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Commentary: Negative Ads Help Candidates But May Hurt Democracy

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Representative democracies are rarely models of gentility. Their elected officials, motivated by self-interest and a certain belief system, often see their views as right and proper and those of their opponents as wrong-headed and dangerous. The U.S. system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances at all levels, has necessitated a certain need for compromise and the importance of being able to govern. The result has usually been country above party -- although that did not eliminate some hyperbolic rhetoric or using the system for personal gain.

But events in the 1960s sharpened division and protest. Vietnam and Watergate led to a questioning of policy and performance. The passions of the ‘60s were answered by a growing conservatism among parts of the middle class, seemingly threatened by changing race relations and a different moral compass. The partisan and ideological gap grew and President Ronald Reagan added a new dimension: “Government is the problem.”

Reagan first inaugural: In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.

This American political evolution alone helped erode confidence in our institutions and elected officials. But the decline can also be attributed to the merchandising of political campaigns and the policy process.

Old-fashioned campaigns stressed experience and identification with voters’ needs. Negative advertising entered the picture with the infamous “daisy” commercial. It was only run once in 1964 against Barry Goldwater, but from then on, professional campaign consultants moved into key slots and structured campaigns along new lines.

Initial negative advertising seemed to work. And slash and burn tactics took hold. An opponent’s life and record are combed for any inconsistency or problematic stance, and that is played up in 30 second commercials. The opponent appears to be soft on crime, a big spender, a misogynist, a socialist or any other catch phrase to turn voters against him or her.

The “winner” may be the candidate who seems slightly less evil. This sort of campaigning has to contribute to a growing American cynicism about governance and about elected officials.

In recent elections, more than 80 percent of the television ads have been negative. We saw this firsthand in the race for the Democratic nomination for St. Louis county executive. KSDK analyzed ads from both the Dooley and Stenger camps and found them all to be subject to question.

In years when more offices are at stake, the cacophony grows greater. It’s strange to prefer ads for laundry soap or peanut butter to those for men and women who wish to be political leaders.

Those involved in political contests still believe that negative advertising works. So the phenomenon will only become worse as more and more money is poured into the electoral process. As the St. Louis treasurer’s race in 2012 demonstrated, negative campaigning doesn’t have to be televised. Direct mail can also do the job.

The polarization now so evident in Congress and statehouses is aided and abetted by political professionals who make their livelihood destroying the opposition as the main means to victory. Whoever runs today must have very few blemishes and a very strong stomach.

Is the cost of obtaining office worth the price a candidate pays? Or the erosion of public trust?

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.