â€œPost-election time for us to come together,â€ intoned the headline for Wednesdayâ€™s Ironton Tribune editorial.
Please forgive me a bit of cynicism here. It just all sounds so familiar.
Maybe youâ€™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 â€œcoming together.â€ 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 itâ€™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 opponentâ€™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 oneâ€™s true.)
Letâ€™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 â€œtheyâ€™re all ethically challenged/owned by special interests/in it for themselves/etc.â€
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 theyâ€™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 weâ€™ll get there anytime soon. In an endeavor thatâ€™s all about winning, itâ€™s easy to grab on to any competitive advantage, however dishonorable. But I believe that, at bottom, weâ€™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 Iâ€™ll do my small part next election seasonâ€”by muting every attack ad right from the start. Want to join me? Your brain will thank you.
*Iâ€™m talking here about personal attacks and deliberate distortions, not campaigning that legitimatelyâ€”even bluntlyâ€”points out differences in candidatesâ€™ positions or relevant character flaws.Â