Interesting article in the WSJ today about political ads in the Feingold-Johnson Senate race. Clay Barbour talked to a GOP strategist, who hit the nail on the head with this analysis of the billions of press releases campaigns send out everyday:
Graul said campaigns rarely focus on trivial issues such as the Ackland commercial when making TV ads, choosing instead to blast them out in e-mail form, hoping they catch on in blogs or on radio. Campaigns hope this will lead to an echo-chamber effect, in which noise made on the fringes forces the mainstream media to address the issue.
Lukas Diaz did not dig the article. He thought it was another contrived condemnation of negative campaigning. I disagree. I think it shed light on an important change in campaigns that the internet has brought on. While campaigning has always been a dirty game, the internet allows campaigns to channel especially ludicrous charges to a specific audience, who will advance them to the party base. This is in contrast the more traditional attacks, such as a TV spot, which the campaign has to tailor to a large audience, who is less likely to be receptive.
I recently took out a book at Memorial Library, In Defense of Negativity, by John G. Greer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt. I would recommend reading about the topic but I would not recommend the book. It is very academic, repetitive, and, in my humble opinion, poorly argued. However, it nevertheless touches upon an important topic in modern politics: Why do we instinctively consider negative ads worse than positive ones?
Greer repeatedly makes the point that positive ads are just as misleading and untruthful as attack ads. Fair enough. However, he goes further and states that attack ads are healthy for our democracy because they offer voters reasons to vote against a candidate, which are just as important as reasons to vote for one, despite the much-regurgitated clichés that state the contrary.
What he never addresses is the psychological effect of a system in which voters are being instructed to hate the opposition. The less negative a campaign is, the less bitter and vengeful the losers will be, and the more likely they will be in working with the winners to craft good policy.
Greer gets one relatively obvious thing right: To oppose any kind of negative campaigning is ridiculous. Part of making a case to the voters is laying out why you are better than your opponent. That inevitably involves criticism. However, when it comes to trivial positive campaigning vs. trivial negative attacks, I think the latter is much worse.
The constant attempts by campaigns to plant seeds of hatred in the electorate for the other side has made political dialogue in the country much worse than it used to be. I have no empirical data to support that assumption except the experience I've had throughout my life.