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Discrediting tactic

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The expression discrediting tactics in politics refers to personal attacks against a public figure intended to discourage people from believing in the figure or supporting their cause (see damaging quotations).

In public discourse, especially in societies with free speech, one of the most successful tactics to drain support from a cause is to discredit its spokesman. This tactic is similar to using an ad hominem argument in a debate. By discrediting the spokesman of a cause, the opponents of the cause hope that supporters or potential supporters will withdraw or withhold their support. In such a situation, the attitude seems to be: "If a person with this moral character or that level of intelligence supports the cause, it must be a bad cause."

Using personal attacks to discredit a viewpoint is not, however, the same thing as using such attacks to question the qualifications of an elected representative. The latter is one of the important tools that a voting electorate has in order to evaluate the fitness for office of a politician.

Thus, while a politician may express valid ideas that the voting electorate may agree with, his or her personal qualifications for office are fair game for criticism. However, there is much disagreement among voters as to what personal characteristics may render a politician unfit for office. The very debate over this question thus represents an important part of the democratic process.

In U.S. presidential politics, there is a long history of the use of discrediting tactics by one party against another. In the past, this activity was often referred to as dirty pool or mudslinging; currently, it is better known as negative campaigning. For example, accusations of corruption, such as taking bribes for giving jobs to unqualified relatives, spring up with regularity.

Accusations of adultery date back to the early 19th century. One famous example of this was the presidential campaign of 1884, in which Grover Cleveland was tarred by his opponents with having fathered an illegitimate child. A political catchphrase by his opponents was, "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" Cleveland won the election anyway, leading his supporters to add "Gone to the White House, ha ha ha".

Cleveland's defeat of his opponent, James Blaine may have been helped by another discrediting tactic used against him which seriously backfired, namely the assertion that Cleveland's party was that of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" (the latter two referring to Roman Catholicism and the American Civil War). Cleveland's campaign also used the slogan, "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine" in reference to Blaine's discredited railroad deals.

Discrediting tactics are not just used against each other by opponents for office in democratic countries, but are also used in wartime between countries. In the middle of the 20th century, Soviet and British propaganda made popular the idea that Adolf Hitler had only one testicle (and was thereby less of a man).

The public portrayal of the character and personality of politicians and political candidates plays an important role in American politics, but the degree to it matters to the voters often differs considerably. Both the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives have ethics committees, for example, and may act against their fellow members if they violate certain codes of conduct, even though those members were elected by the democratic process. In the past, congressmen such as Jim Traficant[?] and Adam Clayton Powell[?] have been expelled from Congress over ethics issues.

One US President, Bill Clinton, was impeached over allegations of perjury, but many voters and his supporters disagreed with this action. Thus the criteria over what character traits, whether they be related to corruption or intelligence, are often the subject of heated debate. Thus character traits are used by opponents of politicians to discredit them, either for political gain or merely for satiric effect.

Partisan politics also plays an important role in this question. To a certain extent, the flip side of the use of discrediting tactics is the case of extreme party loyalty. Party loyalty may blind a partisan to the faults in the candidates or representatives of their own party. The partisan may ignore or deny the deficient qualities of the party's candidates, out of fear that to do so would somehow discredit their ideology or damage their party's electoral strength. An example of this are the Yellow dog Democrats, a colorful term describing voters who are said to vote for a Democrat even if the candidate was a yellow dog.

This also comes into play in the investigation of political scandals. Members of Congress are extremely reluctant to investigate scandals by a President of their own party. It is doubtful that the Republicans would have investigated the Watergate scandal, or that Democrats would have investigated Whitewater. Thus the partisan politics of the opposition party plays a key role as serving as a check against the unbridled power of the party in office.


In the U.S. judicial system, discrediting tactics (called impeachment in that context) are the approved method for attacking the credibility of any witness in court, including a plaintiff or defendant. In cases with significant mass media attention or high-stakes outcomes, those tactics often take place in public as well.



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