In every major election postmortem, there’s always a mention of how negative the campaigns were. Political historians consider 2004 to be one of the nastiest elections ever. In 2006, the attack ads were amazingly brutal. And in this election, the RNC and its affiliate groups pulled out all the stops to paint Obama as the worst thing to happen to this world since Cthulhu walked the land and made war with the Elder Things.
With the dust finally settling down and Obama emerging with what can only be called a decisive victory of 349 electoral votes and 52% of the popular vote, the question is how low can you go until the negative campaign tactics start backfiring? Was Obama’s win a side effect of the GOP’s negativity and obsessive focus on trying to demonize him and his supporters? If you checked John McCain’s site during the campaign, usually three of the four front page stories were a shot at Obama. Let’s not forget Sarah Palin’s insulting speech in which she divided the nation into real America and fake America. (For those curious, I’m not a real American because I don’t live in a small town.) By focusing the whole election on whether or not people like Barack Obama, could the Republicans have shot themselves in the foot? Did they try to tear down a charismatic opponent and were so aggressive, they muted their own candidate and offered nothing in exchange?
But in retrospect, this election wasn’t the most negative ever fought. That dubious distinction goes to the 1800 campaign in which John Adams openly called Thomas Jefferson an ugly hermaphrodite who slept with his slaves and was in return labeled with a string of racial slurs that questioned his character, upbringing and family. Compared to the vicious exchanges of the early to mid 19th century laden with racism, sexism and snobbery, today’s campaigns are almost docile. If anything, we’ve gotten far more respectful and civil over the last 150 years.
So while toxic attack ads on TV seem incessant and bookstore shelves are littered with political hatchet jobs or promotional fluff pieces, we’ve been getting better at how far we take our public discourse. This should be good news if you lament the venom and bitterness in politics today. The future might get a lot less nasty. Though you should probably be prepared to wait another century or so…