With the predictability of the changing of the leaves, every fall I see letters to the editor and op-eds complaining about mud-slinging and negative campaigning in politics. There is much bemoaning of attack ads and personal hits and so on. While I agree that I would prefer to base my vote on policy stances and personal character, I have to disagree with the oft-cited statement that “voters hate negative politics.”
The fact is that mudslinging works. When candidates start attacking each other in commercials and in public appearances, people notice and the news covers it. “If it bleeds, it leads,” especialy when it’s political blood being spilled. And polls taken after a new round of mudslinging by one candidate often shows that candidate gaining share. I’ve heard it perhaps a dozen times in the past week that “politics is a bloodsport in Massachusetts,” and it’s true. True, some people have altruistic desires to hear reasoned debate in the campaign, but for the vast majority watching politics is like watching auto racing: it’s thrilling enough, but the big wreck makes all the better. Or hockey: admit it, you watch it, but you’re waiting for the fight. It’s basic fallen human nature.
I’m no historian, but I believe we’ve actually become more civilized about politics and not less in recent years. Didn’t Henry Clay knock someone in the noggin with his cane on the floor of the house of Representatives 150 years ago?
Pointing out your opponent’s flaws and painting every tiny crack in his armor as a gaping wound is a staple of politics. It’s supposed to be our job as voters to think critically about the charges and counter-charges as well as the self-revelations of the candidates’ own platforms and choose accordingly. I just referenced “critical thinking,” huh? This is the same society where more people probably know the name of Jennifer Lopez’s current boyfriend than know who their congressmen are. Maybe it’s just as well that more Americans don’t actually go to the polls anyway. Instead, they can sit at home and be entertained by the bloodsport on TV.