Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Are Negatives Positive?

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Are Negatives Positive?

Article excerpt

"Does the Election Make You Want to Be Sedated?" So read a late October headline. What was the irritant calling for sedation? The "caustic" attack ads the 2012 political season delivered in spades. With the presidential election still four weeks away, Las Vegas television stations were featuring 10,000 political commercials a week. And Las Vegas ranked only tenth on the list of adsaturated markets. None of these political ads limned detailed plans for our country's future. Apart from the few that presented a candidate's fuzzy "vision" for future prosperity and freedom, the rest sliced and diced opponents, leaving an observant visitor from Mars to conclude that the only people who run for office in the United States are mountebanks, schemers, time-servers, liars, fakers, traitors, quacks, and crooks.

Every opinion poll shows that the public heartily dislikes political attack ads; and baleful commentators ceaselessly lament the damage to democracy done by the steady diet of bile that campaigns feed the electorate. Yet many of those who create the ads take a different view. "Negative ads not only work, they give voters better information than positive ads," declared one political consultant a few years back. Affirmed another: "competitive, comparative, compelling ads ... provide voters with the mothers' milk of political decision-making: information." This sentiment is widely shared in the consulting profession. Are voters perhaps disgruntled with what in fact is good for them?

That's what one political scientist believes. John Geer, in his 2006 book, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, set out to establish empirically whether negative ads hurt or helped the electoral process.

He restricted his investigation to 795 television ads run in presidential races from 1960 to 2000, copies of which are readily accessible in a couple of repositories. After coding these ads for content and type, Geer concluded that

* Negative ads have always outpaced positive ads by ratios ranging from 3 to 1 in 1984 to 20 to 1 in 2000. The average is about 8 to 1.

* There is a clear upward trend in negativity since 1960.

* Negative ads, contrary to received wisdom, enhance the democratic process by creating a more information-rich environment.

The last of these conclusions is the most interesting and provocative. How did Geer arrive at it? His argument involved several stages.

First, Geer postulated an "asymmetry" between positive and negative ads. "[F]or the negative ad to be effective, the sponsor ... must marshal more evidence" [than the sponsor of a positive ad]. "[W]hen politicians present negative messages, they need to provide evidence to make them credible." Geer then tested this postulate against the data. He examined the 795 ads to see if they included evidence. Geer's findings supported his postulate: "In every year under study, negative ads were much more likely to provide clear evidence to support their point than positive ads."

Second, Geer showed that attack ads are more likely to be about issues than about personality. The negative ads he studied were directed against the character of opposition candidates a third of the time and against their policy positions two-thirds of the time. "[N]egative appeals tend to be more positional in nature.... [N]egative ads are almost twice as likely [as positive ads] to provide voters with a choice of governmental action."

Finally, Geer presented some scaffolding. He endorsed a standard theme in Western political theory, asserting that "progress [in ideas] is the offspring of criticism."

  Over 350 years ago, John Milton.... in Aereopagitica argued
  that it was best to 'let truth and falsehood grapple ... in a free
  and open exchange.' [...] John Stuart Mill ... some 200 years
  later went even further, contending that an opinion gains
  legitimacy and credibility if it faces criticism. … 
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