Horrible examples spread faster than decent lessons. Politics of personal destruction in democratic countries is a terrible development that is gaining currency now. Politicians, especially those who have no vision, will keep this nihilist politics alive and thriving.
In 1992, then US President Bill Clinton had said, “The American people are tired of politics of personal destruction.” Apparently, it was a wishful thinking of an embattled president, not a statement of fact. Contrary to Clinton’s assertion, such politics has continued to grow in the United States.
The politics of personal destruction — destroying your opponent physically and morally — has been the favored strategy of dictators throughout history to gain and retain power. In democracies, such politics, though existent, had been rarely used in the old days. In the United States, the Federalists, particularly John Quincy Adams, who later became the US president, were blamed for engaging in such politics in 1808. Ever since, In the US, Republicans, more than Democrats, have used the weapon of personal destruction successfully to destroy their opponents.
The term was first used in 1808 in the United States. The Federalists, particularly John Quincy Adams, who later became the US president, were blamed for engaging in such politics. But it was not widely used until the rise of Newt Gingrich in the United States.
Gingrich, the Republican US Speaker from 1995-99, had then said, “We the Republicans are not going to be able to take over unless we demonize the Democrats.” He used this strategy to win a majority for the Republicans in the House of Representatives, minimize President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and stifle his policies.
Ever since the strategy has become the principal vehicle for the Republicans to win political offices. It reached an unprecedented height in the 2016 presidential and Congressional election. In the presidential elections, Donald Trump, a Republican, defeated his opponent Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, with this nihilist strategy. He constantly called her “Corrupt Hillary,” chanted “Lock her up,” and promised to throw her into jail if he got elected.
He had no vision, policy or plan to Make America Great Again, his election slogan. On security matters, he said he had a plan to defeat the Islamic State but did not want to show his hand to the enemy. He said he had an economic plan but never presented it to the American people. He said he would repeal and replace the Obamacare with his best and beautiful plan without ever outlining what the plan was.
As it became clear after his election, he had none of those. No strategy to defeat the Islamic State. No economic policy other than cutting taxes for the wealthy. No alternative to the Obamacare. The Trump administration and Congress are now muddling through those areas.
Most Republican senators and virtually all Republican candidates for the House of Representatives applied this strategy. They endlessly vilified President Obama and his signature Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) without offering an alternative. They minimized the robust job growth under Obama and promised to cut taxes for the wealthy to boost growth, which has failed repeatedly to deliver growth. They castigated Obama for his foreign policy without offering anything credible.
Only last week, Karen Handel, the Republican candidate for the House seat in Georgia, used the politics of personal destruction to defeat her opponent, Johan Ossoff, a Democrat. Ossoff’s high-road politics did not win.
The Democrats, who often prefer to run on policy, too have used the politics of personal destruction, though to a lesser extent. Outside the United States, the Conservatives in the United Kingdom used it successfully in the last two elections.
In 2015, in my view, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron secured a majority in the parliament by demonizing his Labor rival Ed Miliband, rather than convincing the voters on his policies and programs. The conservative media went to the extent of ridiculing Miliband even for eating a bacon sandwich.
In June 2017, Cameron’s successor, Teresa May, a Conservative, demonized her Labor rival Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders as the coalition of chaos in trying to prove that she was stronger and steadier. Though her party lost the majority by a small margin, she did manage to make her party the largest in the house and retain her premiership.
I do not agree with all the policies and programs presented by Labor leaders Miliband and Corbyn. But I appreciate that they tried to conduct their campaigns on policy and avoided the politics of personal destruction.
Why have the Conservative political parties, more than their liberal rivals, resorted to the politics of personal destruction so heavily and frequently? I have a quick and dirty answer to the question. It works for them at a time their other electoral planks have lost effectiveness. The main elections planks of Conservatives used to be God, religion, nationalism, small government, and tax cuts. But these electoral planks have lost their effectiveness or credibility over time.
The Conservatives’ main electoral planks used to be God, religion, nationalism, small government, and tax cuts. But they have lost their effectiveness or credibility over time. God and religion have lost much of their hold on voters. Conservatives themselves have flouted their commitment to small government whenever they came to power. Tax cuts have made rich richer but failed to boost growth. Remember the Kansas supply-side experiment?
That leaves only nationalism, which by itself is not enough to have an upper hand in the globalized world. So they have combined nationalism with the politics of personal destruction, which works for the Conservatives.
It is not all gloom and doom, though. For instance, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who took a page from Donald Trump and David Cameron, did not win the French presidency. Emmanuel Macron — a pro-Europe, centrist political neophyte — did, renewing the faith of those like me who believe in democratic politics based on competing visions and policies.
But as the bad money drives out the good money, bad politics drives out good politics. I am afraid the politics of personal destruction might spread quickly in the rest of the world and make the entire planet worse off. I hope the politicians resorting to the nihilist strategy abandon it before the policy-based democratic politics dies a slow death.