Felicia Muftic: Politicians go negative because voters buy it
Grand County, CO Colorado
A very thoughtful friend of mine asked me about the negative political advertising that has erupted in the final weeks of one primary campaign. He commented that is just the kind of politics that turn off so many voters and that after the charges and counter charges, he did not know who to believe so he believed no one.
Virtues of both candidates were diminished in his eyes. I could only sympathize with him and I suggested that he focus on the backgrounds, qualifications and positions of the candidates instead.
That information is readily available on the respective candidates’ websites, if nowhere else. I recommend that approach as an antidote to anyone nauseated by nasty sounding campaign attack ads.
The downside of attack ads is that they are harmful to our democracy. We hear so many negative ads that we are in danger of being left with the general impression that all politicians are on the take, are so extreme one way or the other, look uglier than their pictures in glossy campaign literature and are self-interested, greedy fools with little scruples and many offensive ideas. We lose faith in our democratic institutions, tune out partisan politics and abandon our duties as citizens to participate in the rational decision making our founding fathers saw as essential to a functioning democracy.
I have been around politicians over the past 50 years, working for and with honest and civic minded officials, and knowing about others who were not. The truth is most of those entering public life, willing to bare their finances and personal information to the world, are motivated by idealism or an issue or position that inspires them, and want the power to “make a difference.”
There are always those who disappoint, making themselves vulnerable to negative ads. Power does corrupt, and charges against Rep. Charles Rangel, proven or not, are illustrations of how that could happen to a long-time, popular politician. Sometimes we thought we elected the most ethical person, but he turns out to be a cad.
Sometimes, too, the negative image also does not reflect the real person: a President Carter, in retrospect seems nearly saintly after being ridiculed for “having lust in his heart.” Sometimes an unpopular vote on a bill proves to be the right one later.
Negative advertising is criticizing an opponent for real, exaggerated or taken-out- of- context wrong doing. Its overuse is a recent phenomenon. While going negative has always been a traditional part of campaigns, the advent of political advertising on television and radio has permitted the negatives to dominate many campaigns to the exclusion of the positive “warm and fuzzy” or “crowing about accomplishments and credentials” types of commercials . . Because of the efficiencies of modern electronics and the Internet, paid advertising can be produced in a day and aired the next and the retorts become a back and forth at warp speed.
Candidates who first use attack ads in a campaign usually are those who: a) are the challengers because their burden is to show why the incumbent should be voted out; b) those who have been ahead and whose polls indicate the race is narrowing, or c) losing candidates looking for a game changer.
To make the matter worse, the attacked candidates often respond with their own volley of negative charges in the belief that the best defense is an aggressive offense. The better response to an attack, though, are ads that provide proof to the contrary.
None of this would happen, of course, if we as voters did not fall for the tactics. The common wisdom among campaign consultants is that negatives work better than positive messages. Why? Because we have become so cynical that negative advertising fortifies our preconceived notions of the general corruption of the system. Accentuating the positive is just not as convincing when the slings and arrows are flying. Per Pogo: “We have met the enemy and it is us”.
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