In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, we learned that President Barack Obama would remain the leader of the free world. But his victory came at a price. He and Governor Mitt Romney now have the honor of participating in the most negative election in United States history.
“The campaign has already set records for nastiness and negativity,” Senator Joseph Lieberman commented to CNN in August. Howard Fineman echoed the sentiments on the Huffington Post, calling it “the nastiest, most abrasive personally accusatory presidential campaign in modern times.”
It’s hard to argue with their assessments, but does anyone care? And if so, what are we going to do about it?
Every campaign has a measure of negativity, but 2012 was exceptional. Mudslinging became an art form, and the lack of truth-telling turned “fact-checking” into a cottage industry. At one time in this country, disagreements could be settled by a good old-fashioned duel. (If you don’t believe me, ask Aaron Burr.) But in the media age, guns are no longer necessary. We have commercials.
The campaigns unleashed roughly 1,000,000 television ads during this election, and a record four out of five were negative. According to a Wesleyan Media Project study, 86 percent of Obama’s ads and 79 percent of Romney’s ads were negative. To put that in perspective, Barack Obama and John McCain spent a combined 69 percent of their ad budgets on negative ads in 2008, and George W. Bush and John Kerry spent a combined 58 percent on negative ads in 2004.
We’re beginning to see a trend in American political life, where we’re no longer willing to do the hard work of convincing others that our ideas are better. Instead, we simply attempt to destroy the candidates themselves.
Political opponents cease to be good people with bad ideas; they’re bad people.
So, Romney wasn’t cast as a social-fiscal conservative with a particular set of ideas for creating prosperity. He was, instead, a spoiled rich kid who wanted to give tax breaks to his wealthy buddies and mercilessly fire innocent workers like he did at Bain Capital.
Similarly, Obama wasn’t cast as a social-fiscal liberal with another set of ideas for creating prosperity. He was a socialist who secretly wants to transform America into France. Or worse, destroy her altogether.
Such narratives were buttressed by pundits who would not be caught with a verbal knife at the rhetorical gunfight. The characteristically nasty Ann Coulter called Barack Obama “a slimy weasel.” MSNBC’s Ed Schultz said Mitt Romney has “an ego bigger than Asia,” while the network’s Chris Matthews labeled the governor “a pig” and a racist.
And how did Americans respond? Did we demand better from those who asked for our vote? Did we refuse to watch the news networks that gave platforms to shrill and uncivil voices?
Nope. We offered them our ballots and eyeballs, respectively.
In record numbers, we streamed these voices into our homes and cars and places of business. We learned to parrot their talking points in debates with friends and co-workers, rather than research the facts for ourselves. And, worse still, we subtly taught our children that this is how you engage in discussion with those you disagree with. (Of course, we’ll grow frustrated and confused when they adopt these tactics with their teachers, bosses and us.)
Public incivility is clearly damaging to a democratic republic like ours—contributing to social ills like violent crime, road rage, lingering racism and disrespect of elders, among other things. Public opinion polls show that most Americans are fed up with the tone of American politics and the broader cultural coarseness, but few seem willing to act on these beliefs. Why do Americans flock to that which they claim to abhor? I can’t say for sure, but with the range of serious issues we now face as a society, we must find the answer—and quickly.
“Those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew. Or, in this case, those who live by incivility will be brought down by it.
This week’s election is still fresh on our minds, and wounds take time to heal. The question we must now answer is whether our scarred society will demand better once we’re mended. One can only hope.
Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and author of the forthcoming book, “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them.