BAD HOUSEKEEPING: The Obsession with Cleanliness in American Political Life

by Tom McBride

Bad Housekeeping: The Obsession with Cleanliness in American Political Life 

By Tom McBride 

I grew up with a couple of clean-freaks, and they would often say that their entire marriage was happy based on their mutual obsession with sanitation. They were also neat-niks, but this was just another version of their love for cleanliness. 

This is also an addictive theme in American politics and probably in politics overall. We’re all familiar with the struggle in American cities to rid New York or Chicago of corrupt political machines, with their dirty ward heelers and cops. Good government types, or “goo-goos,” as Tammany Hall derisively called  them, were all for clean, transparent government–an emphasis on transparency that Windex itself would envy. But the drive for cleanliness hardly stops there. 

There is also the long-time tradition of the American right wing’s love of dictators, going back to Kaiser Wlhelm the Second  over a hundred years ago and forward to American isolationists’ admiration of Hitler and the preference for Central American death squads in the Reagan Administration, not to mention the current conservative dance with Putin and Viktor Orban. The idea seems to be that liberal democracies are “dirty,” in that they permit practices opposed to clean living–such as same-sex marriage or gender changes or abortion. 

My parents voted for liberal Democrats, but in the home they were dictators.. Their only child was not permitted to live a life of “liberal dirtiness.” The emphasis was on a wholesome lifestyle and a spic and span room. My father took hours in the bathroom before going out in public. Folks in town would tell me what a good, clean man he was, and that I would likely never match up. These were wonderful virtues. They were not entirely consistent with personal freedom. 

Later, I came to appreciate  

the role of cleanliness in another way: ideology. An ideological story, whether it is one of active government creating equality or small government promoting liberty–or strong man government guaranteeing “cleanliness’ ‘–is a clean narrative, devoid of the dirt of complexity. Missing are failed government experiments or corporate monopolies or dictatorial goon squads. Life, including political life, is complex–complicatedly dirty. The simple sleekness we might cherish in an automobile or shopping center or new laptop is what we might like but rarely get in actual, lived life. 

We all think Oedipus the King should have realized that it was his father he was killing at the place where three roads met, but he was living his life dirty–forwards, not backwards. Retrospection is dangerously sanitized. 

Cleanliness, my sainted parents thought, and said, is next only to godliness. If so, however, why did God permit dust and soot? Millions have adored the wonderfully clean food presentation of Martha Stewart, but we must remember what all that lovely food ultimately turns into. Our politics would be more tolerant and workable if we’d get off the Mr. Clean kick. President Donald Trump wondered if toilet cleaners would kill Covid. They won’t. 


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