It’s undemocratic to be negative about negative ads. That said, there are some politicians who misuse negative ads, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
In a democracy, negative ads play an important role. In a representative democracy – which is what the United States is, rather than a true democracy — there is a valuable place for negativism. We need it. We cannot really continue to be safe and comfortable democracy without the negativism that negative ads produce.
Our country was founded on the principle of inherent equality of all people, and on the opportunity of all people to succeed based on their own efforts. Ours is not a power structure based on wealth or military power. In this country, we protect the rights and the role of the less fortunate and the less capable.
So what happens if some of us are more capable of selling ourselves, and our ideas, to others? What happens if some people are just better speakers than others? And what happens if those people, and those ideas, are hurtful to other citizens? What happens if those people and those ideas are hidden, or misrepresented, or “subject to change without notice?”
What happens to the democracy then? Deception, deceit, degradation, and the demise of the democracy is what happens.
This is where negative ads become very valuable. Our democracy carries within it the concept of the Loyal Opposition. It is the opportunity of those who see deception, misrepresentation, or deceit to bring that to the attention to the rest of us who may not see those things. In fact, I see it as the obligation of those who see injustice to bring it to the attention of the rest of us. The Loyal Opposition gets its name in our democracy because we depend on those who are opposed to the ideas of others to unearth and expose those inequities. Our political system is, perhaps, the most popular example of where the Loyal Opposition is, or should be, at work.
The Loyal Opposition, whether Republican, Democratic, Green Party, Libertarian, or whatever, has more than the opportunity to expose the frailties and falsehoods of the other side. To be truly loyal to the democracy, it is the obligation of the other side — the opposition — to help the rest of us see the truth, as their side sees it.
In the name of a good representative democracy, if you are opposed to a person or an idea, a philosophy, etc., it is not negative to show the truth as you see it. A negative ad is only negative to those who oppose the thought being presented. In a healthy democracy, when both or all sides of an issue are aired, the truth of the issue is decided by the voters. This is essentially what our elections are about.
Negative ads should be seen as important because they help us understand the shortcomings of a person or idea. That is the basis of the origin of rhetoric. It was the process of exploring, explaining, and exposing all sides of an issue so the truth, the right, would eventually be revealed. Thank you , Aristotle.
Unfortunately, as important as negative ads are to the process of finding the truth and the right, we see those — particularly, those in politics — who use negative ads to propagate falsehoods and misinterpretations. In politics, we see those who would use negative ads solely to tear down their opposition without bothering to build a positive message regarding their own efforts. I’m afraid the concept of loyal opposition has been co-opted by a few who hide behind its veil to infect the political arena, and in the rest of us in the arena, with the unhealthy odor of deception and deceit as a way to gain personal power.
It should anger and disgust all of us when any candidate uses this precious opportunity and benefit of a democracy to distort the colorful and fruitful experience of free elections with the chalk and crayons of slander, innuendo, and fear. If only our democracy had a way to punish and/or prevent those purveyors of this mudslinging, and allow negative ads to do the job they should be doing for the greater good. Our country needs good, loyal negative ads.
By Dr. Dennis Becker, CEO, principal and senior coaching partner of Brookline, Massachusetts-based The Speech Improvement Company. Visit him online at www.speechimprovement.com