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On Negative Ads

2002-08-23

Category: politics

Obviously, the negative political ads are a problem. Nobody will claim to like them. Apparently someone likes them or the ads wouldn't exist. The only reason to like them is that they work. Still, you can deal with them.

First, realize that the negativity is working to get people elected. People like to know that their chosen scoundrel is better than the other scoundrel. Negative ads can also work to get potential voters riled up and that means more votes. With this realization, try not to let it bother you too much.

Next, realize that the people making those ads have an agenda of their own. This agenda is probably something for which you won't vote. Their only hope is to make you hate the other candidate enough to vote against him or her. There may be legitimate times when it is good to aggressively vote someone out of office, but those may be the exception.

An extension of the agenda idea is that the candidates' agendas are basically the same. This means that issues alone are not a reason to vote for one over the other. Again, attacks might make a difference in a race.

The nature of the attacks is an interesting subject itself. They tend to fall into three categories:

The first is an attack against the individual and says little about his or her ability to perform the duties of the office. It is still important to have public officials with moral ideals, but that is not a primary issue. What the candidate does at home is less of an issue than what the candidate does in office.

The second item is probably exaggerated quite a bit. Though I think that there is a great deal of associating going on, I don't think that translates instantly into corruption. Often the special interest groups are the ones that can spend the most time and resources on a subject. A smart legislator will take advantage of that. Granted, the information will often be decidedly slanted, but it is still information to be considered.

Another problem with this sort of attack ad is that it is very one sided. Candidate A says that Candidate B associates with a special interest and is therefore corrupt. At no point does Candidate A mention which special interests he or she has associated with and just how corrupted he or she has become. Logically, if a person's association with a special interest instantly means that the person is corrupt, then it is likely both persons could be assumed to be tainted. I think it is more likely that mere association corrupts neither and any corruption comes from other qualities.

A final thought on the idea of special interests is that the group making the advertisement is a special interest group in and of themselves. It is humorous that a special interest group is trying to convince you that associating with special interest groups will automatically mean a person is corrupted. Do you feel corrupted? Perhaps just dirty.

The third form of attack is based on previous actions. "My opponent voted against giving money to orphans" or some such. There are a couple of problems with this sort of attack. Most of them have to do with incomplete information.

Most citizens don't have time read through every bill for which there is a vote. In the case of Federal laws, most people would be unable to read the convoluted language anyway. This makes it very easy for an ad to suggest that a person voted against one part of a bill without mentioning what other things may have been on the bill. In the case of the hypothetical orphan bill above, a legislator may have voted against increasing income tax by 200% and giving that money to orphans. Sure, he or she may have voted against giving money to orphans, but they also voted down a huge increase in income tax.

That example is exaggerated but it makes a point very clearly. As long as bills can have several items attached, the votes aren't cut and dried. Any time an ad tells you that a candidate voted against something, think for a moment what other things may have been voted against at the same time.

If the candidate supported by the ad claims to have voted for the bill in question, you have to think the same thing. What else did that person vote for? In my orphan scenario, the legislator who voted to give money to the orphans also voted to gouge the citizenry to do so.

Maybe not the case in my example, but there will also be plenty of people who don't support money for orphans and wouldn't want the bill even if it didn't include the huge tax hike.

So, what are you going to do about it?

First, try not to stress about it. The people involved aren't worth stressing over. If the issues are important to you then you need to do the research on your own or find a reliable source. Trusting politicians is a bad idea, especially when they are trying to get elected again. (Hopefully I am excluded, though I still encourage you to do your own research. That'll save me the trouble of doing so.)

Second, write letters of complaint. If you support a candidate and are upset about his or her use of negativity, write a letter or give a call. Newspapers love letters to the editor with a good rant about political issues, negative ads included. If it really bothers you, vote against the worst offender, within reason of course.

Encourage your state attorney's office to investigate the ads and insure that none of them violate truth in advertising or other fraud prevention laws. Though free speech is protected, a duly processed con-artist is not as protected. Also encourage candidates to sue rivals who over stretch the truth. Though I don't like the idea of filling the courts, if a group thinks they may be called to task for one of their ads, they may rethink the ad a little.

Finally, actually join a political party (may I recommend the Libertarians?) and take control. As a member of a party, you have some say in what its campaigners and candidates do. You can work from the inside to put an end to this non-sense. You can be instrumental in returning some sense of reason to the political process.

What ever happens, please make sure that you vote. The only vote thrown away is a vote not cast.


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