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Attack Ads Damage Our Democracy

Posted: 05/01/2013 11:10 am

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.

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