This post first appeared on Allan Gregg's Another View blog.
Since Lyndon Johnson launched "the daisy ad" -- accusing Barry Goldwater of capriciously threatening nuclear war -- negative advertising has become common place in politics.
So common place in fact that, almost half a century later, on the heels of yet another volley of Conservative attack ads against another new Liberal leader, Canada's "national" newspaper, The Globe and Mail, is now exhorting Justin Trudeau to counter attack and "fight fire with fire or look weak".
For decades, political operatives have defended the practice of focusing on your opponent's weaknesses, rather than your strengths, as a legitimate part of democratic choice. The Globe echoes this sentiment ... "Isn't politics about showing why you're a better choice that your opponent? That implies both the positive and the negative." But the Globe goes even farther than the practitioners, with the claim that ".... the notion of rising above negativity feels false to what politics are really about ...". This view of "what politics is really about" and the role that negative advertising plays in it, is not only callow, it is dangerous and wrong.
Not just part of democratic choice, attack ads are also justified for the simple reason that they work. Of course they work. They play to -- and I believe feed -- the public's general cynicism towards the political system and distrust of politicians. Sad but true, a message that states ... "politician A is a crook" is far more likely to be believed than one that claims "politician B is a paragon of virtue." But using this justification implies that the only practice of politics and role for politicians is to secure short-term electoral gain over your opponent.
If negative advertising is so effective, maybe the media and politicians should ask themselves why other big advertisers (who are far more experienced and savvy) do not employ these same tactics. Just like the electoral process, it is safe to assume that McDonald's wants to take market share from Burger King. They also know that the quickest and most immediate way of doing this would be to launch an ad campaign that claimed their competitor's product contained botulism. Burger King could neutralize McDonald's advantage by countering that Big Macs are rife with e-coli. This attack and counterattack might "work" to the extent that it would affect market share but it is not employed by McDonald's and Burger King because they know it will destroy the category and pretty soon no one would ever buy a hamburger again. In other words, they are smart enough to know that the business they are in is not just about taking market share from the other guy... it's about making consumers believe in eating hamburgers.
So while focusing on your opponent's weakness rather than your own virtues might lead to a short term electoral advantage, over time, it will create a cascade of political cynicism. If you say "politician A is a crook" often enough, it is only a matter of time before the public comes to believe that all politicians are crooks. That is what is happening now and these are the seeds that defenders of negative advertising are sowing.
We would be wise to remember that politics is not a blood sport and that "what politics is really about" is not bludgeoning your opponent until they cannot stand.
For good or ill, politics is the process by which we organize civil, democratic society. It is used to allocate a nation's scarce resources. Through it, we confer a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Because of it, we are able to represent the wishes of the majority and at the same time protect the rights of minority. And at bottom, politics creates a state that has the potential to do immense good or infinite harm and as such, we all have a vested interest in the best and brightest and only those who are motivated by the public good being encouraged to enter public life.
In the very same way, those who believe that this is "what politics is really about" have a responsibility to draw attention to its virtues and not just its shortcomings.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST
Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay (left) is chased by Liberal MP Justin Trudeau in a motorized wheelchair during a wheelchair race relay on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 12, 2010. Twenty-five MPs and senators used a wheelchair for the day in support of the Canadian Paraplegic Association's Spinal Cord Injury and CPA awareness month.
Justin Trudeau trains at Pan Am Boxing Club in Winnipeg on Friday Feb. 1, 2013.
Justin Trudeau & co. making faces.
Justin Trudeau splits his pants while pushing the "scrum machine" in support of Prostate Cancer Canada in Toronto Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Justin Trudeau gets his geek on at Montreal Comiccon in September 2012.
Justin Trudeau has his moustache shaved off to raise money for the Judy LaMarsh Fund, that supports female candidates, at the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa on Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Justin Trudeau all dressed up for the Montreal Movember Gala in 2010.
Pierre Trudeau's sons, Sacha, left, and Justin, tackle their mother's paperboy in Ottawa in this undated photo.
Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau delivers a right hook to his older brother Justin during a play fight in 1980 at Ottawa airport as the boys await a flight with the return of their father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau strikes a pose with an adorable baby.
Justin Trudeau poses with his family on his 2010 Christmas card.
Former Liberal MP Ken Dryden, left, and Justin Trudeau play table hockey as they visit Sun Youth, a community organization, Monday, Jan. 14, 2008 in Montreal.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, left, watches as his 11-year-old son Justin swings on a chain during a tour of an old fort in the Omani town of Nizwa Dec. 2, 1983. Trudeau and Justin spent the day visiting the towns of Jebel and Nizwa 165 kilometres south of Muscat.
Justin Trudeau in Muskoka, Ont.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, centre, has his cowbay taken by his son Xavier, 4 years-old, while his wife Sophie Gregoire, second from left, holds daughet Ella-Grace, 3 years-old, while they attend the party's annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Saturday, July 7, 2012. This is the 100th anniversary of the Stampede.
Eleven-month-old Justin Trudeau, urged on by his mother Margaret Trudeau, crawls up the steps of an aircraft in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 1972 to meet his father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau on his return from Britain.
Justin Trudeau dances with wife Sophie Grégoire before his speech at the Liberal showcase on April 6, 2013.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wearing what someone called his "Mandrake the Magician outfit," walks down the grandstand steps to present the Grey Cup trophy to the victorious Montreal Alouettes in this Nov. 28, 1970 photo.
Pierre Trudeau leans over to kiss an unidentified young lady to the seeming surprise of his recent bride Margaret. Trudeau and Margaret spent Saturday March 27, 1971 at maple tree farm here near Montreal at a sugaring out party.
Pierre Trudeau accompanies Margaret Sinclair, at the annual Governor General's skating party for members of Parliament in Ottawa Jan. 14, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau looks through the scope of his rifle while on a seal hunting trip in Baffin Island's Clear Water Fjord, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau shoes off his frisbee catching style while waiting to board his plane in Vancouver May 16, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau had no trouble keeping himself occupied during a break from a boat trip down the Northwest Territories, Nahanni River, Monday Aug. 4, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau takes a wary look at an ice crevice, decides to chance it and makes the leap successfully during a midnight seal- hunting expedition at Clearwater Fjord in Canada's Arctic, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau receives a kiss from his wife Margaret during a tour of St. Pierre, France, Aug. 1971.
Pierre Trudeau in Guayana 1974.
Pierre Trudeau sticks his tongue out to Canadian Press Photographer Peter Bregg during the 1972 election campaign. This photo was taken aboard the campaign plane where such antics were considered off the record. The photo was not made available until after the death of the prime minister
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dances in Montreal Oct. 21, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau sprints away from a crowd of female admirers in Ottawa April 22, 1968. They surrounded him outside the Parliament Buildings on his third day in office.
John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, meet with Pierre Trudeau Dec. 24, 1969 in Ottawa.
Pierre Trudeau looks on as Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures during a visit to a Havana housing project in this Jan. 27, 1976 photo.
Pierre Trudeau pretending to strangle himself with a tie given to him as he was presented with honorary membership in the National Press Club in Ottawa Sept. 17, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau amuses a group of people in Fortune while on tour through Newfoundland, Aug. 3, 1971.
Pierre Trudeau takes a ride on the Bluenose, Aug. 1972.
Pierre Trudeau works out at an Oshawa health club during a break in his 1968 election campaign.
Pierre Trudeau, with a garland around his neck and a Hindu greeting symbol in paste on his forhead, rides a camel Jan 12, 1971 in the village of Benares, India, where he dedicated a water well.
Pierre Trudeau kids around with a carnation while waiting for voting results at the Liberal convention in this April 7, 1968 photo.
Pierre Trudeau tries cracking a dog sled whip while visiting Baker Lake in the Arctic, March 10, 1970.
Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Sheik Yamani, left, and Pierre Trudeau, right, dance a traditional Arabian dance while camping out in the desert in Madein Saleh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 18, 1980.
Pierre Trudeau, seen here taking part in Maori ceremonial dance in Wellington, New Zealand May 13, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau does a dance after his campaign bus broke down in Montreal June 6, 1968.
Wearing a "feather in his cap," Pierre Trudeau attended the official opening May 20, 1983, of an archaeological excavation in Hull, Que.
Pierre Trudeau, shown performing his famous pirouette during a May 7, 1977, picture session at Buckingham Palace in London, England.
Pierre Trudeau, in a moment of joy over patriation of Canada's constitution, preformed his now famous pirouette at Uplands Airport on April 18, 1982 following the Queens's departure for London after the 4-day state visit which climaxed with the proclamation of the Constitution Act.
Pierre Trudeau is saluted by RCMP Officer as he carries son Justin to Rideau Hall in 1973.
Prime Minister Trudeau and his then-wife Margaret leave the city's Notre Dame Basilica Sunday afternoon after the christening of their 22-day old infant Justin Pierre James, Jan. 16, 1972. Tasseled shawls kept the baby hidden from photographers and the 10-degree-below-zero weather.
March 1979 photo of the Trudeau children: Michel (front), Alexandre (Sacha) and Justin (rear).
It was a big day for Dad, but a long day for the three Trudeau children. Left to right, Justin, Michel and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau attended the swearing in ceremonies of their father Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister March 3, 1980 at Government House.
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