Twitter can be a mean place, but it got especially nasty earlier this month when Democratic strategist Adam Parkhomenko tweeted a video of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell falling and struggling to get back up at a campaign rally.
Parkhomenko, who worked as a national field director for the Democratic National Committee in 2016, posted the video with the caption, “Yesterday I posted this new found footage of Mitch McConnell standing up for America. 368,000 views overnight. Mitch McConnell does not want you to let this video get up to 1,000,000 views.”
But the tweet soon garnered quite a few replies, calling the attack too malicious and suggesting Parkhomenko delete it. After all, McConnell had polio as a child, which causes muscle weakness, explaining his trouble standing up.
Politicians are often attacked not just for their beliefs or platforms, but also for their personal lives and even physical appearances or disabilities. It’s even worse when these attacks come from political leaders onto other elected officials and candidates, setting a poor example of political discourse.
This happens on both sides of the aisle and in every level of government, and it’s not helping the political climate in this country.
Kevin Arceneaux, a Temple University political science professor, said personal attacks should be avoided if they are irrelevant to the ability to serve in an elected position.
“Unless someone’s personal feelings are germane to the issue at hand, it’s not appropriate,” Arceneaux said. “In Mitch McConnell’s case, if he has some issues walking due to childhood polio, it’s completely unrelated.”
Having a physical disability is not a disqualifier for holding a seat in the Senate, but opponents have used the video as if it proves something about the majority leader and his competency. Political debate should be about substance, and making irrelevant jabs at the person only succeeds at cheapening political debate.
Matt Abruzzo, a sophomore film and media arts major and the treasurer of Temple College Republicans, said Americans have shifted their focus from political platforms to the people behind them.
“Over the course of American politics,…we’ve stopped believing more in causes and more in people, so our public figures are becoming more and more important as [people],” Abruzzo said. “In the United States, you vote for the person first and party second, so I think that kind of opens it up to personal attacks.”
But personal attacks have always been a fixture of American politics.
In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ran for president against each other, Federalists suggested that Jefferson was an atheist, while Republicans branded Adams as a wannabe monarch planning a family dynasty, according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which specializes in political history.
Candidates open themselves up to criticism. But Jefferson’s religious beliefs had nothing to do with his ability to govern. On the other hand, if Adams truly wanted to be the first American monarch, that could be a concern to voters.
It’s important to sift out the information that fails to influence a person’s politics. Nobody is perfect, and criticizing someone for things irrelevant to their leadership qualities or political platform is unproductive and dirty.
Leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, both sides flung vicious attacks against their opposition.
Hillary Clinton questioned Donald Trump’s temperament, and Trump spared no punches when he created the nickname “Crooked Hillary.”
Most of the harsh insults were actually relevant to the ability to serve, but some bled over into personal attacks. Trump called Clinton’s marriage into question and even invited women who accused her husband of sexual misconduct to a debate.
When Clinton spoke in New York, she said Trump and half his supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables.”
Chris Smith, a junior political science major and the president of Temple College Republicans, does not advocate for personal attacks in politics. But he admits it can be a tough distinction.
“The line between a personal attack and somebody’s policy [position] can get blurred, so it’s hard to determine that line,” Smith said.
When the line is crossed though, it is pretty obvious.
During the 2018 midterms elections here in Pennsylvania, United States Sen. Bob Casey released a video featuring a mom with twin girls who were diagnosed with cancer. The mother said Lou Barletta’s position on health care would have left her children without treatment.
Barletta, Casey’s opponent, said he had told Casey that his grandson, a twin, was diagnosed with cancer. Casey had every right to criticize his opponent’s policy, but the video seemed all too similar to Barletta’s family situation. The advertisement just hit too close to home.
Politics can be inherently personal because policy affects people. When debating policy, Arceneaux said, policy and personality can be indifferentiable.
“It’s very difficult when you’re disagreeing with someone over substance not to blend that into them as a person and there being something wrong with them,” Arceneaux said.
If you start a conversation with the assumption that a candidate is inherently evil, there is no point in conversing.
Believing instead that a policy is evil or discussing a candidate’s leadership abilities can lead to an interesting exchange of ideas and possibly finding some common ground.
Politics has always been and will continue to be ugly. But we can avoid attacks that aren’t germane to one’s ability to govern, like sharing a video of a 77-year-old man struggling to stand up on his own.