Americans love sports and games which cover a broad spectrum of “ruggedness.” On one end of that spectrum we find sports like baseball and tennis and most track and field events. Although demanding, they are relatively gentle in that they involve little physical contact. In the center we find others, like football, soccer, ice hockey and rugby.
Here, heavy bodily contact accompanied by a bit of mayhem is part of the game. And at the far end (with apologies to sports fans) there is one that seems to top them all -- with few rules and a no-holds-barred approach to combat. It’s nasty, often vicious, and seems to have become part of the American way of life.
No, I am not talking about professional wrestling, although it does share the trait that one cannot separate the little that is true from the overwhelming false. Nor am I talking about extreme combat sports (they come close), but I might as well be. The similarity is that in both cases, the objective is to do as much damage to the opponent as possible. But the difference is that even in extreme combat, there are still rules.
The sport to which I am referring takes place in “tournaments” that are typically held every other fall, culminating usually in
November, when we all have the opportunity to select the victors. The sport to which I refer is that of political campaigning, at both the national and the local levels.
It is possible that there once was a time when campaigning was a civil and civilized process. If so, that now seems to be consigned to history. Despite the strong concern voiced by many, negative campaigning seems to have become a feature of the American way -- including distortion of the truth and even blatant lies. A number of high courts, in both state and federal jurisdictions have already ruled that politicians who knowingly lie to boost their own credentials or to discredit their opponent’s record may do so with impunity, protected under constitutional guarantees of free speech. This seems to be indicative of a broader trend of loosening moral standards. Anything seems to go. But why should this be, given the fact that so many people seem to be disgusted by the process?
There is a little fictional possum, living in the Okefenokee Swamps of Georgia who, in my opinion has uttered some of the most cogent philosophical statements relating to American life. One of his most perceptive comments was: “We has met the enemy and he is us.” Nowhere does this apply more forcefully than in American politics. The reason why negative campaigns are so prevalent is simple -- because they work! We seem to respond more deeply to negative messages than to positive. We are the problem!
Many candidates do not talk about what they will do if elected. Taking a position can open one to criticism and attack. Additionally, going on record can be embarrassing when the time comes to deliver. Instead, they attack, using or misusing whatever information they can find or fabricate relating to opponents. One sad result is that many good people, potential candidates, will not subject themselves to such a process, and do not run for election -- to the great loss of our nation.
Turn on the television, and you will be barraged by negative political advertisements, often distorting some aspect of an opponent’s life to portray him or her as “evil incarnate.” Mailboxes are flooded with numerous documents in the same vein – so many that it is impossible to separate truth from fiction. Candidates speak in generalities without getting to specifics. Words like “integrity,” “change,” “fiscal responsibility” and “accountability” are bandied about without any substantive content.
I recently received two expensive four-page fliers relating to two different elections, both of which contained nothing but negative information, blasting the integrity of the target and covering areas unrelated to the election. It was especially interesting that, neither mentioned the candidate that these groups intended to support. The only indication of the source was a tiny return address. In one case it was the Democratic Party and in another it was an organizational affiliate of the Republican Party. Clearly the problem is not confined to one side or the other. The issue is clear -- this tactic has proved to be the most effective in winning elections -- nastiness seems to pay. Truth and integrity be damned.
The net result is that, in this sport, the candidates who can toss the most money at promoting negative images of their opponents often carry the day and walk away with the election prize. And the proportion of funding going into assailing opponents, as opposed to presenting one’s idea, is very large.
But whether spending on positive or negative messages, the cost of these campaigns has become outrageous. Recently, Michael Bloomberg spent almost $100 million of his own money to change the rules and barely squeak through reelection as mayor of New York City. Meg Whitman has already spent more than that, from her own pocket, in her quest for the governorship of California. It is really not a meaningful comparison, but it is still interesting to see how much money is being spent to achieve election to offices that pay modest salaries. There is a reason for that too -- perhaps another time.
We live in a society where nothing ever seems to be enough. The sport of boxing, for example, though violent, has clear rules. But it is not bloody enough for many, so today we have extreme fighting matches. If current trends continue, we may return to the days when gladiators were sent into the arena to kill each other while cheering crowds looked on. Many sports and games have become more violent in nature. We even raise our children, these days, often unknowingly, on a menu of violence with computer games that glory in killing, theft and even rape as a main course. Is it any wonder that much of political campaigning takes a similar downward path? The only question is whether it is leading or following the trend.
A lot of people are not happy with the status quo. They dislike both the campaign efforts and the results. But this will only change if people convert their concerns and grumbling into action -- by making their voices heard. Otherwise, things will likely continue on the same path. Again, to requote Pogo: “We has met the enemy and he is us.”
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.