The “Politics of Personal CONstruction”

Americans are well conditioned to be contemptuous of the so-called “politics of personal destruction” where in contending candidates or parties level personal attacks against their political foes in an effort to discredit them in the minds of voters on matters not related to public policy or political philosophy. On the other hand, American voters have been equally well conditioned to celebrate another brand of personalized politics that is actually just as deceptive and destructive of deliberative democracy. Indeed, personal attacks on opponents would be far less useful in elections if not for Americans’ embrace of the other side of the personalized politics coin. The “politics of personal CONstruction” are not a popular subject of political cautionary tales, but they should be.

It’s hardly a news flash that Americans are obsessively individualistic; that we relish the narrative of individual achievement and personal struggle in every competitive arena. The converse of this is that Americans have a deep culturally imbedded and almost always inarticulate, distain for “collective” action in certain venues. Politics is definitely one such venue. The reality that politics is by definition ALWAYS a form of collective action rests very uncomfortably beneath the surface of the American political consciousness.

The reason why “personal destruction” is scorned in American politics is that it smacks of unfair play; it’s effectively understood as “cheating” or playing dirty. Such “play” is understood to be intentional distraction from the “real” issues and from voters’ real interests. As clear as this is to voters, the political tactic that makes such dirty politics possible, and even more potent, is fully supported by huge majorities in America. It is the “politics of personal construction” in which political elites focus voters’ attention on candidates’ personal values and characteristics, backgrounds and opinions. To Americans, this seems only right in our hyper-individualistic society and the widely popular notion (brought to politics by early 20th Century Progressives) that smart voters vote “the man” not “the party,” appears too obvious for even an abstract debate.

However, the reality of personal CONstruction in politics is just as simple as that of personal DEstruction. Both distract voters from their political (i.e. collective) interests and instead focus them on the personalities and character of contending politicians. Our federal political system relies, at both the state and federal levels, on partisan policy formation and enactment. It is the most significant factor in charting the direction of American public policy. Ironically, given Americans’ distaste for parties, it is also the surest and clearest way for American voters to hold their political leaders accountable. By pretending that only men of bad character are party loyalists, American voters play into a not-so-subtle trap that allows partisan politicians to avoid accountability for their actions and decisions.

The ability of federal candidates to make personal “bipartisanship” or “non-partisanship” an important qualification for partisan office is the “sleight of hand of the ages.” It’s a trick for which hyper-individualistic Americans are perfect “marks.” Average American voters not only have little understanding of how government actually functions, they also believe it should function in a manner that is both impossible and inconsistent with our nation’s constitutional design of government.

The indisputable fact that politics is by definition “collective action,” not individual action, which clearly implies that smart actors (voters or politicians) understand that winning requires team play, is -amazingly- denied by American voters and intentionally hidden from them by political elites who urge voters to “think for themselves” and to not be “co-opted” by the “political” appeals of partisans.

Since everybody understands that candidates’ shouldn’t personally attack each other, I would STRONGLY encourage voters to stop and think the next time a candidate (particularly a party nominee) waxes eloquent about their personal biography; their picture-perfect family, and other clear efforts to distract voters from the central institutional reality of federal public policy making… political partisanship. If tearing apart an opponent is a distraction from what really matters, as most people believe, then building up one’s own personal stature is ALSO such a distraction.

Food for thought.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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