Undermining Political Opponents

When politicians are undermining political opponents, they are not addressing policy issues and they bring politics into disrepute.

Politicians need at least the tacit support of the population.  They are in competition with each other for that support, so they try to reduce the popularity of their opponents – with negative advertising, for example.  Competition between politicians is very public in democracies where politicians can speak and write about each other, and sometimes participate in television debates, but in authoritarian systems the competition for power takes place away from the public gaze.

When people see that politicians are competing by undermining opponents, they should ask themselves why.  Michael Gove infamously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts” when he was trying to persuade the British people to leave the EU.  He didn’t offer any evidence to contradict the Treasury advice that a ‘Brexit’ would make people poorer (and the Treasury advice turned out to be right).  He was simply making a populist appeal to anti-government sentiment.  He brought himself and his party into disrepute in the eyes of informed voters by avoiding serious economic analysis.

There are drawbacks to undermining political opponents if they respond by doing the same.  Many people will remember criticisms made during an election campaign, so that those politicians who are elected to office are weakened.

Criticisms might not matter if they were just – but people can be misled ( or be swayed by propaganda ( and, as noted below, they can be influenced by ‘fake news’ on the Internet (  The overall effect of undermining political opponents can be to diminish people’s confidence in the political system and to reduce the legitimacy of elected governments.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6425a.htm.