Negative Returns

Attack ads reflect a diverse society.


To many observers, the recent South Carolina presidential primary debate showcased all that's wrong with contemporary American politics. Certainly, things got heated and hostile: Bob Dole crowned Steve Forbes "the king of negative advertising." Lamar Alexander claimed, "If Steve is the king, Senator Dole is the prince." Discussing a television spot with which Alexander took issue, Forbes replied, "That was a charitable ad. That ad did not talk about some of those cozy business deals you did as governor."

"Attack ads," the chattering classes tell us, are the latest sign that life in these United States is turning increasingly ugly. But the wailing and gnashing of teeth over negative political ads is less about politics and more about discomfort with the open, hard-edged clashes that are endemic to a diverse, democratic society. Tellingly, opponents of negative ads tend to focus not on the veracity of the spots, but on their tone.

"No one has an incentive to turn down the volume and speak nicely, and that's a shame" because it feeds public cynicism, Syracuse University political scientist Tom Patterson tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Americans are increasingly fed up with such mean-spiritedness," opines the newspaper, ignoring reports that voters appreciate the commercials for their information value. In an article titled "Tune In, Turn Off, Drop Out," U.S. News & World Report laments, "In recent years [political advertising] has turned even more nasty and brutish…today, half the political advertisements on television attack a candidate's opponent rather than emphasize his or her own strengths."

Attack ads, say opponents, are a warning signal that our society is slouching toward civic chaos. "We're destroying a process with negative advertising, which is giving everybody a very cynical attitude about politics and politicians. I'm very worried about it," Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) tells CNN.

"Hopelessness about the political process and cynicism about politicians are epidemic," bleats Tom Teepen in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "The polarization of American politics is not an accident," pronounces columnist David Broder, who chalks it up to the "increasingly negative tone and content" of the "dominant means of political communications, the 30-second campaign ads."

The attack on "attack ads"–it's OK to be negative about negativity–is part and parcel of a widespread and ongoing campaign to cleanse politics and our larger culture of the rancor that accompanies real diversity and disagreement. Although Americans worship loudly at the temple of pluralism, we are quick to brand as heretical anything that seems overly defiant of or alternative to a vague and self-servingly defined "mainstream." Whether the topic is politics, television, music, or whatever, the only good edge, it seems, is a dull one.

Hence, the Monitor notes, in recent years more than a dozen states have passed laws prohibiting "intentionally false statements" in campaign ads, with more states considering such legislation. While such laws have little to no effect–the vast majority of negative ads trade in all-too-verifiable facts about politicians' personal and public failings–the larger impulse toward policing language in the political arena is particularly worrisome. In politics, after all, differences can be large or small, subtle or obvious, but they are always important and largely subjective–and they deserve to be heard.

To be sure, it is self-evident why a professional officeholder such as Dick Gephardt is disturbed by the public's growing distrust and disdain for politicians. And it is understandable why well-intentioned citizens might shrink from the sometimes overwhelming fracas of competing ideas and versions of the good life.

But such sounds, sights, and spectacles are firmly in the American grain; they can only be expected in a country founded on sectarian dissent and dedicated to freedom of expression. It is no easy trick to fashion unumout of pluribus, to arrive at an acceptable consensus. Indeed, to expect politics of all things to be mild-mannered and well-behaved is to deny that people will disagree vehemently about who to elect, what to buy, and how to live.

Those who fret over the "polarization of American politics" and "cynicism about politicians" fundamentally mistake the signs of a robust social order for a civic apocalypse. While there is no doubt that America's public discourse can at times get ugly, nasty, and disturbing, that is merely an indication that diverse views and voices are getting a hearing. Like the marketplaces for goods and services, the marketplaces for politics, ideas, and culture itself are rowdy and raucous gatherings, filled with haggling customers who shout and scream, who beg and plead, and who buy in, hold out, or walk away from the table altogether.

This is something that Tocqueville understood as quintessentially American: "No sooner do you set foot on American soil," he wrote in Democracy in America, "than you find yourself in a sort of tumult; a confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements."

As more-ambitious plans to ban negative political advertising are bandied about on talk shows, as the government implements "voluntary" TV ratings and bans "indecent" language on the Internet, and as pundits bewail the fraying of American culture, it is well worth remembering that a busy marketplace is louder than an empty one.