People over policy: the worrying trend towards ad hominem attacks which blights our politics

5 Jun 2019


Many moons ago, I remember proudly proclaiming that, when I got to vote for the first time, I would only pay attention to policies of individuals. My former self couldn’t quite grasp why people opted to focus on the personality over the ideas. Surely it didn’t matter who the Prime Minister was if their ideas were good? Likewise, if the Prime Minister happened to be a charismatic individual but their ideas weakened the nation, then they were also a poor choice in my opinion.


Frankly, this attitude of choosing personality over policy still persists, and remains one of the prime sources of confusion for me in the political system. But over time I’ve watched this attitude evolve and shift into something completely different. It was satirised best by the US comedy ‘Great News’, which featured Tina Fey as the new boss of a cable news network.  She informs the hosts of an afternoon news programme that they will be moving to panel based discussion because ‘spirited discourse’ can lead to ‘real solutions,’. She then confesses to joking and says that ‘it’s just going to be a bunch of lunatics screaming at each other.’ 


I learned the word for this kind of attitude, a logical fallacy known as ad hominem - attacking the person promoting a position rather than the position itself. There is, in my view, no better place for this people-centred brand of attacks than in today’s current political sphere, and it has been going for years. Notable examples I can recall include David Cameron telling Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons that his mother would tell him to do his shirt and tie up properly, Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump administration official, calling Michael Wolf a ‘charlatan’ on Newsnight, and, to a certain extent, the more recent spate of ‘milkshaking’ of Brexit-supporting individuals. None of these individuals were critiqued based on the substance of their views in these instances, just on the basis of their person. 


The effect of the use of the ad hominem logical fallacy is enormous - a study conducted in 2018 found that, when used in the context of scientific claims, the presentation of an ad hominem attack against a scientist alongside their scientific claim can be just as effective in reducing confidence in their conclusion as an empirical attack on the claim itself. This is, it seems, replicated in the political sphere.


Today’s world of politics is people-focused. Only recently the President of the United States waded unconventionally into the world of UK politics, backing Boris Johnson for Tory leadership and lending support for Nigel Farage. That same President has conducted most of his business based on personal connections with the people he works alongside - as one particular example, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson is the current US Ambassador to the UK, who The Guardian reported was a major fundraiser for the Trump campaign and served on his inaugural committee. Similarly, and by comparison, the previous US Ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, was tasked with designing Obama’s grassroots campaign and was National Finance Chair upon re-election, before taking post in 2013. 


There is, of course, merit to focusing on the characteristics of the individuals in power, but in recent years it has become of utmost importance. The electorate looks for people not only that they believe will serve them best but with whom they can relate, and there are compelling statistics to prove that there is a disconnect between voters and who represents them. For politics to work effectively, there has to be a basis of trust. But far too often that trust, or lack of trust, is founded upon the wrong things. 


Take former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who became famous for that bacon sandwich picture. A rather unflattering photo of him eating a bacon sandwich spawned mockery on the internet. One year after the photo was taken, a front page splash of the image appeared on one of the tabloids, emblazoned with the headline, ‘Save Our Bacon!’. 


Many media outlets insinuated that we could not trust a man who was unable to eat a bacon sandwich in a photogenic manner with our country’s economy. But think for a moment and question whether or not someone really can eat anything particularly glamorously. Ironically, this line of argument is an example of the ‘slippery slope’ logical fallacy, but in 2017 Miliband told The Guardian that that particular photo was a regret of his from his time as leader. 


We are getting too caught up in the person themselves as opposed to the policies that they stand for. There are, undoubtedly, merits to focusing on personality, but when a person becomes elected based on the way they deliver a message as opposed to the message itself, then we risk doing real harm to ourselves and our democracy. The answer potentially lies in improved political education, and assisting individuals to think critically about policies. To do so is vital to strengthening public political discourse and ensuring that when a candidate for Prime Minister in a few years time is pictured eating a Greggs sausage roll unflatteringly, you think more broadly about their policies, and perhaps consider that you might not look any better eating that same sausage roll. I certainly wouldn’t. 

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