Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson recently faced accusations that he embellished stories in his autobiography of receiving a scholarship offer to West Point, and being named the most honest student in a university course. Carson is far from the first political candidate to face scrutiny for past statements, as with the rise of social media many political candidates have been punished for prior actions. A number of candidates in the Canadian election, such as now infamous Conservative candidates Tim Dutaud and Jerry Bance, were dropped by their parties or resigned when old Facebook posts and Tweets were unearthed. It is sometimes necessary to hold political leaders accountable for past statements in writing, speech, and in social media; however, it can lead to a discounting of real current issues and policies, while creating a culture where any wrong comment is penalized excessively.
Today most young people in North America are active on social media. Already, actions on social media have led to severe repercussions for young politicians. Ala Buzreba, a 21-year-old Liberal candidate in Calgary resigned after offensive tweets from her teen years, came to public attention. As more and more people who came of age with social media run for political office, there will be increasing amounts of past written statements to scrutinize and condemn. There needs to be an allowance for the ability of people to change, and not an automatic disqualification over a past wrongdoing. Buzreba deserved to be taken to task for her past comments, but disqualifying her for past remarks gave her no opportunity to overcome them.
Criticizing past statements is a fair and necessary process but often, coverage of ‘digging up dirt’ in the media is given priority over discussion of the politics and currently held beliefs of public figures. For instance, Liberal candidate Maria Manna resigned after media noticed a previous Facebook post where she claimed that the government narrative of 9/11 was a lie. A colourful personal anecdote such as question 9/11 is more interesting, but opinions on actual policies relating to national security are ultimately more relevant to voters.
The Internet makes it easier to vet political candidates, and gaining full information about candidates is a vital part of democracy; however, voters should not value finding past controversies above real policies and issues. It is entertaining to examine whether Carson was telling the truth in his autobiography about receiving a full scholarship. It also is ultimately immaterial to future policy concerns if Carson correctly remembered a story from 30 years ago. Focusing on a candidate’s personal history should not come at the expense of policy. For instance, Carson said in a 2012 speech that he believes that the theory of evolution was the work of the devil. This is a controversial sentiment but rather than just repudiating Carson for it, it should be questioned with regard to his policies. In light of these previously expressed views, Carson should be asked how specifically his administration would treat scientific views he disagrees with.
It is not enough to just criticize candidates for past statements in today’s political culture; instead these statements must be evaluated and examined on how they impact policy. The beliefs of politicians affect the way they govern and the policies they propose. In focusing only on the sensationalism of past statements, voters fail to evaluate a politician on their current attitudes and representative abilities. Politicians must not be scrutinized for former statements, as social media may retain perspectives that have long since changed.
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