Got into an email conversation a few days ago with a woman whose hobby is politics. She mentioned being “very pleased the November election cycle is over, because I couldn’t stand listening to anymore of the mudslinging.”
Ah, mudslinging and attack ads ... the Great American Political Pastime.
Although candidates refer to one another as “my worthy opponent,” individuals and groups who support a candidate spend big bucks on ads, mailouts and electronic postings that proclaim a candidate’s opponent is not only “unworthy,” he or she is a fascist, communist, spouse abuser, devil worshiper, draft-dodger, corporate shill and on and on.
The media runs surveys showing six or seven out of 10 Americans are offended by mudslinging attack ads, and they pray nightly that incivility in political campaigns will just go away. Thing is: I don’t believe it.
I’m not swallowing the surveys, not buying into the notion a majority of American voters yearn for civility in our elections.
Do we really want a kinder, gentler political playing field? Or do most Americans simply give lip service to that notion?
I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, for two reasons:
1. If we’re so turned off by attack ads, why do supporters of candidates continue to spend mega-bucks on negative campaign advertising?
2. This nation has a long and apparently revered history of mudslinging that dates back to our very first elections.
That’s right, the concept of negative campaigning didn’t just creep up with the notorious “Daisy Ad” Lyndon Johnson’s supporters used so effectively against Barry Goldwater in 1960. Supporters of George Herbert Walker Bush weren’t innovators when they linked Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton in 1988.
Over the generations, George Washington has taken on diety-like status in American history. But as the Continental Congress debated reelecting ol’ George in 1792, some newspapers portrayed him as a scoundrel, because his wife had been previously married. Down at the taverns, rogues questioned the virility of the man who would become the “Father of Our Country,” because Washington hadn’t fathered children of his own.
Our political history is filled with resorting to vulgar taunts.
Our candidates and their minions have merrily slandered one another as thieves, liars, atheists, drunks, crybabies, fornicators, bigamists, cross-dressers, cowards, traitors and dangerous lunatics.
They have likened one another to apes, snakes, pigs and rats, while dodging the serious issues of their age.
Attack ads and smear campaigns are as old as the republic — the Greek Republic, that is. And I suspect if you’d taken a survey in 300 B.C., a majority of ancient Greeks would have proclaimed they wanted to see a return of civility in politics.
But I doubt if they meant it, anymore than we mean it in 21st century America.
See, a lot of times “civility” is defined by political persuasion; one person’s interpretation of a slanderous statement is another person’s definition of the facts coming out. It depends on how you cast your vote, more than the truth or accuracy of the mud being slung.
Plus, there are factors peculiar to this age that make it highly unlikely negative campaigning and attack ads will soon disappear from the political landscape.
Mass communication, instantaneous access to information sources, 24-hour news cycles presenting opinion as fact, bloggers — some with dubious sources — becoming self-proclaimed pundits and rigid partisanship blur the line between fact and fiction.
We have at least two generations of young voters who have a glaring lack of knowledge about our history and how our political system really works.
Then toss fear into the mix — fear of economic collapse, of terrorism, of illegal immigrants, of cultural change, of expanding global conflict, of climate change, of a crumbling infrastructure — and expecting our political process to be civil and dignified is probably too much to ask.
Maybe we just have to live with juvenile attack ads and our fickle reaction to them.
After all, it’s better than the option of choosing our leaders by shooting each other down in the streets.
And, really, far be it from me to suggest we rid ourselves of another grand American tradition.
So I say: Civility be damned! Bring on the mud! We can take it.
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