Monday, October 30, 2006

What amendment could stop mudslinging?

I had started writing this before the November 2006 election, but had gotten distracted by RL issues. This is a continuation post-election, with concerns about how negative campaigning will affect the 2008 elections:

The closer we get to an Election Day, the more negative advertisements you get on your televisions. And your radios. And your telephones. If the campaigns had a way to broadcast directly into your heads, we'd be having psychic mudslinging 24/7.

Here's a set of examples from 2006:
  • Incumbent Mike DeWine (R) running an ad claiming his opponent Sherrod Brown (D) hadn't paid unemployment taxes years ago... whichwas false (the tax lien was paid but the paperwork on it wasn't filed by the government until recently). Even after the facts were laid out, the GOP refused to back down from the claim.
  • In Tennessee, well if I just say "Tennessee bimbo" you'll immediately recognize the infamous race-baiting ad that Republican Bob Corker had running that insinuated his African-American Democratic opponent Harold Ford had a thing for white women. (Sidenote: the SOB responsible for the ad, Terry Nelson, had been hired by John McCain to assist on McCain's 2008 Presidential bid. One more reason I no longer support McCain).
  • In Connecticut, Joe Lieberman pulled out a cartoon bear that attacked his primary opponent Ned Lamont of association with Lieberman's ancient opponent Lowell Weicker, implying that Lamont will share Weicker's weaknesses (absenteeism, wacky voting record, stealing people's picnic baskets, etc.).
  • Here's a site which has a list of some of the worst mudslinging across the nation, from both Republicans and Democrats.

And these are just the ones I can fit here. There's bad blood in nearly every state in nearly every election.

I'm not the only one complaining about this: here's a link to a Slate commentary on it. Pick your choice of newspaper and you're bound to find an editorial comment decrying the mudslinging and how worse it's become. Because, sad to say it, this sort of crap has been flung about ever since the parties came into existence here...

Let's go back to the first true open election, the one in 1796 when George Washington refused to serve a third term. For the love of all that's holy, we had mudslinging back then between the Federalists and the Republicans (they would evolve into Democrats waaaaaay later). And that was just the beginning of open partisan politics.
  • The election in 1800 was worse than that. Sally Hemmings *is* the original scandal girl.
  • Let's try 1824, with the mudslinging directed at Andrew Jackson, and specifically at his wife: her divorce hadn't been finalized when they married, so critics accused them of bigamy. She died during the election year, and Jackson believed those mudslingers had killed her.
  • Try 1860 and 1864. Southerners burned Lincoln in effigy in 1860, which kinda made it tough for him to campaign in those states. Race-baiting Democrats for the 1864 election, in the midst of the Civil War, actually invented a new word miscegenation to accuse Republicans of wanting black men to marry white daughters.
  • Try the greatest election scandal ever in 1884 when Grover Cleveland was running for the White House: "Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa?" Which the Republicans were using to hide the fact that their candidate Blaine was caught in business and financial scandals. Mark Twain famously noted that as Cleveland was honest in politics and Blaine honest in private life that Cleveland should be elected to public office and Blaine left to the private life.
  • Try 1964. LBJ's campaign painting Goldwater as a nutcase. The infamous Daisy ad, implying Goldwater would call down a nuclear countdown, the crowning achievement of mudslinging advertisements.
  • Try 1988. Willie Horton.
  • Try the Clinton years. Oh ye Gods. The Republicans are still throwing mud at Slick Willy, and he's not even in office anymore.
And again, I could go on.

And the problem is, how in God's name can we stop this?

Mudslinging may be traditional but it's a horrible one: it forces voters to look at the negatives, and sometimes those negatives are fabricated or unrelated to the issues at hand. Why worry about failing schools and low wages and almost no job security when you could worry instead about the snuke in Hilary's crotch?

The problem is, for all intents, this gets up close to the First Amendment if not fully under its protective umbrella. The rules allowing for free speech, for the right to assemble, to petition grievances. You have the right to point out the flaws of others, and especially the right to point out the flaws of potential political leaders. But honestly, does that give the right to insult and defame, which is all we really get anymore?

One possible solution at hand is to point out that not all speech is protected: Speech that could could form a clear and present danger, for example, any speech that would incite violence or rioting - that's not protected speech. Calling out 'FIRE' in a crowded theater when there is no fire, almost certain to cause a stampede of doom, is certainly not protected speech. We should extend that a little further:

  • Lying is not protected speech.
That should be a given anyway. Hell, aren't we getting hammered for the need to put the Ten Commandments into our courtrooms and classrooms and offices and all? Isn't there a Commandment against false witness? Gee, you'd think a lot of politicians would support an effort to make false witness/lying a crime in all circumstances, right...?

The judicial system has penalties in place for things like Obstruction, Perjury, and Lying to investigators. We need something like that in the public arena of the media and in official political statements. Libel and slander laws don't seem to cut it anymore. We need laws that say a politician, or a spokesperson, cannot make statements that can be proven false. If we do have a law like that on the books (and why does it look like we don't?), then it needs to be renewed, reinforced, re-established. With succifient penalties to back it up.

If you think that would force politicians into revealing state secrets, relax. They can always rely on a truthful statement like "I cannot comment on that." There. Truthful without having to say anything. Of course, if your spokesman has to keep saying "No Comment," you're going to have problems of some kind anyway so...

All I'm saying is: If we can penalize those in office who lie, or those running for office who lie, that should have the proper effect of reducing a lot of the mudslinging and negative campaigning out there. Less mudslinging = more positivie campaigns = more voters with a positive view of elections and commitment to civic duties.

UPDATE: Oh great this is originally showing the post-date of October 2006, when I first started writing it, rather than the date I finally got around to finishing it (April 12, 2007). Wonder if this updating will fix it...


Anonymous said...

Great! SO TRUE! Keep up the good work. Oh! and let me know of any good anti-mudslinging groups out there.

Paul Wartenberg said...

Holy crap! I got another comment! Thank you Google!

There aren't directly anti-mugslinging groups, but there are sources of information that cut through the bull, such as Media Matters and Politifact run by CQ and the St. Pete Times.