Culture of Hypercriticism

Rachel Alexander

5/31/2012 12:01:00 AM - Rachel Alexander

With the rise of the 24/7 news cycle and expansion of media allowing everyone to create their own stories on the internet, a new void has been created. It has been filled by hypercriticism. Hypercriticism used to be reserved for celebrities, as paparazzi closely tracked every move of Hollywood stars. But the spread of cable talk shows and rise of the internet has allowed a microscopic analysis to transcend into politics; putting politicians and candidates for office under an unhealthy and irrational level of scrutiny. Instead of judging political leaders on real issues, they are now also judged on criteria that most of us would never think twice about if it was regarding one of our friends. They are held to impossible standards and put in catch-22 situations where they are criticized no matter what they do.

Much of this hypercriticism was on display during the Republican presidential primary. Now that it is essentially over, instead of remembering the candidates' positions on important issues, we remember the insignificant things. Rick Santorum wears ugly sweater vests. Newt Gingrich must not care enough about the election because he took a short vacation during election season. Michele Bachmann has problems with her makeup, eyes and has too many foster children. Everyone remembers these superficial “flaws” about the candidates but can't coherently explain where they stand on foreign policy.

Mitt Romney is criticized for a highly successfully career making money from investments in the private sector. But if he had been a career politician, like Newt Gingrich, then he would be criticized for being a Washington insider. Even that criticism of Gingrich is overdone, because he has significant private sector experience, which includes teaching, writing books, political consulting, and founding and running think tanks. Furthermore, criticism of politicians for being career politicians does not take into account the full picture. There are advantages to having an elected official who knows the system well. Granted, there are disadvantages because the politician may become influenced by the lobbyists who contribute to his reelection campaign, and may become ingratiated to other politicians and powerful people. Political office is the only type of job where people think the person with the least experience is the most qualified. In reality, it is far more complex than that.

Turn on any TV or radio political talk show and there are always plenty of pundits available to criticize politicians and candidates for the most obscure things. Shows will scrape the bottom of the barrel looking for something to criticize about a candidate. They are put in catch-22s; criticized for looking too dumpy on the one hand, or too polished on the other hand. While it is true that there are voters who are more likely to vote for a candidate based on their looks, it cannot be said that good looks will hurt them. Yet candidates like Romney are frequently attacked for looking too perfect.

There is a reason for this hypercriticalness. Voters are swayed by emotion, so personal attacks are effective. Pundits and political opponents know if they can distract voters into thinking negatively about a candidate for any reason, no matter how silly or inconsequential, that candidate's effectiveness will be diminished. If there is little to criticize about a candidate who is running a tightly controlled campaign, critics will rely heavily on these flimsy attacks. Ironically, this means the most ethical candidates will receive the most baseless criticisms.

It used to be a candidate could run for office and get away with behavior that probably did cross the line. John F. Kennedy had marital affairs but the media looked the other way. Now, it is impossible to run for office – even fairly low-level office - and serve as an elected without the media following you everywhere and attacking you for something as little as having a bad hair day.

Occasionally the hypercriticism backfires. The left went after Mitt Romney for putting his Irish Setter Seamus in a dog kennel with a windshield on top of his car when he drove across the country years ago on a family trip. It was not illegal and it is commonly known that Irish Setters love sticking their heads out the windows of cars when riding in cars. Romney supporters fired back pointing out that Obama had done much worse, eating dogs when he was growing up in Indonesia. Not wanting to admit that eating dogs was wrong, his supporters suddenly dropped most of their criticism of Romney regarding his dog.

The net effect of this hypercriticism is demoralizing to those seeking public office. It is deterring good people from running for office. It is destroying the reputations of people with high ethical characters who dare to put themselves out there. After a few years undergoing constant attacks, most people in public office end up with tarnished reputations and may lose reelection or even face recalls. How many elections are being decided based on hypercriticism instead of legitimate political issues? Hypercriticism is a time waster and regular Americans should avoid these red herrings and keep the country focused on holding politicians accountable for the things that matter.