It's Not All Negative

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How to fight the politics of racism
Those Who Can Teach
The Price of Freedom
It's Not All Negative
Grading Papers by Computer
For Cherelle Parker

As we reach the end of the 1996 campaign, negative political advertising has become inescapable. Dole is bashing Clinton while Clinton returns the favor. Helms and Gantt accuse each other of lying. Campaign ads come so fast, one on top of another, that it seems as if we are watching a tennis match with candidates hitting accusations back and forth.

Not far behind comes the condemnations of negative advertising, by citizens and opinion writers. Let me express another view. Like democracy itself, negative advertising is not pretty. But it makes an important contribution to the health of our government.

To see this, we have to resolve a paradox. Everyone hates negative advertisements. But they work. No politician serious about winning an election would give them up. If we hate these ads so much, why do we respond to them?

The answer is that most of us only see half the negative ads. We hate those directed against the candidates or causes we favor. But ads directed against the candidates or causes we oppose are not seen as negative at all. Rather we think they are telling the harsh truth—as we see it. By reminding us of our deeply felt political beliefs, these ads motivate us to vote and, sometimes, lead us to turn against a candidate for the sake of supporting a cause we deem important.

So, negative advertising works for the candidates. But what is its effect on our democracy? Most commentators decry the harshness of negative advertising. They worry that the animosities it stirs up will make governing difficult. There is some truth to this. But by expressing political animosities, negative advertising might, quite indirectly, be helpful.

All governments demand a lot from citizens. Governments ask us to pay taxes, to fight in wars and to obey many laws we disagree with. Democracy asks these things of us as well. But democracy asks even more from citizens than other forms of government. For democratic governments only work if we are willing to put up with, listen to, and compromise with people and politicians whose ideals and goals we detest. This is a hard discipline, requiring civic self-control. And that is why democracy is not the most common way for people to settle their political disputes. Oppressive, tyrannical regimes and civil wars are far more common. Democracy is only possible when people moderate their own views and work with those they disagree with. In two ways, negative advertising helps us do this.

First, negative advertising expresses our resentments, against our political opponents and against government itself. It thus serves as an outlet for our anger at and disappointments with democratic government Negative advertising, like one of Jay Leno’s monologues, is a benign outlet for our resentments. And, because we have this outlet, it makes it less likely that we will turn to one of the common alternatives, such as terrorism and rebellion.

Second, negative advertising teaches us an important, but easily forgotten truth about our political life: we are a people divided about many matters. We all tend to forget this. We assume that people mostly agree with us and that only the special interests stand in the way of attaining our political goals. Political campaigns encourage this assumption. Democrats and Republicans disagree about many things. But they both claim to speak for the people. And they both attack the special interests, albeit different ones. For Democrats, all would be well if big business and their Republican henchmen were tamed. For Republicans, big government, and the Democrats who support it, are the usual suspects.

Slow moving and ineffective government sometimes does result from the power of special interests. More often, however, the deadlock of democracy is  is the result of the divisions among us. It would be nice if we the people were united. But on issue after issue, we are not. Think of how we disagree about abortion and health care. And, think too, about the most common views about who should pay taxes (the other guy) and who should receive benefits (us).

Negative advertising brings these disagreements home to us. Politicians claim to speak for the whole people. The divisiveness of their advertising tells the truth about our own divisions. And that is a good thing. The passion and bitterness of a political campaign can become scary. Still, it is a reminder of why we must accept the discipline of democracy. For if we do not moderate our own claims and compromise with those who have different views, democracy will collapse. Thus, in a strange, backhanded way, negative advertising helps to insure that, on the first Wednesday of November, politicians pledge to overcome their differences and work with one another.