It’s Election Day (or very early morning, actually) as I sit to finish this, and the theme of the day was uttered a few weeks ago by a guy running for a local office: “I don’t care if I win or lose, I just want this to be over,” he said, referring to the campaigning.
And who can blame him. Anyone who has watched television or opened his mailbox lately has been barraged by advertising that is, in a word, slimy. The problem with political campaigns is that the advertising has all turned into a game of making up negative issues to attach to your opponent rather than standing for something yourself. It’s not about someone’s ideas, smarts or qualifications. It’s about making the populace fear the opponent’s intentions.
Take Sen. John Snow (even if he lost Nov. 2, he still gets the title) and his race to keep his N.C. Senate seat, for example. A few days before the election, a mailer went out from the North Carolina Republican Party that said he was willing to give a convicted child murderer “another chance.” Snow was upset, saying the ad relied on race-based fear tactics, showing the African-American convicted of the crime in a menacing pose.
His opponent decried the attack ad but said the information was factually correct. Snow supported a law that would allow judges to commute death sentences to life without parole if it was proven that racial bias was used in sentencing.
Now, some of those reading this probably know John Snow. If the former judge and prosecutor is soft on criminals and, as the ad claims, “too liberal,” well, grass ain’t green and the sky isn’t blue. The ad is just a load of bull.
Let’s call it slime creep. We’ve watched for years as presidential and congressional advertising campaigns turned nasty, negative and dirty. Now our state campaigns — at least those that are close — are exactly the same, just a slew of negative spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s coming from both sides of the ideological spectrum.
I fear what is coming next. If you look through our newspaper and the rest of the community papers around the region, you’ll see political advertising for county commission and school board seats that is, by comparison, quaint: “Running on my record, not away from it,” says one ad; “This is the reason I stand for a limited government with low taxes,” says another.
These are people who stand for something, and are asking voters to support them because of their position. The ad attacking Snow, on the other hand, tries to raise doubts and fear in the voter that a bad guy might win. It’s the politics of the 21st century.
My fear is that in the next election cycle, these very same negative tactics will slip down to the most local of campaigns. We saw winds of it this year in Jackson County, where sitting commissioners were set up as the reason for everything that’s wrong with this country. It didn’t escalate to the out-of-control level, but there was some relatively nasty stuff being thrown around.
Bare-knuckled politics is fine. Most of us prefer elected leaders who possess a certain degree of toughness and who will stand up to adversaries. Tough but fair is fine, but it requires a large dose of integrity to fight fairly. Once you wade into a brawl, it is very tempting to step over the line and start throwing sucker punches or doing whatever it takes to win.
A football coach I grudgingly admire uses the same comeback when reporters ask questions he doesn’t like: “It is what it is.” It’s also an apt point to keep in mind when assessing today’s political climate.
The evening network news shows and most newspapers — subtly biased, but factual — have been replaced as news sources for the masses by TV and radio talk show hosts and the web. Those programs and blogs might provide good information, but it has to be consumed with a more discerning filter. Whether you prefer Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post, you just have to know the difference between news, analysis, opinion and straight-up bias.
But that’s what we have. And so it is OK to rip someone to shreds over something that is marginally true or something that is completely irrelevant. It’s OK to falsely accuse a politician, as long as it keeps your ratings high or gets you elected to that same office. Or, as happened with Sen. Snow, for the opposing political party to send out a mailer that a retired judge and prosecutor wants to give another chance to a convicted child rapist and murderer.
I too am glad this election is over, but I’ve got a feeling the next may be even more tawdry. And, I fear that it all is running downhill to the local elections. I hope I’m wrong on this one.