I hate to admit it, but I’m feeling a bit less patriotic these days. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade being an American for anything. But when it comes to our electoral processes, our national brand has become tarnished…and it’s getting dirtier each year. What used to be referred to as “campaigning” is becoming a grotesque and calculated manipulation of facts and public sentiment. Toxic, distasteful and deceitful are emerging as the new norm, with honesty, substance and civility becoming casualties of a bygone era.
Fortunately, Americans are not defined primarily by our politics. Working on five continents last year, I had the chance to interact with working professionals who represented almost every age, ethnicity, gender and religious combination possible. By and large, those who live in other countries really like America and Americans. Most love to ask questions about our major cities (trying to figure out in their heads just where Cleveland, Ohio is) and our way of life. And when we reciprocate the curiosity and ask about their country, most smile and are eager to share a bit about their cultures and way of life. Good people enjoy interacting with other good people, no matter where they’re from.
If the subjects of government and politics ever came up, however, the moods and expressions usually changed. Few foreigners cared much for American foreign policy or the perceived arrogance of our government officials. Truth be told, neither were they proud of their own officials, elected or otherwise. It seems that politics and politicians the world over have an equally negative reputation. Why? Because most of what we hear about them is unflattering. Every week of every month, we are bombarded with news about scandals, affairs, abuses of power, back-room deals with insiders and other breaches of either morality or integrity. Rarely do we read stories and hear news that makes us proud of our leaders. Nor do we really expect to. While we’d like to imagine that they are cut from a different cloth, one with a stronger moral fabric, we understand that politicians are just people like the rest of us, and that some will occasionally act out of self interest instead of the greater good.
Even if politics and politicians have always had a bad reputation, something is making it even worse these days. That “something” is a marked decline in the degree of civility with which our elected officials engage each other. The tone of political rhetoric and campaign messages has become flat-out nasty over the past 20 years. And the next five months will be even worse. When the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations and special interest groups had the same “electioneering” rights as real people and could spend as much money as they wanted to support their candidates (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission), the cork was removed from the genie’s bottle and negative campaign ads began to multiply exponentially. Why? Because funding is no longer an issue and, secondly, research shows that negative ads work. That is, of course, if subtly disenfranchising supporters of your opposition is the objective.
Even though negative political ads are shown to affect voter sentiment, there is a fundamental flaw with their use: they poison the well for everyone. Funded often by political action committees with obscure names and agendas (who do Restore Our Future and Club for Growth really represent?), they polarize us as a people and eat away at our increasingly fragile sense pride as a nation. Just as damaging, they indirectly attack our own values and, as a result, our faith in the election process itself.
What is the actual goal? In theory, negative political ads attempt to influence the “undecided” portion of the voting public. The problem is that this is a minority of those even eligible to vote. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 31% of all Americans firmly identify themselves Democrats and 27% firmly as Republicans. News flash: These voters are not going to change their minds on candidates because of negative ads! All they will possibly do is begin to despise the other side for constantly attacking candidates (or causes) with whom they feel emotionally aligned. Yet with both Democrat and Republican – leaning organizations now free to spend virtually unlimited funds, the onslaught of negativity to try to influence the 40% of voters who identify themselves as Independents will continue.
Okay, I’m done ranting; it’s time for solutions. So what are good people like you and me to do? Try this: Just Mute It! With no offense to our friends at Nike, simply turn off the noise…all of it. From now until the election, make a commitment to yourself to hit the mute button liberally (or conservatively) and actively opt out of negative politics whenever you watch TV or listen to the radio. Whether the messages are for or against your candidates, make the conscious decision to silence the attack on our most honored of democratic processes, not to mention your sanity. Instead, inform your opinion the old fashioned way. Read written analysis from neutral sources, watch or listen to live debates, and make the time to research how your candidate choices have behaved and performed in the past – not what they promise they will do tomorrow.
Will a national mute-a-thon on negative ads curtail the trend? Maybe not. Those with money to burn and policy agendas to pursue will likely continue to try to influence the voting public in any way they can. But the effort will not be lost either, at least not on ourselves. By tuning out the voices that pander fear, distrust and ridicule, we claim a small victory for respect, dignity and civility. More importantly, we can exercise our right to vote this November perhaps feeling a bit less tarnished.
Tell us what you think about the effect of ads on your political views!