defining what a scandal is, then I will illustrate the characteristics of scandals within liberal democracies, and why they can’t work in non-democratic regimes. Then I will discuss what democracy is and how it was created, along with what types of cleavages contributed to the growth of liberal democracy. I will describe how scandals are necessary in a liberal democracy, and how democracies and scandals work together in a sense that they never get too out of hand, as democracy can also help reduce corruption. I will also examine the role of the media within liberal democracies. Finally, I will ultimately argue that scandals are necessary component of a liberal democracy.

Gossip and rumour often come before an actual political scandal, and they tend to be in association with corruption and bribery. (Thompson, 2000) Scandals promote solidarity and also help to keep elected representatives to not stray too far from the norms of their positions. When such elected representatives are not following the norms or bend the rules the public notices and becomes outraged. Scandals are definitely a positive way to ensure that these norms are not bent too far or that elites deviate too far from said norms. (Sass and Crosbie, 2013) Often it is hard to conduct studies on scandals because they aren’t always easy to identify, however, there are some common components to them. They tell a story about what had happened, and really blow the story up; the public is then free to decide how they feel about the scandal. They begin with accusations and assumptions and also get a lot of media coverage. The accused typically tries to deny the scandal or either admit to it, and then tries to recuperate and get back to normal as things were before the scandal surfaced. (Brenton, 2012) Other components of scandals that are recurring is the destruction of social norms, with selfish or careless intentions. Once somebody is accused of the scandal the media deliberate, debate and engage in the incident(s). Scandals require the public’s reaction as much as it requires the deviant behaviour of a politician. (Brenton, 2012)

Defining democracy is not easy to do as it is a very complex concept. However, there are some things one can take note of to better grasp the concept of democracy. Making sure that the public’s interest and voice is heard and prioritized. Also, the ability to govern with a sense of harmony. Democracies also consist of individuals following certain norms as a way of self-governing themselves. Lastly education is a very important feature of democracy as it helps individuals to self-govern themselves. (Anderson, 2004) The idealistic goal of democracy would to have a community/state that would agree on things and work together to achieve them, or help each other achieve goals together willingly even if it is not their goal. (Lowi, 1988) Members of liberal democracies usually maintain the habit of defending themselves and also fellow citizens dignity, both locally and globally; they do this with a shared interest of morals and norms. (Ober, 2010)

The only regime that allow for the public to scrutinize and, in a sense, punish politicians for their behaviours are liberal democracies. Scandals are not a threat to liberal democracies. Breton notes that scandals demonstrate the public’s freedom of speech; precisely in a healthy, liberal democracy. In other words, in a healthy democracy, the public should be free to scrutinize their elites when their actions are dissatisfactory or highly frowned upon. (Breton, 2012) Political Scandals are treated as though they are a natural part of a healthy democracy. Without scandals, a democracy would not impossible, however, it would mean that either elected representatives are not being held responsible for their actions or that they do not have the freedom to accessible media. (Brenton, 2012) Scandals have a way of engaging the public, even those who would normally be uninterested in political happenings. This engagement of the public can even cause disengaged citizens to vote, which proves to be a difficult thing to do amongst many democratic states. When citizens are able to, in a sense, hold politicians responsible when they deviate their behaviour from what is normal, there is a much stronger sense of confidence for the public. (Brenton, 2012) In order for political scandals to happen, freedom of media and freedom of press need to be present as it is in a liberal democracy. Another important feature of a liberal democracy that needs to be present for a scandal to occur is the competition for power; And as we know in authoritarian regimes for example, the option to choose leaders is nonexistent. (Brenton, 2012) There are many different types of scandals that can occur in a liberal democracy as opposed to the far-from-peaceful scandals of other regimes. These types of scandals can be over power, financial matters or sexual scandals. Another type of scandal that is able to emerge out of a liberal democracy is mediated scandals, astonishing enough liberal democracies actually have different levels of severity in scandals. Mediated ones aren’t so much of a shock to the public as the others might be. Scandals in liberal democracies are typically are of the mediated form and is usually kept at a level that consists of locality and media. (Thompson, 2000) In liberal democracies there is always a choice factor, so politicians must gain their reputation as well as the support of the public, so there is a competing factor where the opposing parties will bring scandals to the surface for debate. Scandal can easily take down a good reputation. (Thompson, 2000)

In regimes other than the liberal democratic sort, scandals do not exist because the leaders will find a way to take control of the situation and conceal their wrong doings from the public to avoid both the criticism and the precautions the discipline to the scandal. In any regime other than a liberal democracy, scandals are considered a threat to the system as a whole. Observing political scandals in this sense, you can understand that scandals are a necessary part of a healthy democracy. (Brenton, 2012) What is political scandal to members of a liberal democratic regime, is known as violence for one that is not; Only liberal democratic regimes can engage in this type of conflict without violence. When scandals happen in authoritarian regimes they are usually about violation to the procedure and process of the regime, rather than about sex and personal matters. (Brenton, 2012) In authoritarian regimes the media is usually controlled by the state, so the media is not able to discuss any scandals that may be going on, and as we have previously discussed the public’s reaction is a major part of a scandal. Power usually only remains in the hands of the political elite and the system itself in regimes other than liberal democratic ones. (Thompson, 2000)

Scandals have adapted to modern political life and perhaps have always been as much as a phenomenon as they were in the past only now it is very easily disclosed to the public with the rise of new media and technology. Politicians are much more visible now than ever before, therefore they are more prone to scandals. (Thompson, 2000) Scandals work to enhance the public’s conscience collective, a term that Lowi carefully constructs. He describes it as the integrity that comes along with holding powerful positions in political institutions. The conscience collective also consists of remaining statist and that the division of power should go to serve the people. (Lowi, 1988) Democracy in its purest form would be an entire community working together to help reach common goals, and we know that is far from easy. Whereas Liberalism in its natural form was originally the people liberating together against a feudal state where their fates were already pre-determined, they wanted to make choices of where they worked, what religion they wanted to follow, etc. Combine the two of these and you have states and communities alike that fear authority drastically. (Lowi, 1988) However, there is still the need for governance – just not too much, so this is the route of where you will find scandals. The tensions the public have towards political leaders and the system, the deep fears that stem from both liberalism and democracy lie beneath the public’s scrutiny for scandal. Constantly keeping an eye of the ones in control of power just to make sure to never let go of it to be controlled as they once were before. That being said, scandals are only able to appear in liberal democracies. (Lowi, 1988) The recipe for scandal is the combination of liberalism and democracy and the industrial state; it is merely two opposing forces clashing together. No other regimes possess such a distant relationship between the state and the public and the public. Lowi refers to the way Liberal democracies interact with the state as miraculous. (Lowi, 1988) Jimenez also chooses to take a very similar approach to Lowi’s when considering how scandals emerge. He notes that on one side of the spectrum you have the public discussion and what they make of it, which in a sense, is almost trying to dictate leadership when they enforce their norms so heavily and strongly upon authority. (Jimenez, 2004) Rudderman and Levitte have also studied this phenomenon, that scandals are caused by the two extreme opposites trying to merge together to create a system that works. However, by this logic at least, is not going very well at all. (Rudderman and Nevitte, 2015) Scandals are a product of this push and pull between the two radically different forces that can only stem from liberal democracies. Lowi notes that scandals are the tensions of these two differences coming to life and into an actual tangible thing. (Lowi, 1988) Garrard and Newell have a corresponding theory towards liberal democracies as others I have previously mentioned. Their theory is very similar to that of Lowi’s, however not completely the same. One thing that does remain the same though, is their take of liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. In Garrard and Newell state that authoritarian regimes have very high levels of corruption but are never held responsible for them, and scandals rarely occur. (Garrard and Newell, 2006) Liberal democratic states or ones who are moving towards liberal democracies are most likely to experience scandals. They have more scandals because the public is more skeptical of their political leaders and the media has much more freedom. Politicians are expected to convey trust as well as the concept of responsible government. (Garrard and Newell, 2006) Citizens of liberal democracies may even enjoy scandalizing politicians as doing so is easy and not punishable. The media plays a huge part in scandals because the media itself is known to be scandalous and it is very easy for them to quickly spread tons of information. (Garrard and Newell, 2006)

Scandals are often more interesting to the public causing them to be more likely to engage in politics.  Much more people will be offended in the event of a scandal, provoking much more focus on the issue. This is a positive phenomenon because it is not wrong to distrust elites when they are untrustworthy. (Brenton, 2012) In a healthy democracy one must have access to as much information possible, and as freely as possible, and then hold the freedom to make a decision with such information. Breton notes that scandals are equally a result of the scandalous action(s) and the public opinion. Scandals require the public to flourish, so scandals play a key role in getting the public engaged in politics. (Brenton, 2012) Most scandals often are open for the public to judge for themselves. They encourage the public to discuss and debate the scandal. (Brenton, 2012) Scandals should not just be seen as partisan tactics, but rather the publics approach to facing issues that they might have with democracy itself.  Scandals do not weaken the public’s longing for a better democracy but instead weaken their satisfaction for it (Rudderman and Livette, 2015) aside from their levels of dissatisfaction, the claim that only liberal democracies can have scandals remains firm.

Boviera states that: “the road to democracy is paved with scandal and corruption” (Boviera, 2014) In Southeast Asia where at times democracy and at others not, the road to democracy has been closely examined and it has been found that corruption and scandals play a key role in shaping democracy. (Boviera, 2014) Ultimately, scandals work to strengthen the overall political system of democracy. Scandals are not to be seen as chaotic, even though the public becomes enraged with them, but rather a normal part of both democracy and a political system. citizens maintain the right to be skeptical of leaders if necessary and should feel free to express their level of contentment towards leaders. (Brenton 2012)

Partisan politics play a huge role in scandals, given the fact that the opposing parties tend to scrutinize each other in a much harsher manner. Scandals are actually so popular that they are actually the only things that disengaged or apolitical citizens know about politicians. (Bhatti et al, 2013) However, how a party is scrutinized depends on the party, for instance there are things that the right wing will be scrutinized much heavily for than the left, and vice versa. Scandals are examined more harshly by the opposing party. (Bhatti et al, 2013)

Democracy however, happens to work both ways as well, just as scandals ensure the way for a better democracy. Democracy itself can actually reduce corruption. In fact, in countries that are underdeveloped, democracies prove to significantly reduce corruption. Also, the more deepened a democracy is, the less corruption there is likely to be. (Kolstad and Wiig, 2015)

Curran seeks to understand the role that media plays in democracy. He found that entertainment and media relates to democracy in four key ways. The first way is how both democracies and the media debate about values, whether it be by the media upholding a national identity to a particular country or it films can also encourage liberalism or other types of political regimes, films and TV shows convey political messages about shared norms and values. (Curran, 2011) Media also contributes to the form of a social identity, Curran explains that media can be a way for different people to experiment with different styles or subcultures until they find the one that fits them best. Media also adheres to the social identities that they already possess, such as race, gender, religion, sex, etc. In turn, this effects how people view themselves and ultimately, how they will vote. (Curran, 2011) Curran’s third way of media and democracy is how media can help make sense of reality; it may be through films about war, conveying the message of its importance and that funding for war is essential. (Curran, 2011) The last way that media and democracy intertwine according to Curran is through the media having the ability to strengthen or weaken norms. If many films have the message that gay marriage is normal, it is much easier for the public to accept that gay marriage is acceptable. The same theory applies to both religion and gender, and many other types of social norms. (Curran, 2011) Curran also states that liberal democracies should have the absolute freedom to media and opinion, and that the media often scrutinizes power through media. Democracy believes that it should be well informed, and when it is not it fights back, and you can see how the tension for scandals gradually builds. (Curran, 2011) Social media can give way to extremely radical positions about democracy. Social media is a safe way for extremists to express themselves, in situations they normally would not feel comfortable in doing so. (Dahlberg, 2011) Liberal democracies can express themselves via digital media for the world to see, so that online becomes a digital democracy, where people are free to express themselves however they like. Small groups that never have their voices heard, can suddenly merge together and be heard in a space that is open for all to hear. Tensions build against the system once they get an understanding of what they think democracy should be. In non-democracies, protests and riots take place in the name of democracy. (Dahlberg, 2011) Starr argues in her article that democracy has been held to a higher degree as a result of new media, and that scandals are much more likely to happen because government documentation is on the internet for everybody to openly view for themselves. (Starr, 2010) Mineur argues that there is now universal morals and norms and it is really affecting legal system around the world. (Mineur, 2012)

The politics of trust plays a key role in the publics opinion of politicians, people want to know that they are able to trust somebody in charge of their country. Opposing parties usually use scandals against each other in hopes to promote distrust in their opponents. (Brenton, 2012) Typically, scandals are aimed at one particular politician, rather than the entire party so the power of partisan scandals can come on very harshly. At the same time that scandals weaken the public’s trust or confidence in a politician, it’s also strengthening that democracy. Generally, scandals= violate the trust of the public for their own personal gain. (Brenton, 2012) Social and cultural changes have contributed to the emergence of what only appears to be a sudden up rise of scandals as the crucial demand for politics of trust grows. As citizens grow more skeptical and lack trust for leaders the politics of trust plays a key role as to why scandals have surfaced in a much fiercer essence than ever before. (Thompson, 2000)


Politicians in democratic states maintain a high level of integrity, often times, there politicians will resign over adultery. This is closely linked to the trust; people like to know that they have voted in an individual who is trustworthy. (Brenton, 2012) Politicians are expected to hold a level of charisma while adhering to an unspoken moral code of their dominant positions, so even sex scandals can be offensive to the public. However, often times when politicians are not up to any illegal scandals, the opposing parties along with the media turn their attention to the personal lives of leaders. (Brenton, 2012)

In this essay I have argued that scandals are a necessary component of liberal democracies. I briefly defined what a scandal is, as well as the characteristics of scandals within liberal democracies, and why they can’t work in non-democratic regimes. I have also briefly discussed what democracy is and how it was created, along with what types of cleavages contributed to the growth of liberal democracy. I have argued that scandals are necessary in a liberal democracy, and how democracies and scandals work together in a sense that they never get too out of hand, as democracy can also help reduce corruption. I have examined the role of the media in liberal democracies, and I have shown that scandals are in fact a product of a liberal democracy.

Works Cited:

  • Anderson, J. L. (2004). What is democracy?Kappa Delta Pi Record, 41(1), 4-6. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/232054239?accountid=12378
  • Sass, Jensen, and Thomas 2 . 2013. “Democracy and Scandal: A Research Agenda.”Comparative Sociology 12, no. 6: 851-862. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 17, 2016).
  • Kolstad, Ivar, and Arne Wiig. “Does Democracy Reduce Corruption?”Democratization, 2015, 1-21.
  • Brenton, Scott. 2012. “Scandals as a Positive Feature of Liberal Democratic Politics: A Durkheimian perspective.”Comparative Sociology 11, no. 6: 815-844. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 17, 2016).
  • John B. Thompson, 2000, Political Scandal: Power And Visibility in The Media Age, Polity Press.
  • Ivar Kolstad and Arne Wiig, “Does democracy reduce corruption?”, Democratization, September 24, 2015, pages 1-21
  • Theodore J. Lowi, The Politics of Scandal: Power And Process in Liberal Democracies, 1988, Holmes &Meier Publishers, Inc.
  • Jimenez, F. (2004). The politics of scandal in spain: Morality plays, social trust, and the battle for public opinion.The American Behavioral Scientist, 47(8), 1099-1121. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/214783614?accountid=12378
  • Nick Rudderman and Neil Nevitte, “Assessing the Impact of Political Scanadals on Attitudes toward Democracy: Evidence from Canada’s Sponsorship Scandal,”Canadian Journal of political Science, August 18, 2016, page 351
  • John Garrard and James Newell, Scandals in Past and Contemporary Politics, Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press, 2006.
  • Curran, James. 2011.Media and Democracy. Oxford: Routledge, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2016).
  • Lincoln Dahlberg, Re-constructing Digital Democracy: An Outline of Four ‘Positions’, New Media and Society, September 2011, Volume 13 (6), pages 855-872.
  • Starr, Paul. 2010. “The Liberal State in a Digital World.”Governance 23, no. 1: 1-6. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2016).
  • MINEUR, DIDIER. 2012. “The Moral Foundation of Law and the Ethos of Liberal Democracies.”Ratio Juris 25, no. 2: 133-148. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 18, 2016).
  • OBER, JOSIAH. “Democracy’s Dignity.”The American Political Science Review 106, no. 4 (2012): 827-46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23357711.



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