In 2004, candidates for the presidency and Congress spent $4.2 billion. In 2008, that figure jumped 27 percent to $5.3 billion ($2.4 billion for the presidency alone). With the advent of Super PACs, 2012 may well set a new record. A great deal of this money is spent on negative advertising -- efforts to disparage the character and policies of opponents. The negativity is not confined to the general election. This year, more than 50 percent of all Republican campaign advertising has been aimed at trashing Republican primary opponents (compared to 6 percent in 2008). Negative advertising works, if the definition of "works" is increasing the electability of the candidate who "goes negative." It seems to either get voters to switch their allegiance or get them to stay home, denying the other candidates a vote.
Yet, negative advertising produces considerable "collateral damage." Negative ads, not to mention stump speeches, seem these days aimed not just at skewering the policies or practices of a candidate but at creating visceral and intense emotions -- at convincing voters that the opponent is worthy of neither respect nor common decency. The result is that our next president, whoever he is, may well take the oath of office being hated by close to 50 percent of the electorate. Even worse, the supporters of major candidates come to hate the supporters of their opposing candidate as the tenor of political rhetoric escalates. Given similar practices in Congressional campaigns, House and Senate civility, not to mention progress on national issues, becomes a next-to-impossible achievement in this increasingly polarized and hostile climate.
Further, negative advertising produces a hatred of politics and the federal government as well as a belief that the political system cannot work. In such an America, "winning" an election is a hollow triumph, for both candidates and their supporters.
George Washington counseled against just such partisan hatred in his Farewell Address. Commenting on the "spirit of party," he reminded us that it is: "A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume." Washington's advice was, sadly, ignored, and parties went at it so heavily in the election of 1800 that Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural address, found it necessary to say: "Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions."
When President Obama announced that he would accept SuperPAC money, reversing his pledge to refrain from doing so, he said that he was acknowledging what most considered the reality of modern-day politics -- you need to have access to every weapon your opponents command.
During the Cold War, we coined the phrase Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Should one side launch a massive nuclear strike, the other could assure the destruction of the aggressor as well. This balance of forces is presumed to assure the weapons will never be used. So far, we have been lucky that it has worked.
Nevertheless, we recognize MAD as frightening, a huge waste of resources, and thus, haltingly, we work on nuclear disarmament. Statesmen on both sides commit to this aim with dedication and the certainty that failure could spell catastrophe.
Campaign politics is an equally MAD world, but its effects are not hypothetical, and mutual deterrence is not working. Thus, each campaign day we destroy a bit more of the political comity essential to bind the nation together in the joint pursuit of our common problems. Washington's fear persists. Jefferson's hope is not yet realized. In this MAD world, we need statesmanship as well. It is time for candidates to stop being so negative. Just because it works does not mean it leads to a polity that works.