from howling hermaphrodites to ratfucking to 527’s – the evolution of negative campaigning

Originally published November 4, 2008

Over the course of my voting existence I have become accustomed, if not immune, to the now prevalent tactic of negative campaigning. That is to say one candidate hoping to secure votes not by espousing that persons credentials and qualifications, but by insinuating that his or her opponent is the wrong man or woman for the job. This particular election cycle has seen this trend continue unabated.

Locally and nationally candidates have spent unprecedented sums of money to convince us all that the other name on the ballot belongs to a liar, a socialist, a godless whore, a child molester, a secret liberal, a hillbilly, or even worse, an incumbent.

Many of these ads bear the personalized “I approved this message” stamp of the candidate themselves while others proclaim their message was paid for by a non-profit group, known as a 527 ad. In either case, our system of campaigning has morphed into a battle of two lesser evils. We often can spout details from these ads verbatim, be the content true or false, while we can rarely quote actual voting records or platform specifics. We complain about these ads. We gripe that candidates should stop this ugliness, yet they keep doing it over and over again. Why? Because it works.

Just ask Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Ask The group behind Ads against former Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Ask Citizens for Truth, a 527 group currently running ads bashing Senator Barack Obama over his association with Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers. Ask Michigan Citizens against Unrestricted Science, who have inundated Michigan airwaves in recent weeks with a barrage of ads urging us to vote against Michigan Ballot Proposal 2, the proposal to expand stem cell research in the state.

Local and national newspapers have reported that several of their ads have been “blatantly untrue”, and “entirely misleading”. A Michigan circuit court Judge found more than a month ago that their ads were intentionally misleading and even flat out false, and ordered them stopped. The ads continue to run. Why? Because it’s easier to pay the fine for being in contempt of court than to change the ads. Coincidentally, The Detroit News has predicted through early polling that proposal 2 will likely not pass.

Nowhere has this concept of negative campaigning been more noticable than in recent Presidential elections. Daily we are exposed to attack ads from private groups we have never heard, groups whose funding is secretive and not disclosed, groups whose leaders are unidentified, that so and so is a liar, this guy is wicked, that guy is a pig-humping racist, etc, etc, etc.

The tone of our electoral process has become uglier and uglier each cycle. This new phenomonon has lowered expectations for voters and raised suspicions over every candidate and his or her true intentions. But is this really a new ideal indeed?

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Presidential historian and journalist. She is considered one of the most respected in her field, a fountain of knowledge and fascinating historical tid-bits. Last night Ms. Goodwin was a guest on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart where she shared stories of historical campaign tactics that would make modern day political ads seem like lollipops and gold stars.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author told the story of Thomas Jefferson, during his campaign against John Adams, declared his opponent “A howling hermaphrodite”. Of course this was in response to the Adams camp telling voters that if Jefferson were to win “Rape and incest would be taught in the schools”.  Nothing like friendly banter between well respected founding fathers to restore my faith in democracy.

Defamation is as integral a part of the elctoral process as casting a vote. Dirty tricks like 527 ads are nothing new, in fact they are at least somewhat traceable and technically legal, unlike the dirty tricks campaign utilized by President Nixon throughout his runs at the White House.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein first detailed in their book All The Presidents Men, the practice of “ratfucking” as it came to be known, was a most effective technique indeed.

Daniel Segretti was a young alumni of the University of Southern California recruited by the Nixon camp to help tricky Dick sabotage opponents in the public eye. His contributions included issuing a fake letter on the stationary  of opponent Edmund Muskie admitting he had fathered a bastard bi-racial child, A thought that I’m sure earned him many supporters in the rural south in the early 1960’s.

So I suppose this cycle of my opponent is an asshole is simply the natural continuation of a tradition as old as democracy itself. If you can’t beat ’em, call ’em names and tell bald faced lies in the hopes that noone will know what’s true and what isn’t. That way we all win.

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