Take fearmongering out of US politics

As presidential campaigns for the 2016 election start to demonize candidates, a study finds a sharp rise in American voters disliking those in opposing camps. This coarsening of society can end if politics stop relying on 'negative partisanship.'

AP Photo
House Speaker John Boehner kisses House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the Rose Garden of the White House before President Obama's remarks to members of Congress April 21. Obama thanked those who supported passage of a Medicare reform bill.

A particular fine line has long existed in the election campaigns of democracies, and America’s 2016 presidential race will be no different. Candidates or their supporters are right to point out policy differences with opponents, even speak of possible negative consequences. Yet to cross over into stoking fear among voters with alarmist rhetoric or images – often simply to win – can bring a serious consequence to democracy itself.

This presidential campaign could be crossing that line already now that many candidates have declared or may soon do so. Here are few examples of political ads that seem aimed at instilling panic among certain types of voters:

A conservative group has funded ads against Republican Jeb Bush that do not merely take issue with his policies but ask people to “stop” him from even running. The ad’s slogan is “End Jeb.” A group called Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America has an ad about GOP candidate Rand Paul that states he is “dangerous.” And the Republican National Committee has launched ads with personal warnings about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her husband. The ads end with “STAND WITH US #STOPHILLARY.” 

Politics can be rough on candidates but the worst aspects can have lingering effects. As Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine said in a March speech, “Incivility by political leaders sends a message to our society that such discourse is acceptable, while the increasing coarseness in our society is a green light to divisive politicians.” She cites a recent effect of the rise in political bullying: the suicide of Tom Schweich, a GOP candidate for Missouri governor, during a vicious ad and whisper campaign against him.

A new study by Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster of Emory University finds that with an increase in polarizing politics over the past half century, American voters increasingly “hold very negative opinions” of those in opposing camps and prefer not to associate with them. In 1980, 55 percent of voters gave the opposing party a neutral or positive rating, the study found, while only 26 percent did so in 2012. The change is true for Democrats, Republicans, and even those that claim to be independents.

The authors refer to such antagonism as “negative partisanship.” And it extends beyond politics. More voters cite an opposing camp’s social characteristics or basic values. And this shift toward national polarization now more greatly influences state and local races.

The study makes a forecast that “confrontation and gridlock are almost certain to characterize the policy-making process in Washington for the foreseeable future.” That does not need to prove true if both candidates and voters wake up and put the ideals of democracy above political tactics that weaken democracy. One study of the 2006 elections, published in the Political Research Quarterly in 2012, found “positive advertising” has as much influence on voter perceptions as “negative” ads. And given the rise in negative ads, voters listen even more to positive ones. Candidates are also better at quickly countering an attack ad.

Another 2012 study, done at the University of Florida, found negative ads are not working as well “ because the audience with which they seem to work best – people who think government works – has been shrinking.” This point – that fearmongering can create its own demise – was explained well in a recent comment by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado:

“You never see Coke do an attack ad against Pepsi.... Pepsi sales would go down. Pepsi would have no choice but to do an attack ad against Coke. Coke sales will go down, Coke would attack Pepsi, Pepsi would attack Coke. You decompress the entire product category of soft drinks.”

The best course for American politics may be one that Sen. Collins cited in her speech. She spoke of a “declaration of conscience” made by a senator 65 years ago, Margaret Chase Smith, saying: “While she avidly supported her party, she did not want it to ride to political victory with the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” said Collins. “Let us put those four out to pasture, and saddle up the one called Civility. We might be surprised at how far it will take us.”

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