September 3, 2013

Negative ads vs. political discourse

In the arena of politics, there are many who aspire to a purer political discourse and a debate over ideas instead of rank political attacks founded in negativity.  I include myself among them.  The problem with that is this - such a political environment is not possible.  At least it is not possible on an ongoing and continuous basis.  At best we can hope for temporary periods of political discourse.  If two politicians are engaged in a political race, if one falls behind in polling, you can bet negative ads will come out and they will trigger retaliation from the front runner in turn.
 
Nevertheless, a healthier political discourse would certainly benefit society greatly. The idea has many proponents.  Sadly, I think they are misguided.  I respect the opinions of Allan Gregg for example, but as he deftly decries negative ads and negative politics, I believe he is na├»ve in his prescription for overcoming it.

Allan Gregg;
Not just part of democratic choice, attack ads are also justified for the simple reason that they work. Of course they work. They play to – and I believe feed – the public’s general cynicism towards the political system and distrust of politicians. Sad but true, a message that states …

If negative advertising is so effective, maybe the media and politicians should ask themselves why other big advertisers (who are far more experienced and savvy) do not employ these same tactics. Just like the electoral process, it is safe to assume that McDonald’s wants to take market share from Burger King....attack and counterattack might “work” to the extent that it would affect market share but it is not employed by McDonald’s and Burger King because they know it will destroy the category and pretty soon no one would ever buy a hamburger again. In other words, they are smart enough to know that the business they are in is not just about taking market share from the other guy … it’s about making consumers believe in eating hamburgers.

So while focusing on your opponent’s weakness rather than your own virtues might lead to a short term electoral advantage, over time, it will create a cascade of political cynicism...That is what is happening now and these are the seeds that defenders of negative advertising are sewing.

We would be wise to remember that politics is not a blood sport and that “what politics are really about” is not bludgeoning your opponent until they cannot stand.
"Well allow me to retort" 
 
Gregg is right of course, except where he is wrong. For example McDonald's and Burger King are going concerns unlike a political career which has a shelf life of anywhere from a year to perhaps twenty odd years on the upper end, and typically a four to eight year cycle in presidential elections. 
 
Also, while McDonald's and Burger King can both prosper in a divided marketplace, politics is winner-take-all.  The loser does not get to set policy, the loser just goes away empty-handed.  Given the limited shelf life of a political career, and a winner-take-all structure to politics, it is not surprising that with the stakes so high that competitors to office will pull out all the stops and appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize the impact of their message spend.
 
This does not make it right, but it seemingly does make it inevitable.  As soon as one candidate takes the low road, the other competitor has to do the same or risk heavily, getting their own positive message drowned out by the negative attacks.
 
The other problem that faces the political candidate (particularly on the right) is that the media spotlight will deliberately pick up anything that looks suspicious and run with every salacious detail (substantiated or not) for their own political agenda and of course for ratings.  Negativity works for them too.  And it does not let up; it is not only during election cycles that negativity exists. President Obama for example, is always demonizing his opponents in press conferences. It's second nature and it has been taken to an entirely new level under his administration.  It makes for an entirely combative political environment with no room for compromise.  It's fight or be killed - flight is not an option in politics.
 
That does not mean that positive messages cannot shine through from time to time. Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign was hugely successful and it was for his second term, not his first term.  Even Obama's own hope and change message of 2008 was a positive message that was eagerly absorbed by a population ready for something new.  But notice how it was replaced with a more cynical and negative approach in 2012 when he had four years of record to defend? Positive messages have a shorter shelf life than negative attack ads and likely reside in the memory of voters for a shorter period
 
Negativity is poison to the political system, on that Gregg is unequivocally correct. But where I differ is in the notion that it can be overcome - particularly by the effort of remembering that politics are not blood sport.  That's just not going to happen.  Politics is dirty business and it always has been.  Negativity has always been part of politics.  William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar shows that negativity has been around for centuries. Read between the lines in the speeches by Brutus and Marc Anthony.  Both speeches contain negativity but with more subtlety than 'my opponent has been caught sexting women again'. So as it has always been part of politics, it always will be.
 
The notion is hardly uplifting but it is reality.
 
 

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