Political communication and civility are not two things that typically go hand-in-hand. However, after the recent elections maybe it’s time they got to know each other a little better.
The elections of 2012 will be analyzed and dissected by political pundits, the media, practitioners and academics for years to come. But no analysis, especially of the presidential election, would be complete unless it addressed the nearly total lack of civility in the campaigns.
I’ve been producing “negative” political ads for a long time and they are highly effective. Such ads are where the issues are joined. Time and again, research has shown that this is where a lot of people get their information.
It’s true that such ads aren’t balanced, but it’s unreasonable to think they should be. They’re part of a process not unlike the legal system. You wouldn’t expect a defense attorney to tell the jury why it should convict his client. That’s the job of the prosecutor. And after they’ve heard both sides, like voters, it’s up to the judge and jury to decide who wins and who loses. The system works.
But that aside, any objective analysis of the recent elections would have to conclude that, if we’re not already there, we are quickly reaching a tipping point in civil discourse. The fact is we’ve become a rude, mean-spirited, base society. Regardless of whether political advertising created this change or just reflects it, it’s time for us as political consultants to grab our clients by the arm and take a step back.
Before we can do anything to save at least a sliver of civility, we have to acknowledge just how widespread the problem is. What’s needed is the political equivalent of an AA meeting. The “new” negative ads are not the negative ads of old. If there’s no truth in the ads and if no documentation is required to air those ads then nothing is out of bounds. And if nothing is out of bounds, what is our future?
There’s enough blame to go around. In fact, it’s probably the most bipartisan thing in Washington, D.C. It extends into the core of just about every communications medium in our country. Democracy is more than having a Republican operative and a Democrat operative yelling talking points at each other on a cable news show for 60 seconds and then calling it “fair and balanced” before cutting to a commercial.
What does it say about society or us as a profession when, on Election Day, two of the biggest names in the business send out a blast email entitled “The Ass-Whuppin’ Cometh”?
Until now, there hasn’t been much incentive for consultants and their clients to avoid incivility in campaign messages. But that may be changing. Poll after poll indicates that the American public has had enough. Today, Congress is held in such low esteem that even the IRS has higher approval ratings.
Fortunately for us all, in the wake of the tragic shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Gifords and others, the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) was formed with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as honorary chairs. Are they asking for a lot or just a little? From NICD’s website: “In a world of instant communication, it is more important now than at any other time in our history that we find avenues to speak across political divides and party lines, and communicate in ways that will foster dialogue and legitimate debate.”
If NICD is right and the time is now to draw a line in the sand, and if nothing much was gained from airing billions of dollars worth of “new” negative ads, then maybe political professionals will do the right thing simply based on pragmatism rather than principal.
Or maybe we just need to aim some of our messages back at ourselves. Think about our own families. How can we say we’re really concerned about leaving our children and grandchildren such a dysfunctional, polarized society and a $16 trillion national debt and then turn around and spit venom and say vile things about candidates for the highest offices in the land?
Tom Edmonds is a Republican media consultant, past president of the AAPC and current chairman of the International Association of Political Consultants.