Incivility in presidential politics: tearing down instead of building up

If you were thirsty and your choices were a glass of milk that had been sitting in sun-baked 95-degree temperature for six hours and a glass of milk that had been sitting in it for four days, which would you chose? Some choice, right?

That’s how I am seeing the 2012 presidential campaign shaping up as presented to me by the GOP*. From our nation’s debt, to the debt ceiling debate, to the economy and unemployment, to the president’s leadership, and now criticism at the administration for its supposed failure to support Israel resulting in Palestine seeking statehood, the strategy of the party out of power is to tear down the party in power with a progressive and positive strategy to build upon their strengths and ideas (that I assume do exist). * I assume if the party in power was the GOP, this nastiness would be brought to us by the Democrats.

It is a much easier strategy to instill questions or a suspicion in a person’s mind about someone else, even if it’s unfounded, than it is to try to convince them of your own abilities. It used to be questionable, albeit effective, to win a campaign due to your opponents failings. The idea was to find dirt or controversy on an opponent, and then dangle it in front of them through innuendo, today, has been to find or even manufacture dirt and controversy and rub it in their face. I guess for effect. Unfortunately, it’s also at the public’s expense.

It was always a running joke to tell folks you voted for “the lesser of two evils.” That may be truer now than ever. The American public would appreciate a different approach from their political candidates that starts with telling us why you are the stronger candidate, not why you’re opponent is the weaker one. That’s starts a dialog that focuses on possibilities and not on mistakes, which is as much psychological as it is progressive. Tell voters what is it about you and your plans that makes you earn our vote, not what makes us hesitant to cast one for your opponent (or even for you). Raise the bar of campaigning to new heights on public performance with your character and your vision. Don’t lower it to the curb where it’s just above the sewer grate.

Take the high road even if it’s harder and involves more work The low road is certainly easier but it’s negative impact on the process and on civility is chiseling away our moral structure and at our sense of decency. Eventually, it weakens society because it’s intent is for us to focus on what’s wrong. In the case of Israel and Palestine, John Avlon, CNN Contributor said of Governor Perry’s comments about President Obama, “..we need to have a fact-based debate, not a fear-based debate.” Facts would be good.

I’ll conclude by mentioning that society is not off the hook on this one. They contribute to this incivility as much as the candidates and their handlers. What behavior should we expect from our government leaders and candidates? Do we want to cut them the same slack we’ve given to entertainers, musicians, and sport stars in terms of what we will tolerate in their bad behavior, and then reward them for it? If so, then the sky’s the limit here and no holds are barred. But if we still value dignity, respect and tactfulness from our leaders, then we should demand it in their actions and words. What are your ideas on this topic?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Meredith Mengel

Sadly, research shows that negative campaigns are effective. Citizens need to think critically and demand more from public servants, rather than panic every time a politician tells us the sky is falling.

Susan Thomas

@Meredith, I agree. Too many people allow politicians to lead them around by their noses. People have to be engaged and informed.

Peter Sperry

I’ve known many FORMER elected officials who embraced civility in their campaigns. I know only a handful who survived the experience.

Daniel Bevarly

I don’t disagree with any of these comments however unfortunate that status quo. Are we not setting a dangerous precedent here when decisions are made from negative qualities. Do we now redefine the “best” man or woman as not the one with the greatest qualities, but the one who stinks the least? What if we chose our doctors, cars, jobs, homes, friends, even our significant others using the same criteria?

Peter Sperry

@Dan — This is the way we have always chosen our leaders. When Jefferson and Adams campaigned for the Presidency, they accused each other of everything from treason to unnatural sex with slaves. For the first 50 years of our nation, fist fights on the floor of the House and Senate were expected and several political arguments were settled with dueling pistols. And our politics is actually relatively restrained by international standards. Several Asian legislatures, including japan, have knock down brawls on a regular basis. The center aisle in the British House of Commons is two sword lengths wide because in the good ole days the members occasionaly conducted their duels in the House. During the Commonwealth period, Oliver Cromwell placed riflemen in the gallary to ensure the members voted correctly and still couldn’t get them to agree on anything. If elected government were easy, everybody would do it. 🙂

Ed Albetski

Dan, like I said in a recent blog, doctors, lawyers, and even bus drivers have to pass a test to get their jobs. For some reason the powers that be in our country have relegated the selection of a president to a simple popularity contest. And popularity contests are always won by poking fun at your opponents. It’s like grade school, and sadly, it is evident that the American public has not evolved much past this. We get the government (and the elections) we deserve.

Daniel Bevarly

Ed – Good point. I agree with that.

Peter – I liked the historical perspective. So I guess there has been some evolvement over the decades. Your examples appear to be more personal attacks (real as well as accusations) on a candidate and not failures of policy or governance –I may be splitting hairs here. So, if people want to challenge the president’s birth certificate or his business acumen, etc., go ahead. I don’t think these types of personal criticisms fuel the nation’s divisiveness as much as those that feed into a broader category of failure to govern without identifying alternative options on how to do a better job.