Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U.S. Elections

Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U.S. Elections

Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U.S. Elections

Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U.S. Elections


An old pro on political mischief in the United States gives us an overview of U.S. campaign tactics and ethics from 18th-century pamphleteers to 1990s political consultants and media wizards. Felknor analyzes negative campaigning today within the context of the evolution of our electoral system. He offers a candid report on media's influence on politics and shows how political reforms from the Progressive Era to Watergate have often misfired. This incisive analysis also provides long-forgotten, little-known, and never-told accounts of political lore written in a lively manner.


Great distress has been expressed by broadcast and print journalists, and by many of their listeners, viewers, and readers, over what is seen as a rash of unprecedentedly scurrilous and dishonest electioneering. Yet examination of the historical record demonstrates that the most substantial changes have been in the means of communicating electoral arguments, honest and dishonest alike. Since the essence of political argument is that freedom fundamental to all others, freedom of speech, calls for regulation must be issued with restraint and heard with skepticism. the citizen's most effective armor against smear and slander and distortion is what it has always been: critical analysis of what is said, and especially whether it is true and whether if true it has any reasonable bearing on the job to be filled.

U.S. critics seem most strident about political dirty work as an American phenomenon. But in fact there is nothing distinctively American about it. Contemporary political flim-flam as practiced in, among others, the United Kingdom, France, all of Latin America, Israel, and every other corner of the Middle East would make green with envy the most profligate and unregenerate old pol in North America. and since 1989 once-underground politicians throughout the recently Communist world make clear that newly free polities still in the process of self-creation confront all the same problems. Moreover, they do not blame those woes on U.S. imperialism.

And apart from particular imagery and technology, there is nothing new about the various strains of political mischief. Its elements of deception, demagoguery, and manipulation are amply chronicled in the Old Testament, the Greek and Latin classics, Shakespeare, and ancient as well as modern history.

Why, then, does American political chicanery and deceit get such a bad press? Perhaps because of idealism, inattention to history and world affairs, or some other failing so often attributed to American society and education.

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