James Leach: Negative Political Ads Hurt the United States

Candidates who win by tearing down their opponents cannot then govern.

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There are profound analogies between politics and sports. Grantland Rice got it right more than half a century ago when he observed that winning or losing is less important than how the game is played. Likewise in politics. The temper and integrity of campaigns are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election.

In politics, there are few rules and no referees. The public must be on perpetual guard and prepared to throw flags when candidates overstep the bounds of fairness and decency. Our system of governance depends on accountability of public officials. So, a healthy regard for freedom of speech and a heavy dose of respect for the offbeat are important. Checks and balances are the American way, but there should not be unrequited tolerance for the intolerant.

Politics has a place for accentuating the positive even to the point of candidate narcissism. Issue articulation is even more important: It is always appropriate to contrast approaches to government, to suggest an opponent is too big or tightfisted a spender, too heavy a taxer or too undisciplined a tax cutter, too quick to go to war or too slow to respond to a national challenge. But it is never appropriate to lie, to impugn patriotism, or feed or inspire prejudice.

As a candidate in 17 congressional elections, losing the first and last, I had three rules: a) avoid the conflicts of interest that special interest funding implies; b) accentuate the positive in all public pronouncements; and c) respect the opposition, especially when most dismayed with positions and tactics employed. Candidates who maintain independence of judgment and hold to the rudder of respectful dialogue build a resistance to conflicted position taking and the kind of utterances that might be regretted, particularly later in life.

In the most profound political science observation of the 20th century, Albert Einstein said that splitting the atom changed everything save our way of thinking. Human nature may be one of the few constants in history, but 9/11 has taught that thinking must change not simply because of the destructive power of the big bomb but because of the implosive nature of small acts.

Violence and social division are rooted in negativism. Since such thought begins in the hearts and minds of individuals, it is in each of us that negativity must be checked. In western civilization’s most prophetic poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats wrote the center could not hold when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Apoca­lypse may not be a field of study, but the chaos of modernity seems to have produced a crisis of perspective and of values. Citizens of various philosophical persuasions increasingly disrespect modern-day democratic governance.

Much of the problem may flow from society’s fast-changing nature. But part falls at the feet of politicians who use ill-chosen rhetoric and campaign techniques to divide voters rather than appeal to what Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.” Negativity dispirits the soul of society. Candidates may prevail in elections by tearing down rather than uplifting, b ut they cannot then unite an angered citizenry.

The money problem. What is to be done? The drug of ambition that ever tempts politicians is money, mainstreamed into advertising to assign candidate virtues and attack opponent failings. Dependency on this narcotic is most acute when it is employed independently, where the ugliest charges can be made or insinuated. Federal law authorized the so-called 527 groups, allowing unrestricted big-money donations to advance mischievous ads without candidate accountability. Citizens should insist that these weapons of nega­tive destruction be banned.

Process is our most important product. Campaign reform should become a rallying cry for all who want to check the negative and rid politics of funding sources intent on putting candidates in a compromised corner. The duty of public officials is to inspire hope rather than manipulate fear. Whatever the issues, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high.