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A World Without Attack Ads?

“Post-election time for us to come together,” intoned the headline for Wednesday’s Ironton Tribune editorial.

Please forgive me a bit of cynicism here. It just all sounds so familiar.

Maybe you’ve noticed the cycle. After a campaign of scurrilous accusations and character assassination, one candidate wins and everyone extols the healing process. Words spoken during the campaign are rapidly discounted. Voters and candidates alike speak of “coming together.” Then, in the next campaign, we go through the same destructive pattern.

And this is a good way to run a democracy? My concern is that it’s quite the opposite: that negative campaigning is poisoning the public well.*

One principle of advertising, including political advertising, is that if you repeat your message often enough, broadly enough, and loudly enough, people will remember it. So if I, as a candidate, flood the airwaves highlighting my opponent’s ties to the evil cretins of Wall Street, that image will stick in some minds. Of course, my opponent may do the same, casting me as an eccentric cat owner with mental health issues. (Oh wait, that one’s true.)

Let’s say for the moment that these personal attacks succeed. (The research on their effectiveness has yielded conflicting results.) But what do they succeed at? I suspect they not only help elect candidates in certain situations, but also deepen a more pervasive, undifferentiated cynicism among voters in general. Hear enough charges and countercharges, and you can justifiably think that “they’re all ethically challenged/owned by special interests/in it for themselves/etc.”

The results of a survey commissioned by the Project on Campaign Conduct may support this conclusion. It found that 59% of respondents believe all or most candidates twist the truth, 39% believe they lie to voters, and 88% believe at least some candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents.

So. What would happen if candidates called a cease-fire? If our campaigns were more civil, it might make more emotional room for actual ideas to come to the surface. If we see candidates behaving decently, it might increase our trust in them. If we see them openly wrestling with issues, we might think they’re legitimately concerned for our interests rather than simply promoting the party line. Their campaigns might even give us enough usable input to help us reason out the issues for ourselves.

I have no illusions that we’ll get there anytime soon. In an endeavor that’s all about winning, it’s easy to grab on to any competitive advantage, however dishonorable. But I believe that, at bottom, we’re better than this. And because candidates are the most visible elements of their campaigns, their example of civility could set the tone for a more civil America.

In the meantime, I think I’ll do my small part next election season—by muting every attack ad right from the start. Want to join me? Your brain will thank you.

*I’m talking here about personal attacks and deliberate distortions, not campaigning that legitimately—even bluntly—points out differences in candidates’ positions or relevant character flaws. 

2 Responses to “A World Without Attack Ads?”

  • Stanley John says:

    Non-participation is the key. When I step back from the fighting I become one less person in the world adding to the suffering of others. And that’s what we’re really talking about here: suffering.

    But muting the ads? Not enough. Turn off the TV and sit in stillness. That will benefit the world even more.

  • John Backman says:

    Great point about stillness, Stanley. I do think there’s some value in leaving the TV on IF one is trying to stay abreast of the world’s news, understand the media’s slant on this issue or that, expose oneself to thoughtful analysis, etc. For me, though, TV news too often becomes background noise, and turning it off at that point would be the better part of wisdom.

    I can understand backing off from the mud wrestling that currently passes for political discourse. I wouldn’t, however, want to back off from people who are earnestly seeking dialogue. Maybe that’s what you meant anyway.

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