The Ethics of Opposition Research
The public’s right to know vs. the candidate’s right to privacy
Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Previously she managed state wide political campaigns in California. The opinions expressed are her own.
When Donald Trump Jr. stated that he met with a lawyer allegedly connected to the Russian government, he explained that he went because he was promised opposition material on Hillary Clinton. President Trump supported his son’s decision after the fact stating, “I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting…Politics isn't the nicest business in the world, but it's very standard.”
Regardless of whether members of a campaign should have been meeting with purported operatives of a foreign government, another issue has been lost in the shuffle. Is conducting opposition research on a rival candidate ethical? As in many matters concerning ethics and the law, the answer is, “it depends.”
Opposition research per se isn’t unethical, but there are boundaries. Starting with the premise that the goal of our political process is to create an informed electorate that can make educated choices come election day, we can assess whether those boundaries have been crossed. An ethically informed electorate requires that all information researched and used by a political campaign be true, fair, and relevant.
For example the electorate has a right to know a candidate’s voting record. Campaigns often conduct opposition research looking into how a candidate has previously voted and then use that information to show the voters how past legislative activity may not comport with the candidate’s current political rhetoric. No one questions researching voting records---but that type of research falls under the category of opposition research.
Similarly, campaigns may send staffers or volunteers to shadow the opposition candidate’s events recording all policy pronouncements to determine any inconsistencies as the campaign progresses. The voters have a right to know whether a candidate changes his positions depending on the audience.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, opposition research into the private lives of a candidate’s family or associates is generally decried as violating ethical norms. The conduct of a sibling, child, or close friend is rarely relevant to the issues in the race nor is it fair to those private citizens who have not put themselves in the public spotlight to be publicly humiliated.
Where it gets less clear, however, is when campaigns try to dig up dirt on personal episodes in the candidate’s past. Is this type of research fair? Do the voters have a right to know? Does the candidate have a right to privacy? In this situation it really comes down to relevance—and what is relevant to some may be irrelevant to others. For example, does anyone truly care if a candidate received a DUI as a college student 20 years in the past? Is that past indiscretion relevant to how the candidate will comport himself or herself in office now?
On the other hand, past conduct may be relevant if the candidate has opened the door to questions about his or her past. For instance, if a candidate is touting success in business as a reason why he or she deserves your vote, the fact that the candidate was fired by the board of directors of his or her company may be relevant. If the candidate is running on a family values platform, the voters may want to know about domestic abuse charges. The question for the researcher would be, “Does the candidate’s past conduct conflict with current campaign positions?” Voters could argue that it is necessary to know about these discrepancies in order to determine if the candidate’s positions are sincere.
Finally, opposition information should only be obtained from legally available sources. Research that crosses the line into trespass, burglary, illegal wire taps, hacking, and other methods which invade privacy should always be out of bounds. It is necessary for the health of our democracy that good people not be discouraged from running for office. People who are brave enough to enter public service by joining the political fray should not be expected to completely give up their fundamental right to privacy.