The race for president is finally getting underway–and so is the use of negative advertising. A recent Clinton campaign ad, aired in select battlegroundstates, accuses Bob Dole of being a "quitter" for leaving the Senate. The Republican Party was ready to respond in kind with a spot attacking Clinton's lawyers for arguing that the president's role as military commander in chief entitles him to an active duty postponement of Paula Jones' sex harassment civil suit. (The GOP ad never ran. After it was leaked to the press, Clinton's lawyers changed their legal strategy.) To many observers, such antics showcase all that's wrong with contemporary American politics.
"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," Tom Patterson, a Syracuse University political scientist told the Christian Science Monitor. 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 critics, are a warning 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," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
"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 of a widespread effort 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 the mainstream. Whether the topic is politics, television, music, whatever, the only good edge, it seems, is a dull one.
In recent years, more than a dozen states have passed laws prohibiting intentionally false statements in campaign ads. While such laws have little or no effect because the majority of negative ads trade in all-too-verifiable facts about politicians' failings, the larger impulse toward policing language in the political arena is particularly worrisome.
It is obvious why a professional officeholder such as Dick Gephardt is disturbed by the public's growing distrust of 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 fracases are embedded firmly in the American grain; they have to be expected in a country founded on sectarian dissent and dedicated to freedom of expression.
Those who fret over the "polarization of "American politics" and the "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, that is merely an indication that diverse views and voices are getting aired. Like the marketplaces for goods, the marketplaces for politics and ideas are rowdy and raucous gatherings.
As ambitious plans to ban negative political advertising are bandied about on talk shows, it is well worth remembering that a busy marketplace is louder than an empty one.