“A positive and issue-based campaign looks easier said than done.”
Mudslinging – that is the plain and simple way to describe the phenomenon that is now commonly referred to as “negative campaigning.” But far from being a nascent reality, openly criticizing one’s political opponents is as old as the art of political campaigns itself. As early as 64 BC, the Roman politician and orator Cicero would advise the politicians of his time “to remind the people of what scoundrels said their opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, scandals and corruption that they have brought upon themselves.”
More than two thousand years since Cicero, negative campaigning continues to be an important political strategy. Many politicians would find it helpful in improving their political chances to raise personal attacks and criticism in order to dissuade voters from supporting their opponents, or at least to diminish their palatability among the electorate.
But what really is the price of open negative campaigning? The consequence may actually be more appalling than we think. While many would suppose that comparing and contrasting candidates would necessitate frank and candid criticisms of one’s political opponents, its effects on the quality and depth of political participation can really be worrisome. In fact, the increasingly polarized political environment has actually derailed attempts to build a more mature and highly engaged political constituency. The truth is what makes people believe that politics is bad and corrupt is fueled much by negative propaganda rather than an objective appreciation of facts and reality.
Here is where politicians must play an important role – that of instilling responsible political engagement. Not only does negative campaigning polarize opposing political groups, it effectively discourages the reluctant and the undecided. This has become even more apparent in this age of social media when anonymity has made it easier for the unscrupulous to hurl accusations and distortions against their opponents, without taking responsibility for them.
The truth of the matter is keeping a positive and issue-based campaign looks easier said than done.
Why? Because negative campaigning actually works. It is often believed that our brains are wired to negativity and that we respond more readily to a negative opinion of people and things. Even from a marketing perspective, people easily remember a negative issue than a positive trait. The same is true with political candidates. Voters are often quick to react to a negative issue than to commend someone’s accomplishment. Even when it comes to political issues, it is more likely for one who starts thinking favorably about a particular policy could easily be convinced otherwise, once bombarded persistently by its supposed downsides.
The truth is politics all throughout history has exploited much of how our brains are hard-wired to seek out and remember negative information. Even when one is presented with nine positive facts, voters would have the tendency to remember the negative statement despite how remote the possibility of it being true. It is like the proverbial half-full glass, there is always a greater tendency to think of it as half-empty. The electorate is not easily convinced by positive political rhetoric but could speedily be swept away by negative conjectures. In fact, negative campaigning can often be more compelling than an honest presentation of facts.
Pontius Pilate famously asked the Christ before his passion, “Quid veritas est?” “What is truth?” Unfortunately, many unscrupulous politicians have mastered how to manipulate snippets of truth to compose a total abstraction of what is true.
This is where political actors must be reminded – the quality of our politics is defined by our own individual actions. When we go negative and normalize mudslinging, then we tacitly agree to purposeless aggression and unwarranted hatred in politics. Clearly, for whatever reason, nothing positive can be achieved by way of negative aggression.
No matter how commendable the end may be, the lack of charity and civility in politics will always end in even greater compromises. One who cannot be kind in his words cannot be expected to be compassionate in his actions. One who cannot be decent in his language would find it difficult to be respectful in his actions. That is an ever present truth in all matters of human interaction, politics included.
In a more concrete sense, negative campaigning will not only discourage the undecided or polarize opposing sides, but it also erodes the people’s trust in the political system and confidence in their political leaders – or worse, their respect for public institutions. It is no surprise therefore that even if there are more well-intentioned than corrupt people in government, the people are often quick to assume that corruption has somewhat overtaken our political institutions.
Political candidates must be reminded that politics is not simply a matter of winning elections, but more importantly it is a question of strengthening public institutions. Thus, political actors have a huge and important responsibility of ensuring that the way we do our politics serve to embolden politics and not undermine it.
One more thing. Negative campaigning is the best barometer of a candidate’s self-perceived political chances. For example, opposition candidates are likely to resort to negative campaigning simply because there is a slimmer risk of potential backlash. Simply put, a candidate will try to make his opponent look bad because he cannot afford to look any better.
Second, most negative campaigns indicate that a candidate is trailing behind in the polls and the only possible way for them to catch up is to pull others down.
Our voters must be wary of those who do negative campaigning. It is either because they have nothing positive to speak about themselves, or at least look any better compared to their opponents – and second and even more sadly, it is because the candidate wouldn’t care less about getting the system into disarray.
Negative campaigning can be entertaining, but what is certain in the end is that the joke will always be on us. If all we want is a more mature political engagement, then candidates must distinguish themselves from their opponents by way of discussing ideas, not idiosyncrasies, and platforms not personalities.
Negativity can never persuade us towards positive action. The often unnoticed reality is most candidates are good people who are sincere in their desire to serve others, and improve things in a way that they think is best. Politics is no license for us to think or say that our way is the only way, and insist that others are plainly wrong. Degrading each other’s character has no place in a mature political society, because its higher purpose is achieved when the best of leaders can always disagree without hating each other.