Books for the News, Politics and Current Events

Negative campaigning defended

jacket imageLike many political observers, we noticed a troubling change in the tenor of the campaign last week: angry (and ill-informed) crowds at rallies, a passionately divided electorate, and increasingly negative campaign ads.
But, according to John G. Geer, author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, “the real source of negativity in presidential campaigns is not attack ads themselves but the coverage of them by the news media.” In an op-ed published on Politico late last month, Greer said “negative” is a subjective term, and that’s just the problem. “When the definition of ‘negative’ is shaped by one’s position on the ideological spectrum, we should worry.” Also, there are, he pointed out, positive aspects of so-called negative ads: “They are more specific and documented than are positive ads. And they’re more likely to be about the important issues facing the nation.”
The flip side is that, of course, attacks ads typically aren’t personal. Not so this week. If the oft-repeated maxim that this election is about character is true, should we get used to these hostile personal attacks? In an editorial in the October 12 Washington Post , Greer says the current climate of negativity is a natural outcome of a candidate trying to “change the subject” and regain footing in the polls. And, he notes, neither campaign is guiltless here: both have aired about the same number of negative ads. So, even as Greer admits, “the number of attack ads seems excessive to me, too,” he is still assured negativity is ultimately essential to our sometimes ugly democracy: “It may not be pretty, but democratic politics rarely are. U.S. elections are pitched battles for control of the federal government. The stakes are huge, and tempers flare. But the candidate left standing will be battle-tested for the fiery trial that awaits him when he takes that oath of office.” In politics it seems, there is no rest for the negative.
For highlights of negativity from the past, visit the Attack Ad Hall of Fame .