As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.
Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.
Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.
This is my latest column on how “playing the man, not the ball” is hurting Irish politics. It appeared in today’sHerald (August 24th 2013):
With the council elections due next May local political organisations will soon make final decisions as to which of their aspiring candidates will make it on to the ballot paper.
Given the time and energy many of them have already put in to proving that they can get elected, it is tough to see willing and able people rejected, but politics is a tough business.
Unfortunately most new candidates, just like most new businesses, fail. Only a few ever make it to the national stage.
Predicting who will is more a dark art than a science. From my experience of running campaigns the key predictor of success is not passion or commitment, its obsession… and I don’t mean the fragrance.
Those most likely to succeed in modern Irish politics, even at the local level, are those who need and crave that success more than almost anything else.
This does not mean that they are not interested in leading and improving their communities: most are, but that comes a weak second to their determination to succeed.
But here is the contradiction: we risk making political life so demanding, intrusive and tough that those with ideas and initiative are frightened away leaving the obsessive, the egotistical and the power hungry.
This is nothing to do with constituency work. Most are prepared for doing clinics and handling representations. The problem is that politics’ traditional “cut and thrust” has become a lot more vicious and brutal. The old rule of “nothing personal, only politics” is giving way to the “everything is personal” one.
How many people do you know who are thinking of getting into local politics? I bet it is not many.
Political parties are finding it hard to persuade people to run. There are many community activists and leaders who are qualified to run, but not so many prepared to accept today’s levels of attention and scrutiny, not just from the media.
Politics today requires politicians as thick skinned as a T-Rex but with the purity of the Dalai Lama. Have any form of skeleton in your cupboard and you may kiss your chances of succeeding goodbye. The rule now is: one strike and you are out. How many of the great political leaders of the past century could pass that test: Churchill, Kennedy, Mitterand?
The irony is that this increasing pressure is not coming in the first instance from the media – it is coming from other politicians.
They are the hacks greatest sources of political tittle-tattle and gossip. They are the ones most likely to play the man not the ball.
Not that this is a new phenomenon. As George Orwell wrote over half a century ago, “political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Add the power, immediacy and spread of the web and social media, texting plus the emergence of the constant campaign – where candidates are in campaign battle mode all year round – and suddenly a piece of damaging gossip that might once have had an audience of hundreds has a far wider and less forgiving audience.
It is what President Obama described some years ago as “the coarsening of our political dialogue” In an age when many voices are competing for attention and coverage he concluded “…that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention”, posing the question: “How can we make sure that civility is interesting?”
We see it here too. How often have you listened to TV or radio discussion and concluded that these two have no respect for each other? I recall one recently when a next generation politician, who I shall not identify, deftly dispensed with any discussion of facts or and focused on undermining the integrity of an opponent who was not even there.
Why would anyone who either with a successful career elsewhere offer to subject themselves to that?