The Urge to Demonize

One really unfortunate element of every election I can recall is the trashing of the opposing candidate. It’s easy to fall into the trap–I’ve found myself doing it on more than one occasion. I still recall, with some shame, expressing my low opinion of Larry Conrad during his run for Governor (youngsters reading this can google him). When I met Larry later, and worked on civic projects with him, I found him to be entirely admirable. Campaigns are notoriously bad at conveying the “real person,” and somehow, in the heat of battle, it’s not enough to disagree with a candidate’s policies or worldview. He or she must be a sub-optimal human as well.

I thought about this when I read a recent screed about President Obama, darkly suggesting–among other things–that his failure to release his Harvard grade transcript was probable evidence of substandard performance. (This is a pretty standard way of raising the issue of race–after all, aren’t all black people beneficiaries of affirmative action?)

I happened to attend an academic conference a few years ago where one of Obama’s professors shared his opinion that then-newly-minted Senator Obama was one of the best students he’d ever taught, and that he expected him to go far. Of course, it isn’t necessary to rely on a former instructor’s offhand comment–as any law school graduate knows, it takes superior grades to earn even a lowly position on a Law Review. Dummies simply don’t become Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review. They also don’t hold adjunct professorships at the intellectually rigorous University of Chicago Law School.

The problem with these sorts of gratuitous slurs is that they debase political debate. The liberals who questioned Romney’s business accomplishments were similarly out of line. I opposed Romney and Ryan not because I thought their experience and talents were exaggerated, but because I believed they drew dramatically wrong lessons from those experiences, and that their policies would be very damaging to the country. I also opposed their views on women’s rights and gay rights.

I have friends who opposed Obama because they wanted him to wage war against Iran, or were opposed to the Affordable Care Act or to progressive taxation (aka “redistribution”).  I find their positions illogical and wrongheaded, but entirely legitimate. More important, those are the sort of disagreements we need to discuss, they are the contending prescriptions campaigns should debate and defend–the kinds of arguments that can be illuminated by history and empirical evidence.

Accusing an officeholder of doing a bad job is fair. Accusing him of being a bad or substandard person simply because we dislike his policies or the “team” he plays for is not.

Such ad hominem attacks are an admission by those who level them that they can’t argue the merits of the issues.


  1. I agree basically…….very lofty in theory but not always all that easy in practice. There seem to be folks whose positions (which it’s fair game to disagree with….vehemently) are so extreme, consistent and pervasive that they do say something about the essence of person expressing them. Nonetheless, if there is the Kennedy “no new demonization” equivalent of the Grover Norquist pledge, let me know where I can sign up.

  2. I agree. Your mention of Larry Conrad brings back fond memories. He was a good friend to me as a newcomer to Indiana in the 1980s. I remember his demonstration of the “Hoosier Massage.” Larry demonstrated the technique that must be mastered by every successful Hoosier politician. By briefly putting a hand on someone’s shoulder and drawing them into a small group, you make them feel comfortable. As soon as they are talking to someone else, you can move on to work the crowd in a similar way. The hand slap and fist bump just don’t seem as effective. Larry was smart, funny and totally committed to civic engagement. His energy was infectious.

  3. I noticed a major distinction between the mainstream candidates (Democrat, Republican) and the Third Party candidates, on all levels: The D’s and R’s were much more prone to assail each other personally. While Obama and Romney “Bronx cheered” each other, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and Rocky Anderson calmly and clearly discussed issues. While Mike Pence and John Gregg sniped at each other, Rupert Boneham gave specifics on his plan. While Richard Mourdock made a fool of himself and Joe Donnely went on the personal attack, Andy Horning said what he had in mind to get us out of this collective mess.

    Have We the People become so stupid and ignorant as to only wait for the next zinger as entertainment rather than listening to what each candidate has to say? Are our blinders so tight as to not see good alternatives, or do we secretly and blindly accept the tragicomedy politics have become?

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