I remember back in the "peaceful" days of the Presidential primaries when John McCain and Barack Obama both expressed the hope that should they become the nominees of their respective parties, theirs would be one of the most respectful campaigns in U.S. history. There was reason to hope that would be the case given the histories and words of the two men. John McCain built his reputation on honor and "straight talk" and has never hesitated to take a stand opposite that of his party if he believed the cause was right. Barack Obama roared to national prominence on a powerful speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 in which he spoke of "the United States of America" rather than the hues of red and blue that divide us or the "two Americas" of John Edwards' two failed campaigns for the Presidency. Moreover, his entire campaign for President has been built around his commitment to unity and a post-partisan approach to politics and governing. The promise for a different kind of election process was high. Well, here we are today and that promise lies broken and bleeding at the bottom of the pit that is the American electoral process. I'm not here to argue who started it - that would be juvenile and unproductive and we'd just start mimicking what the candidates and their campaigns are doing to each other. What's clear is when one charge or insult is levied, a counter-charge is sure to follow and there's no end to the vicious cycle once it's set in motion. Let me give you just one example.
Shortly after Senator McCain selected Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton derided the choice of "the former mayor of a town of 9,000." In one statement, he belittled small-town mayors and bypassed her more current experience as governor of the state of Alaska. Someone in the campaign determined that was a bad move because another statement was released later that same day in which Senator Obama and his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, congratulated and complimented her on her accomplishments:
“We send our congratulations to Governor Palin and her family on her designation as the Republican nominee for vice president. Her selection is yet another encouraging sign that all barriers are falling in our politics and while we obviously have differences over how to best lead this country forward, Governor Palin is an admirable person and will add a compelling new voice to this campaign.”
Later that day, Obama even gently chided his staff in response to a question about the conflicting statements from his campaign:
"I think that...campaigns start getting these hair triggers and the statement that Joe and I put out reflects our sentiments...I haven't met her before. She seems like a compelling person ... with a terrific personal story. But the fact that she ... will soon be nominated ... is one more indicator of this country moving forward ... one more hit against that glass ceiling. I congratulate her and look forward to a vigorous debate."
One would think that would be the end of that. Regrettably, Obama supporters picked up on the initial negative statement and amplified it in the blogosphere, stirring passions on both sides of the aisle. Eventually, it led to Governor Palin's response in her speech accepting the Republican nomination for Vice President:
"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."
You could hear the explosions go off all across America. Since then, we've been engaged in a pointless debate about who is more holy, small-town mayors or community organizers. Some in the blogosphere have even taken up the mantra, "Jesus was a community organizer; Pontius Pilate was a governor" to build up Senator Obama's experience and demean Governor Palin's resume. As a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, I find that statement offensive on a number of levels, but that's not the point I'm trying to make here. Trust me, I'm getting to that topic in a future article!
If you'll allow me a shameless plug for my candidate of choice during the primaries, Governor Mike Huckabee declared last week "...the accusations are continuing to fly from both campaigns. That's too bad. Let's shift back to the issues." Amen to that. I've said numerous times to my Republican colleagues that there are enough differences on the issues for us to debate and discuss without getting into the innuendo and rumors flying around the country at light speed over the Internet. Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong and I've concluded that it was inevitable. We hopeful ones just refused to acknowledge the intrinsic nature of politics. Here are the reasons why the campaign has disintegrated into a slugfest:
- Negative campaigning works. Some McCain advisers recently opined that when McCain was being himself and trying to run an honorable campaign, the press ignored him and the conservative base looked at him with suspicion. They reshuffled the campaign leadership deck in July, bringing in Steve Schmidt, a protege of Karl Rove, to run the campaign. The change in tactics and tone was apparent from the start. Since the campaign went on the offensive, Senator McCain's numbers have gradually gone up and he's either tied with or leading Obama depending on the poll. Governor Palin's selection, while it clearly gave the McCain campaign a shot in the arm, also heightened the negativity. Liberal bloggers and opinion-shapers, especially left-wing women, roared against Governor Palin like she was the greatest threat to civilization since Hitler, and their conservative counterparts, already swooning over her addition to the ticket, roared back. Governor Palin herself hit back with a speech that had enough red meat to feed the base but make everyone else more agitated. It's nearly impossible now to put the genie back in the bottle.
Think it's only a Republican thing? After Senator Obama ran off an impressive streak of 11 straight primary victories, Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign got more aggressive with Senator Obama, drawing scorn from much of the liberal establishment but delivering her more primary victories than Senator Obama from that point forward and, in the words of many pundits, causing Senator Obama to limp across the finish line. Many observers think had she not underestimated Obama's charismatic appeal, superior organization and prodigious fundraising and taken him seriously at a earlier stage of the campaign, we would be seeing a different Democrat as the party's nominee. Author Kerwin Swint writes in his book, Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Political Campaigns of All Time Countdown from No. 25 to No. 1, "Don't let them fool you--people love negative campaigns." They must because the numbers don't lie. A fascinating article in the Washington Post reports on experiments that suggest misinformation works because it exploits people's preexisting views, and even refutations of the false claims don't significantly change the minds of those predisposed to believe the misinformation in the first place. That's why 10 to 12 percent of Americans continue to believe Senator Obama is a Muslim despite ample evidence to the contrary. Think about this - the man attended the Trinity United Church of Christ, a church affiliated with a 51-year old Christian denomination, for 20 years! The same people who insist he's a Muslim also attack him for the tenor and theology of the church and its senior pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The contradiction between their belief that he's a Muslim and their criticism of his two-decades long affiliation with a controversial yet obviously Christian church is stark and revealing about the power of misinformation.
In fact, the same article mentions another study that concludes that among conservatives, some refutations strengthen rather than mitigate misinformation. The authors of this study claim it's because conservatives are more rigid in their views but because they are both Democrats and presumably liberal, I reject their value judgment as unworthy of their otherwise empirical approach. I would offer the refutation (grin!) that it's not rigidity but a belief that like the laws of physics, there are moral laws that are universal, unchanging and not subject to the whims and cultural preferences of mankind. Liberals claim they do not believe in absolute truth, even though I would argue that they too have their absolutes, such as their contention that there ARE no absolutes...but I digress! The bottom line of these studies is that all the money the campaigns spend on "truth squads" to debunk misinformation is pretty much wasted because people predisposed to either like or dislike your candidate will believe positive or negative misinformation even if it's proven to be false, and refuting misinformation in some cases just entrenches it even more.
- Negative campaigning isn't new. To those who decry the descent of our nation's politics into the muck and mire, I suggest they read the historical accounts of some of our earliest Presidential campaigns. For example, many historians believe the 1828 Presidential campaign between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson was the nastiest in American history. Kenneth Walsh, a historian and expert in the American Presidency, provides the following account:
"But in 1828, they pulled out all the stops in what became, for all sides, one of the toughest and dirtiest campaigns ever, setting the precedent for future negative campaigns. Jackson's forces attacked Adams as a corrupt politician, a monarchist, and an anti-Catholic zealot. Adams was accused by a Jackson supporter of using "a beautiful girl to seduce the passions of Czar Alexander and sway him to political purpose" while Adams was minister to Russia.
"For their part, Adams's backers said Jackson was a gambler, an adulterer, and a murderer. Most troubling to the candidate, they accused him of marrying his wife, Rachel, before she and her first husband had been legally divorced. They depicted Rachel as an immoral seductress, and she thought that her reputation was ruined. When Rachel died a few weeks before Jackson's inauguration as America's seventh president, he blamed Adams and his enemies for dragging her name through the mud and causing her to have a fatal nervous breakdown."
Andrew Jackson never forgave Adams or his supporters for his wife's death, and he spoke of them at her funeral:
"In the presence of this dear saint, I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy."
As a result, Jackson refused to make the obligatory courtesy visit to the outgoing President Adams, and Adams did not attend Jackson's inauguration. Jackson removed as many of Adams people from government as possible and installed his own loyalists, beginning a practice of using appointments for political advantage that continues to this day.
Negative campaigning didn't end in 1828. In 1860, Stephen Douglas attacked Abraham Lincoln's looks, calling him a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman” and "the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.” Of course, that could be because Lincoln's supporters described the 5'4" Douglas as “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way.” Grover Cleveland was accused of being a lecher and in fact did father an illegitimate child. Unlike a recent former candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Cleveland was a bachelor and immediately owned up to being the father of the child, telling his staff when asked how to respond to the taunts of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" to "tell the truth." He won the election, by the way. Emmett H. Buell Jr. and Lee Sigelman, authors of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns since 1960, did an exhaustive analysis of Presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2004 and concluded that negative campaigning hasn't increased but is simply better publicized and that John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960 may have been the most negative of all - yes, even more negative than the infamous "Swift Boat" campaign of 2004.
In fact, it's probably safe to say that George Washington was the only President who neither stooped to nor was victimized by negative campaigning, and that's because 1) he was elected twice by acclamation, the only President in history to receive 100% of the electoral votes, and 2) he wasn't a member of any political party, making him the only independent President in our constitutional government's history.
- Technology is transforming politics, especially negative politics. I'm a big fan of the democratizing power of the Internet. It gives the little guy a platform to express himself or herself to thousands, potentially millions of people around the world. In an age of personal computers, cable and satellite TV, cell phones (especially the ones with cameras), instant messaging, "texting," Webcams, satellite radio, blogs, and other means of content creation and communication, anyone can say or write anything and it can be broadcast to the world instantaneously. Whether or not it's true is irrelevant. What's more, the digital revolution means that campaigns can no longer control the message because it doesn't belong just to them. Any blogger with a chip on their shoulder can create a story by taking some quote or piece of information out of context and presenting it as an expose of a candidate's failings or weaknesses. That story can make its way around the country like a virus except that it moves at the speed of thought, regardless of how little thought was involved in its fabrication. Ross Perot once said, "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules - politics has no rules." That's even more true for the Internet. Like the authors Buell and Sigelman said in their book, campaigns today seem more negative because we're more exposed to it than previous generations. With the Internet, we're not only exposed to it - we're part of it. Politics is about winning, not being nice. I remember a scene from the 1980 Presidential campaign when Ronald Reagan visited an urban neighborhood in New York City and was verbally assaulted by a hostile crowd wondering what he was going to do for them. Exasperated, he shouted, "I can't do a damn thing for you unless I'm elected!" In that moment of unvarnished truth, he captured the essential purpose of politics - victory. You can have the loftiest principles, the most noble goals or the best plan to fix the most pressing problems in the public square but if you don't win, it doesn't matter. Cal Thomas, a conservative pundit and co-author with liberal political analyst Bob Beckel of the book Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America, said "One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician's objective. Election and power are." What candidates are usually the most vocal about negative campaigning after the election is over? The losers (read: John Kerry). It's not because they didn't engage it it themselves - it's because they didn't do enough of it or didn't start doing it early enough to secure a victory. When Senator Obama complained about theincreasingly negative tone the Clinton campaign was taking toward him, Bill Clinton basically shrugged his shoulders and said, "Politics ain't beanbag," meaning it's not for the weak or faint of heart.
We are "two Americas" - or maybe more. I was thinking to myself a few days ago that regardless of the outcome of this year's election, half the nation will be hacked off. An Obama supporter said in a Philadelphia newspaper "If McCain wins, look for a full-fledged race and class war, fueled by a deflated and depressed country, soaring crime, homelessness - and hopelessness!" The responses to this comment have ranged from "Bring it on!" to "If you think this country is so screwed up, why don't you leave?" If you read the blogs and the news as much as I do, it becomes readily apparent that neither of these candidates has what it takes to unify this country because half of the population has a worldview that is diametrically opposite that of the other. Conservatives see liberals as condescending, arrogant, elitist (it's an attitude - you don't have to be rich to be an elitist), snobbish, classist, hedonistic, self-centered, immoral, perpetuators of grievance and victimhood, socialist, internationalist, haters of America and idolizers of Europe, and loathers of self-reliance, personal responsibility, private charity, faith in God free enterprise and the dignity of work. Liberals see conservatives as racist, xenophobic, uneducated, nativist, jingoistic, ignorant, trogladytic, intolerant, dogmatic, rigid, bitter, haters of intellect, reason and enlightenment, and lacking in compassion for the less fortunate. I'm sure both sides could come up with more words to add to the lists I've provided except some of them couldn't be printed in a family-friendly blog such as this! The moderate voices who call for civility and grace are viewed with suspicion by both sides who either look for clues that these people are really moles for the other side or they're simply wimps afraid to take a stand, thus the phrase "the mushy middle." Henry Brooks Adams, an American writer and scholar and descendant of the political Adams family, said in his novel Democracy:
"Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds."
I know I've painted a bleak picture of politics in America today - it probably depresses you as much as it does me. Is there hope? Only if we're willing to acknowledge that politics is nothing more than a collection of individuals striving toward a shared objective, and that change starts with the man or woman in the mirror, not with someone else or some nameless or faceless "they" to which we all keep referring. Given history, human nature and the eyes through which we see the world, I must admit I'm not optimistic.