Elections: Have They Always Been Ugly?

Midterms have come and gone. In an already rapid news cycle that seems to fit in a month’s worth of content in one week, we watch the projected midterm election polling. For more information on various races around the country, check out the election results.

Looking at the races happening now, back at 2016, and even fast forwarding to the races gearing up in the coming months for 2020, we see just how intense some of these campaigns are. They have become less about policy and continue to become more personal.

There are two notable examples of this. In a debate for the Senate seat in Arizona, Representative Martha McSally labeled past comments made by Representative Krysten Sinema as treasonous. For the Texas Senate seat, Representative Beto O’Rourke referred to Senator Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted”. However, after the debate, the Congressman walked back his comment.

Both of these examples very briefly explained, demonstrate the results of high political tension. Countless stories in the news illustrate the personal attacks within politics. But this tension is not brand new to the last few years nor over the past century but goes back to as early as 1800. The Election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was less about policy and more about taking personal shots at the other. Some of these comments called out “Adams, for his perceived lack of masculine virtues, Jefferson for rumors that he had fathered children with one of his slaves and, enamored with French revolutionary ideas, had plans to install a Bonaparte-like dictatorship in America.” This is a prominent example of how personal the elections were even looking back to the Founder’s generation.

This all goes to show that while political elections are tense and personal today, they are not something new within American politics.

These types of campaigns bring up a phrase that has begun to resurface over the last few years: “Politics of Personal Destruction.”

A quote from the 1990s, “Politics of Personal Destruction” was specifically used during the time of President Clinton’s impeachment. Specifically, in an article written by the Claremont Institute, the phrase was used “for the purpose of describing Hillary Clinton’s mean-spirited attacks against women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault.” This was not the only time the quote has been used since though. It has been brought up again in recent years and is an apt description of some of the notable midterm election campaigns happening now, those of 2016, and even Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation a few weeks ago.

It is a phrase to keep in mind as we watch the results of the midterms and looking beyond.