Magazine article Policy & Practice

More Negatives from the Campaign

Magazine article Policy & Practice

More Negatives from the Campaign

Article excerpt

The campaign season is fully upon us and woe to us who live in battleground states. It is nearly impossible to escape the deluge of negative ads and messages through just about every conceivable venue. One cannot watch TV or listen to the radio for more than a few minutes without hearing some attack ad about how the dangerous policies of the opponent will ruin America and all of our cherished values. But on top of that, I can't go to any place on the web or even answer my phone without getting more of the same.

Because I have worked in the policy world and on campaigns I think that I have a little more understanding than most for the necessity of such tactics (in general, they are used because they are somewhat effective). But beyond their obvious annoyance and the inescapability of the campaign noise, I fear that the negative campaigning we're seeing all the more frequently does long-term damage in two ways.

First, it adds to the negative view of government. With candidates no longer trumpeting their accomplishments, and campaigns increasingly attacking the most vulnerable parts of their opponent's record (and often stretching the truth to do so) the public is subjected to a depressing, pessimistic and skewed version of reality at about the only time most people are paying any attention. Making this worse is the growing length of the campaign season and the increased participation of groups outside the formal campaigns. The result is a the equivalent of a continuous, well-funded, and increasingly strident public information campaign with the covert message that your government leaders are uncaring and incompetent at best, and at worst they are corrupt or part of a conspiracy to destroy all you hold dear.

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The public's approval of its political leadership and its trust in government has been slowly declining for decades, and I would attribute part of that to the steady dose of no-holds-barred negative campaign rhetoric. If you believe that the years and billions of dollars spent on ads trying to convince people not to smoke have had an impact, you should also equate a similar shift in public thinking about government to a comparably funded, if not so deliberate effort.

The second way in which I find negative campaigning damaging is that it contributes to the public's misunderstanding of policies. In the past, when I have worked for an organization or a government agency, their leadership often hopes that their issues become part of the campaign discussion. …

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