Attack ads are political deathstars but their target is democracy

Posted on April 18, 2013 in Governance Debates – FullComment
13/04/17. Andrew Coyne

By now the Tory attack ad has assumed the mythic status of a deathstar, a merciless drone, waiting to zap each unfortunate Liberal leader from the sky. In media lore, that is what happened to Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, good men destroyed by a barrage of Conservative advertising, and the Liberal party with them.

Throughout the recent leadership campaign, the Tory deathstar lurked overhead, at least in the minds of its participants. Candidates were earnestly scolded not to say anything critical of one another, lest it appear in some future production from Conservative central command. Which of the candidates could withstand the expected onslaught became a primary concern, the raising of funds for which the party’s highest priority.

We don’t actually know why so many people abandoned the Liberals over the last decade: I have my explanations and you have yours, but we’re all just theorizing. It’s possible Tory advertising contributed to the widespread public disregard into which both Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff eventually fell, but it’s also possible that it was their own weaknesses as leaders that did them in.

I’d give my left eyeball if the Tory ads were not based on polling and focus group research: that is, they are more likely to have confirmed existing impressions than created their own reality. What is more, they were correct impressions, on the whole. Whatever his other virtues, Mr. Dion was not, as it turned out, much of a leader. “Just visiting” might have been putting it too strong, but the notion that Mr. Ignatieff, or anyone, could successfully govern the country after nearly three decades abroad was always a hard sell.

It is possible, too, that both men were as much a symptom of the Liberals’ problems as their cause: these are the kinds of leader that parties in as much trouble as the Liberals — divided, disconnected, panicking — tend to seize upon. As I say, no one really knows. People vote as they do for all sorts of reasons, which not even they can properly disentangle.

What we do know is that it suits the interests of a lot of different groups to sustain the myth of the all-destroying Tory attack machine. Liberals find it easier to blame Conservative brainwashing for their defeat — and by implication the gullible public — than to acknowledge their own failings, just as Tories find it more pleasing to credit victory to their own strategic genius than Liberal disarray. Fundraisers for both parties find it useful to cite the ads as a means of pulling more cash out of their supporters, while for the media they serve as a simple explanation for events that would otherwise be tiresomely complex and uncertain.

But then, as we all know, attack ads “work.” Do they? The Liberals had their own attack ads. So did the NDP. Why didn’t they work? For that matter, why didn’t their opponents’ attack ads work when the Liberals were winning election after election? Every campaign features attack ads on all sides. Some presumably succeed, but a lot more of them fail. Nor is it a simple matter of who can buy the most ads: the history of politics is littered with examples to the contrary.

There is a case to be made against attack ads, but it isn’t that they inevitably tilt the field in favour of one party or another. It is rather that they pollute debate, and coarsen the culture. It is an argument about their morality, not their efficacy; the strategist’s common reply — “but they work” — only confirms how confused the two concepts have become.

It is true that politics inevitably involves some mutual criticism. To a point this is both necessary and beneficial. But tone matters, as does truth — truth, not merely in the sense of factual correctness, but fairness, proportion, context. What is objectionable about attack ads is not that they are “negative,” but that they are corrosive. Their intent is not merely to criticize, but to inflame. They’re not trying to provoke thought, but to shut it down.

As it does in other areas, politics inverts all the normal rules of debate. The speaker who is interested in persuading his audience will present his opponent’s arguments in the best possible light: the more convincing will he be when he knocks them down. But politics is not about persuading. It is about discrediting, kneecapping your opponent before he does the same to you. Attack ads are the purest form of this ethos.

What can we do about this? I can think of two things. One, we can stop subsidizing it. Modern election campaigns do not need to cost nearly as much as they do. The only reason each party spends as much as it does is because the others do, and most of what they spend it on hurts democracy — like attack ads. Take away the tax credits and the reimbursements, and we’d all be better off.

And two: make the party leaders voice the ads. None of these ads appears without the leader’s authorization — yet their fingerprints are kept off them. They can take the high road, while their minions do their dirty work. If any of this filth came out of their own mouths, they’d have to be accountable for it. Their public standing would suffer. Indeed, they’d sound ridiculous.

So make them accountable. There’s no restriction of free speech involved: they could still say what they liked. They’d just have to own it. I have a hunch they’d clean up their act in a hurry.

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