Thursday, May 1, 2008

Smear campaigns serve no one

Super Tuesday is behind us and the buzzword this year is change. But one part of the political process that has not changed is smear campaigning and mudslinging.

Smear campaigns are neither new nor limited to one political party. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their respective parties waged a famous mud-slinging campaign in the 1800 presidential race.

Thomas Jeffersons opponents called him a drunkard and atheist and stated that murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced if Jefferson were to become President. Jeffersons supporters countered by accusing Adams of having two mistresses, which Adams flatly denied.

Another famous example was the 1828 presidential election, after which Andrew Jackson blamed John Quincy Adams for Rachel Jacksons untimely death because of a marital scandal brought up in that election.

Dont misunderstand me: I think it is OK to point out the differences in policies and issues between candidates. If a candidate has accepted contributions from a special-interest group like the tobacco lobby, pointing that out is useful to the voter making a decision  so long as it is true. Increased knowledge about the candidates stance on issues helps the voter make an informed decision. And there is nothing wrong with holding candidates accountable for past voting records. But the name calling and twisting of the truth has to stop.

Smear campaigns take the form of unverifiable rumors and are often distortions, half-truths or even outright lies. They can also be differentiated from information-oriented campaigns by their tendency to dwell on the remote past and on issues not directly related to the candidate or relevant to the current election.
Sometimes this backfires when candidates bring out stale, tired charges about their opponent that have been aired in previous campaigns. Dredging up the remote past does not set well with many Americans.

Saying someone is ugly or that a candidates son had a DUI a couple of years ago  and using that to imply there is a drinking problem in the family  now THAT is a smear campaign. It benefits nobody, usually hurts someone and is an insult to the political process. The real problem with smear campaigns is they divert attention away from the real issues of the election. The other problem is that qualified people may be reluctant to run for political office in this era of character assassination by innuendos and half-truths.

Some people are passionate about their politics in our country and in our county. It is actually refreshing to see people from all political perspectives be passionate about our joint future, instead of apathetic. The best solutions for our future will come from healthy debates between diverse groups of citizens. There is a big difference between a smear campaign and one that uses facts to point out the differences between two sides of an issue. If there were not differences, why would we bother having an election? Pointing out the differences is part of a healthy debate.

Smear campaigns use broad generalizations and irrelevant information to appeal to our emotions and discourage reasonable discussion. Why do Americans pay attention to smear ads? Its for the same reason they rubberneck at the scene of an accident. These ads appeal to some basic emotions. Unfortunately, so long as we allow these emotional campaigns to influence our vote, they will not go away.

Lets try and make our points about the issues without name-calling, attacking candidates families, friends or pointing out that their great grandmothers hairdresser may have been the sixth cousin of someone who once owned slaves. It makes an interesting soap opera, but it does not make our county or our country a better place.