Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Issues or Invective?

I usually avoid discussions of politics in this forum; the airwaves and blogosphere are filled with eminently more qualified (?) pundits. I’m making several exceptions for this presidential election because it’s probably the most important election in a generation.

As I commented in my post “Don’t Call It Advertising,” there’s been a paucity of real discussion and a profusion of attack ads in recent years. Negative political ads aren’t new – they’re virtually as old as the republic itself. What’s different today is the speed and breadth at which such negative attacks can be disseminated –just a few clicks and you’ve covered the globe.

Will this election be any different? Will we have substantive discussion on the issues or will there be more sound-bite sniping and swift-boating? I’d like to believe with all that’s at stake we might just get some respectful dialogue. But I’m not hopeful. As Montana State Senator Jim Elliott says in his Montana Viewpoint® commentary, “But most often candidates are not treated with respect by the other side, and portrayed to be purposefully deceptive, crooked, or just plain dumb.”

Negativity, half-truths and slippery answers – they’re just too good for candidates to renounce. If political ads were held to the same standards as ordinary product commercials, the surge of negative ads would wither.

Politicians alone are not to blame. There’s another reason – a lazy electorate. It’s much easier to watch a few TV ads and form an opinion than it is to really investigate a candidate’s position. If negative political campaigning is to be curtailed, voters must insist on it. But that takes effort.

Speaking of effort, the media’s been focusing on how energized young people are by this election. They could be a huge factor; any number of news articles point to an army of new voters – young people who’ve become interested and engaged in this election through online venues like Facebook and candidate websites.

I’ve seen some of that enthusiasm in the public relations courses I teach. But one cautionary note: online energy isn’t worth a damn unless you vote. And as I will tell my students in September, you can’t text-message your vote (at least not yet). You actually have to take the time to go to a polling place, perhaps stand in line for some time and mark a ballot. (And before that, you have to be registered.) Will they follow through? The country’s future might depend on it.

Issues or Invective? An army of new voters? What’ll it be, folks?

If you’d like to read Senator Elliott’s full commentary on negative political ads, you can find it at:

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