Comparative (some call it “negative”) campaigning has been with us since the early days of our Republic, even some of our Founders and their associates practiced it. The first truly contested presidential elections under our Constitution – in 1796 and 1800 – were rife with vitriolic accusations and counter-accusations. Rough and tumble politicking of the highest order. The Willie Horton ad, relatively speaking, was subtle and nuanced compared to some of the allegations that were printed in the newspapers of that era.
So if you are opposed to comparative campaign tactics, you must be against the Founders and therefore, hate America. Commie swine!
Do I even need to write, “See what I did there?”
My point with this inelegant example is to recognize that pointing out the shortcomings of one’s political opponent(s) is generally well within the bounds of fair play in our democracy and that witless hand-wringing while bemoaning the so-called coarseness of modern elections is to miss the mark completely.
Don’t get it twisted, there were folks on both sides of the aisle, in Maryland, that engaged in comparative campaigning in 2014. Sometimes it took the form of paid media, in other cases, attacks generated earned media. In some communities, whisper campaigns via word-of-mouth or social media conveyed messages…information that wasn’t always grounded in that which the boffins call “facts.” Sometimes attacks were cloaked as defensive statements.
So before one starts saying, “Golly gee, I reckon ‘negative’ campaigning doesn’t work.” Think again. You might not like it, and it might not appeal to “our better angels” but it serves a purpose…and it is often effective. A back-and-forth on voting records and statements helps facilitate a free exchange of ideas and allows for the painting of more detailed portraits of those seeking public office. Those on the receiving end may not appreciate the “warts and all” image of themselves, but it offers an electorate another way of thinking about someone who may represent them.
Of course serious money is spent by campaigns in an effort to showcase/position their candidate in the most favorable light possible, and they will get miffed because comparative communications efforts require the expenditure of additional time and resources, both of which are precious, to ensure that the voters are hearing “our” story about our candidate as opposed to “their” narrative about our candidate.
Academic arguments can discuss the impact of such campaigns on political efficacy and voter turnout. That subject will not be addressed here today.
My point is that those on high horses tend to dismount quickly when it becomes advantageous for them/their political party to engage in such practices. So the “holier-than-thou” attitude gets very tiring, very fast…and often precedes behavior that could best be described as hypocritical.
Stay tuned, as more will follow.