Election Ethics – Can Superheroes Ethically Support a Candidate?
Here’s a hypothetical. With Obama and Romney neck and neck in the polls, they need a big story to give them that edge. With the Hispanic vote set, the Rust Belt tapped out, and women voters undecided, the only vote left to tap is the ever-volatile superhero vote. So the Romney campaign reaches out to well-known conservative Hawkman, while the Obama campaign tries to renew the coveted endorsement of Spiderman.
While plenty of comics and commentators have questioned whom various superheros would endorse, a better question is whether or not its ethical for a superhero to endorse a candidate at all. Certainly some heroes would have a preference for one candidate over another. If Mitt Romney favored increased security at Arkham, Batman would have good reason to stand behind him. If Barack Obama advocated an increased minimum airplane altitude, Superman may appreciate the extra room to fly.
But Superheros have a factor which precludes them from endorsing a candidate: a secret identity. We’re not saying heroes can’t have a secret identity; after all, living a normal life requires some separation between the hero and the person under the mask. A secret identity also prevents conflicts of interest, so if Batman suspected a competitor of Wayne Enterprises of a nefarious scheme, he could take care of it without being accused of corporate espionage. But the endorsement process would suffer if masked celebrities could endorse candidates. First of all, the endorsement process only works if the viewing public can see who gives the endorsement and understands their motivations. As long as heroes have secret identities, heroes cannot reveal all of their motivations to the public without revealing their identities. Next, it gives heroes an unfair “second voice” in the election. It means both famous test pilot Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern could support, say, Obama, even though they should only have one voice. Finally, it creates the space for malfeasance. Nothing would stop a politician from making a back room deal with a hero’s secret identity in exchange for the hero’s support.
In short, to be completely ethical, a political endorsement requires transparency on the part of the person giving the endorsement. As long as a hero has a secret identity, transparency is impossible.
A few ethical considerations to iron out first:
- Note that I’m not conflating superheros with their secret identities. Bruce Wayne may have an interest in lower tax rates for the wealthy, and he would be free to campaign as Bruce Wayne to support a candidate who agrees. But it would be a clear conflict of interest for BATMAN to endorse a candidate for the same reason. A superhero is not their secret identity, and the role of a superhero is different from the role of their secret identity. The two should ethically be kept distinct to avoid conflicts of interest.
- Superheros with no secret identity are free to support whomever they like. Charles Xavier spends a great deal of time advocating against anti-mutant senators, but he does so as himself. This would also apply to superheros who wear a mask, even though everyone knows who they really are. So this little girl is totally in the clear.
- People need to stop dressing up as Captain America at political rallies, dammit. The costumes aren’t flattering, and Captain America doesn’t represent a party or a political position- he represents the American values of sacrifice and valor at their best. So, this is wrong:
This is right:
Cap protects the space for people to have their political disagreement, not either side of the disagreement. I just needed to get that off my chest.
The Captain America example brings up a side point, though. Superheroes can endorse positions or values, but not candidates. Ethically, Captain America can advocate Veterans Rights, Spiderman can advocate freedom of the press, and Green Arrow can tell you to vote.
This abstract discussion has a real life corollary in American Politics right now. Due to the Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, lobbying groups known as “SuperPACS” can accept money from anonymous donors and use that money to support a candidate. Ethically, this is the same as endorsing a candidate while wearing a mask; that is to say, not very heroic. We encourage you to learn more about these (possibly by watching the Colbert Report):
We also encourage you to vote Tuesday, November 6th. Because that is the heroic thing to do.