Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Political smear ads cause damage


October 28, 2014


QCS Managing Editor

I used to say that negative political campaign ads would stop when they stop working. Now I’m thinking that day cannot come too soon.

As a staunch advocate for freedom of speech (being in the media and all), I know we can’t order a halt to them, but the damage negative political ads have done, I think, is significant. I hope it’s not irreversible.

I recently returned from a two-week trip through the east and Midwest and found that smear campaigning is the norm nationwide in state and even local races, both parties. It has gotten sickening and discouraging.

Tell, me, please, how a candidate who has been defeated by ad campaigns that treat him or her as Satan’s second cousin is supposed to forgive and forget after the election?

How is the winner going to reach across the aisle when he or she has painted his or her opposition as slimy and corrupt and the embodiment of greed and cowardice?

That, I think, is the damage that negative political ads have created, and why I think it’s time for them to stop. They add nothing to the debate except distortions, half-truths and utter lies.

Negative ads are nothing new. The political campaigns of the 19th Century were, if anything, even more bare-knuckled than the phony muckraking in today’s political ads.

Today’s negative ad campaigning, however, has escalated in the past decade.

Why? Who knows? But here’s a theory:

I blame the crash of 2008. The nation’s millions of suddenly disenfranchised people divided into two camps: one that blamed Wall Street and one that blamed the government. The ones that blamed Wall Street became Occupy. The ones that blamed the government became the Tea Party.

Even after things stabilized some, the two camps, with little dilution, are no better off than they were before, and they’re bitter. Cynical campaign strategists have capitalized on that. It seems that it’s profitable to go negative when your voters are angry and looking for someone to blame.

But after 2008, Eric Cantor and the Tea Party Republicans would not speak to the White House or Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives. The insult was returned. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid remained polarized in the Senate. Our government nearly collapsed and we’re still stuck with the “sequester” of cuts that both sides thought were so toxic they would force compromise.

Let’s go back to the 1990s. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans swept Congress, but when President Clinton reached across the aisle, Gingrich and the rest reached back. The result: Even with a temporary shutdown of the government after a brief, intense showdown, things got working again through compromise, which is how democracies progress.

Today, it seems politically impossible to do so. I think negative ads have a lot to do with that. The ads paint such hideous pictures of the opposition that to make any attempt to deal with the other side after the election becomes political suicide. And that, I think, has a lot to do with why government can’t get anything done these days.

Steve Hansen is the managingeditor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at [email protected]


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