Attack Ads Are Good for You!

I appreciated the historical context provided by David Mark's article on negative political ads ("Attack Ads Are Good for You!," November). But I'm afraid the most powerful recent examples of the genre contradict his argument.

Mark cites research by Vanderbilt's John Geer to the effect that "negative ads tend to be more substantive than positive spots, because to be credible they must be better documented and specific." He quotes Geer as saying, "For the attacks to work, they have to be based on fact."

The most dramatic examples that come to mind are the Republicans' successful attempt to portray triple amputee war hero Max Cleland as weak on terrorism and the set of ads that were so effective in 2004 that they have spawned a new verb, to swift-boat. Neither of those campaigns were factual, any more than the push polls in the 2000 South Carolina primaries that accused John McCain of fathering an illegitimate child and betraying his comrades in arms in Vietnam. The game, as always, is to control the public's perception of the candidate.

Why are such campaigns so effective even when they are based on lies? What does it take to refute a false assertion?

E. Brad Meyer
Lincoln, MA

The most famous recent negative campaigns were Karl Rove's "Swift Boat Veteran" attacks on John Kerry and his smears against John McCain in the primaries. Yet David Mark quotes John Geer as saying, "For attack ads to work, they have to be based on facts." How were these attacks good for me? And why didn't the article even mention these recent instances?

There's a difference between adversarial campaigns and negative ones. Fluff ads showing the candidate with happy wife and kids say nothing. Ads clarifying the issues and diverging from the center are informative and are what campaigns should be about.

Brian E. Nevish
Jacksonville, FL

Welcome to Niche Nation

Chris Anderson and Nick Gillespie seemed to hit a wall when it came to contemplating the impact of the Long Tail on politics ("Welcome to Niche Nation," November). Anderson says, "We have a scarcity effect in our ability to act on the political system."

I don't agree. The Long Tail's dynamic of choice and individual empowerment is having an indirect but profound effect on politics and the political system.

First, the political system can now no longer control the flow or content of information available on a mass basis, leaving politicians at the mercy of blogs, video cameras, and mass punditry. There are fewer and fewer hiding places.

Second, you can make a case that the free flow of information has been the key ingredient in the breakup of several formerly centralized nation-states. The logic of the Long Tail would lead us to the conclusion that no nation-state is immune from the possibility of being broken into smaller, more flexible, more accommodating jurisdictions, as populations begin to view ubiquitous choice, personalization, and individual empowerment as normal. Today 1,000 channels, tomorrow 1,000 countries.

Randy Hilst
Nantucket, MA

Lay Off the Fatties

Thanks to Jacob Sullum for his thoughtful review of my book Fat Politics ("Lay Off the Fatties," November). Although I disagreed with a few characterizations and points of emphasis (e.g., uterine cancer deaths rates are extremely low), I appreciate his effort to capture the spirit of the book.

I was, however, bemused to hear that I have an "anti-market instinct"—must come from a gene I inherited from my mother. You can question the utility of the market and still not support government intrusion; this debate is more complicated than such a false dichotomy.

This touches on a very interesting question that I tried to get at in the book: Does an overabundance of choice inhibit freedom, and if so what can you do about it? Psychologist Barry Schwartz's excellent book The Paradox of Choice is pretty convincing on the first point (as is the fact that most Americans are fatter than they want to be), but the answer to the second is far less clear. While I would agree with Sullum that government is generally a terrible arbiter of these matters (which are only compounded by the pathologies of bureaucracy), I don't think those interested in maximizing individual liberty should refrain from questioning the inherent logic of consumer capitalism to overwhelm us with as many options as possible.

Sullum and I would probably agree that the ideal solution comes from voluntary communities constructed around moral precepts that help guide the behavior of their members. The success of these, however, seems to depend on their ability to isolate themselves from the market.

Thus, using weight as an example, the Amish are much more successful than members of Weight Watchers at keeping thin. The question is how such communities can be sustained in an era of increasing individualization and the liberalization of so many aspects of human life (such as eating).

J. Eric Oliver
Professor of Political Science
University of Chicago
Chicago, IL

CORRECTION: In "Space Travel for Fun and Profit" (January), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's COTS contract was incorrectly described as having been given to a partnership of Rocketplane and Space X. In fact, the award was divided between the two companies

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