Letter: Special interest groups bring negativity
To the Editor:
For most of my life I have been interested in politics. At an early age I began to understand the connection between political action and good public policy. I've long since passed my early age, and at this point my normal course would be to advocate a specific candidate or set of issues. My purpose today, however, is to address what I view as the explosion of negative campaign tactics, especially as they are carried out by groups who make so-called "independent" expenditures.
I teach a course called American Government in New Richmond High School. We spend a great deal of time talking about elections, and my students are bothered by the politics of character assassination practiced by some of these groups. They wonder why so much time is spent bashing people, and so little time explaining why a specific candidate would be a better choice. Kids are really smart, and a short while ago a student said "it must work, or they wouldn't do it." We talked a while longer, and another student observed, "I bet they would quit being so negative if it stopped working."
I have another perspective to share, and a disclaimer to offer. I was candidate for office during the 2006 election, so I've experienced a bit of this firsthand. As I visited with people at doors during that campaign, or talked with them at events, not a single one ever expressed an interest in making campaigns more negative. Not once did I hear, "boy, I wish there were more negative and nasty mailings or TV ads for me to watch." Nor did I hear, "I really don't need information about the qualifications of a candidate, what I really need is more exaggerated, probably false or misleading, information about the opponent."
During these visits I reminded them that the First Amendment, which is still one of my personal favorites, protects the ability of these groups to engage in dishonest and negative "speech." They still didn't like it, but most of them agreed that free speech was worth protecting.
What they didn't like is that the identities of individuals who organize, direct and fund those groups are protected as well. In a political campaign, if an opponent or their supporters lie, and even if they simply distort the truth, they can be held accountable. The same cannot be said about groups such as the ironically named "All Children Matter." This group, based in Michigan, has a simple agenda, and it isn't about children. They are an anti-tax, anti-government group whose primary goal is ensuring that, if taxes are paid at all, they are paid by middle-class, residential homeowners.
While "All Children Matter" has a protected, legal right to exist, that doesn't mean that they have always behaved lawfully. The group has been fined by the Ohio Elections Commission, and is currently under investigation in Wisconsin for their expenditures.
America has a marvelous system that is based on informed participation in free and open elections. This great system is threatened by a steady decline in the percentage of Americans who vote. When you look at this steady decline, it comes as no surprise that it closely matches the emergence of negative campaigning. This development is no accident. Groups like "All Children Matter" are well aware that the negative tactics they use will lead to voter suppression.
Many groups used similar tactics to influence elections. You no doubt have received, and will continue to receive, large number of mailings that use distortion, misinformation, and character assassination to influence elections. Don't be fooled, and above all, don't let them convince you to give away your right to participate. Try and look at this election through a young person's eyes, and hold out the hope that these disgusting tactics may well end if they stop working.