By William Fisher
The Republican challenger for the Wisconsin House seat of Rep. Ron Kind runs a TV ad headed, “Ron Kind Pays For Sex!” with "XXX" stamped across Kind's face. It turns out that Kind -- along with more than 200 of his colleagues in the House -- opposed an unsuccessful effort to stop the National Institutes of Health from pursuing peer-reviewed sex studies.
In New York, the National Republican Campaign Committee runs an ad accusing Democratic House candidate Michael A. Arcuri, a district attorney, of using taxpayer dollars for phone sex. The seductive voice at the other end of the line answers,"Hi, sexy, you've reached the live, one-on-one fantasy line." The facts are that one of Arcuri's aides had tried to call the state Division of Criminal Justice, which had a number that was almost identical to that of a porn line. The misdial cost taxpayers $1.25.
In Ohio, GOP gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell runs a TV spot accusing Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland of failing to support a resolution condemning sex between adults and children. The truth: Strickland, a psychiatrist, objected to a line suggesting that sexually abused children cannot have healthy relationships when they grow up.
In Washington, DC, a black conservative group runs a radio ad proclaiming that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. Fact: Liberals, who make up the overwhelming majority of black voters, have long disagreed with conservatives over ideology, public policy and economic strategies to better the lives of African Americans.
A spot in the 2002 Georgia Senate race invokes the image and words of Osama bin Laden to accuse the Democratic incumbent of being weak on national security.
In Tennessee, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker runs an ad claiming his opponent attended a party at a Playboy Club and suggesting a flirtation between a young bare-shouldered white woman, played by a blond actress, and his challenger for a Senate seat, Rep. Harold Ford, who is African American. The ghost of Emmett Till still lives!
This is just small sampling of some of the more outrageous political ads being run in this mid-term election. This phenomenon didn’t begin with the 2006 campaign, but arguably it is more toxic this year than ever before. And some of it, inexplicably, is coming from religious groups whose commitment to truth is supposed to come from The Scriptures.
Professional political strategists say they continue to engage in this politics of personal destruction because “the ads work.” But this is a little like working in the PR department of a cigarette manufacturer and feeling proud of the syntax and structure of a press release you just wrote – even though the subject matter conveys dangerously false information.
Perhaps, as the gurus claim, some of these ads may help candidates in desperately close races. But negative ads have a negative impact on our politics. They reduce public discourse to bumper stickers. They reduce honest differences to contests between good and evil. They stifle real debate on real issues. They play to what divides us, not what we agree on. They pander to our basest fears and prejudices. And they make it even more difficult for voters to make rational, informed decisions.
American voters are, most of the time, largely disinterested in politics. Which means they are also uninformed. The toxic environment created by negative campaign advertising does nothing to help them and everything to further emasculate the electoral process.
But their impact goes far beyond this campaign or that. They say to our society that it’s OK to lie, to twist and distort the truth. The justification, as Bill Clinton recently put it, is that “politics is a contact sport.”
But that’s not good enough. We kid ourselves if we think it’s OK to lie if we only do it for a few months every two years. Because we don’t. The impact goes far deeper.
The politics of personal destruction undermines public confidence in our constitutional institutions. It discourages young people from entering public service, once a proud aspiration. No wonder public approval of Congress is at an all time low.
Most importantly, lying in politics gives a green light to lying, period. And the more we tacitly buy into this Faustian bargain, the more it helps to destroy the character of our country and the culture of our society. We see this process already well underway in our docile acceptance of “commercial speech” – non-political ads that defy even the most charitable interpretation of “truth in advertising.”
Peddling falsehoods leads to a gradual erosion of our values. We lose trust in one another. We lose trust in our institutions. We become overwhelmed by the supposedly savvy political machines and corporations that spend billions to spin us. We lose faith in our ability to change anything. And then we drop out of the process altogether, leaving the field to those with political or ideological or corporate agendas.
The rest of the world also watches American elections and American culture. Despite the precipitous decline in overseas respect for our country, and despite the spin that comes relentlessly from politicians and private sector shills, many around the world still view our system as the fairest and most open in the world. Today, there is a clear and present danger that our persistent lying is destroying the model and the reputations of those who are supposed to be living by it.
This may be the most naive column I ever wrote. And I confess that I don’t have a clue about how to change the status quo. That’s always been the job of ordinary Americans, but that job is becoming more impossible exponentially.
I’m just old-fashioned enough to believe that elected and aspiring public servants, as well as those trying to sell us products, have a responsibility to speak truth to those whose support they seek.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The price of failure is a nation unable to distinguish truth from spin. The price of failure is to further divide an already dangerously divided nation.