It was twenty years ago this week that the estimable Charles Krauthammer made the following observation. There are certain norms that are routinely followed in advertising. An airline – say, United – will not urge its services on passengers by asserting that another airline, say, US Air – has a terrible record of crashes. A soap company will not say another company’s soap stinks, and Coke does not claim that Pepsi rots your teeth. It is rare and extraordinary for another company to boost its product by denigrating the opposition.
The exception is politics, where the norm in political advertising is to allege that the opponent is a liar, scoundrel, thief, swindler and bum. Often, campaign ads will not even mention the candidate it favors (except in a tagline at the very end, required by regulation); the focus is on disparaging and belittling the opposition. It is as if it is more important to lambaste one’s opponent for sins real and imagined that it is to extol one’s own virtues or policies.
Why is this done? For two reasons.
It is done because, unlike the airlines, the soap and soda companies, or anyone selling a product, the politicians usually want to suppress the vote. Each politician strives to bring out his (or her) base to vote, and they know they cannot prevent the opponent’s base from voting. The hard core on each side is always mobilized. But most of the electorate is not hard core; perhaps less than half are even remotely interested. So each politician endeavors to discourage the opponent’s soft base (those who generally like his policies but are not overly enthusiastic about politics) from voting, and that is done by inducing a sentiment of “a pox on all your houses”.
The airlines are trying to get you to fly, like the soda companies want you to drink soda. If you are a customer – even of another brand – you are potentially a customer of their brand. So they do not denigrate the industry or goad the consumer in avoiding whatever product their industry sells. Politicians are the opposite; they wish to incite disgust, fatigue, malaise and discontent in the electorate – so decent people will stay home and not vote, and then completely ignore what they do while they are in office. The negative campaigning appeals to the base and sours everyone else. Obviously, whatever they say in public, a politician would rather have you not vote than vote for the opposition. So they seek to bring out the committed voter (to them) and have the doubtful voter find something else to do on Election Day.
And it is done because it works. There is a name for a politician who, in today’s environment, runs a clean campaign and does not go negative. He is known in the trade as an “ex-politician.” He loses. And that is the fault of the American people.
The United States might be polarized, except that relatively few people are engaged in the polarization. Most don’t care. The negative tactics work so well that Obama won re-election by claiming that Romney was an ogre, more or less, a heartless capitalist, murderer of old women, stealer of cancer medication, and fomenter of wars. And Obama paid a price for that successful campaign, not that he cares: Obama is the second president in history – the first since James Madison in 1812, exactly two centuries ago! – to win a second term with a lower percentage of the vote than he won for his first term and a lower total in real numbers (about 4,000,000 votes fewer in 2012 than he recorded in 2008). The plan worked to perfection: his base came out, and people who were naturally inclined to Romney but not fervent were essentially dissuaded from voting, because who wants to drive to the polls and vote for the devil?
It does not even matter that so many of the commercials contain claims that are demonstrably false. All that is necessary is to create an impression of venality, criminality, indifference or hostility toward one or another segment of the population, and that impression lingers enough to dishearten the interested but not passionate voter. For sure, this tactic is bi-partisan, but it has been perfected by the Democrats with their tired litany of wars on…women, children, the elderly, the poor, blacks, etc.
It actually is a war on our intelligence, and quite a successful one at that.
The war on women takes two forms: the hoary myth of interference with a woman’s body by the bad Republicans, and the canard of “unequal pay for equal work” which is more slogan than reality. In one Virginia campaign, the politician who did not support free contraception (i.e., free to the recipient, but a charge to all taxpayers) was described by his opponent as “evil.” Evil? Can’t one disagree with the scope of government without being labeled “evil”? (That word is not usually found in advertising. How would the consumer respond to this? “Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend (say) Colgate. The fifth is an evil sadist.” Unthinkable, except in politics.)
No one has yet to explain to me the following: if women earn 77% of a man’s salary for doing the same work, why would anyone hire a man? As an employer or business owner, I would love to shrink my payroll by 23% without lifting a finger and getting the same value out of my employees. The answer is that, of course, the claim is absurd. There is no such thing as “equal pay” because there is no such thing as “equal work.” Such comparisons never factor in seniority, experience, hours worked, time off for family considerations, ability and production. Comparing the salaries of male lawyers to female lawyers, with no other considerations, makes as much sense as comparing the salaries of NBA players to those in the WNBA. Who do you think is paid more, and why? (The NBA players, because they generate more revenue, as if you didn’t know.)
And there is a “war” on children, because we all know that children do not need two parents in the home but they do need big government to take care of them. And what was the war on the elderly? Who remembers, but Obama’s cuts to Medicare have harshly impacted seniors, and naturally blamed on the Republicans. And the poor don’t need jobs, but handouts. And when all else fails, play the race card, as in Joe Biden, August 14, 2012, to a black audience: Romney’s policies will put “you all back in chains;” or, oppose voter ID verification because, like, no one has an ID today, they are very hard to get, and it does prevent the dead from voting once and the living from voting twice. As in Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, claiming just the other day that she and the President are unpopular because of sex and race, respectively. Sure; there is no other reason imaginable.
Sadly, these tactics do work. These phony “wars” are successful, so successful that real wars – such as a “war on Muslim terror” – are unnecessary and do not exist in the Obama lexicon. For sure, if you have nothing else, then negative is the only option; hence the plethora of “wars” to be trotted out every election cycle. And certainly the Democrat cause is suffering; their Congressional candidates are so completely avoiding President Obama than one half-suspects he has come down with the Ebola virus.
I wish I could say that I would never vote for a candidate who runs negative advertising, but that is tantamount to saying that I will never vote. American society is not in a healthy state, right now, even recognizing that campaigns were even dirtier in the past. It is just that today, the dirt is so much more pervasive. Perhaps a reader can recall the last political campaign that was run without rancor, bitterness, meanness and malice. I don’t (not counting uncontested elections, where even there, the only candidate sometimes runs negative ads anyway).
One other point should be made. I am weary of candidates who will “fight” for me. Don’t fight anyone. Just do your job, which involves ensuring the country is safe and secure, entrepreneurs are allowed to pursue their dreams, taxes are kept to a bare minimum, a safety net is provided for the downtrodden, and government otherwise leaves me alone as much as possible.
Hey, that would make a great platform for an honest and humble politician.
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