Negative Political Advertising: a public disservice


It’s doom-and-gloom time
again, the airwaves are awash
in political advertisements. If
you believe what the advertisements
say, the Republicans are
all Attila the Huns and the
Democrats Leon Trotsky’s.
Perhaps that’s a little exaggerated,
but the local airwaves
are awash in political advertising
that paints pretty extreme
pictures of the candidates.
Not that negative campaigning
is anything new.
According to, when
Thomas Jefferson ran against
John Adams, Adams was painted
as a “”hideous hermaphroditical
character, which has
neither the force and firmness
of a man, nor the gentleness
and sensibility of a woman.”
Adams was also described as a
a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal,
and a tyrant.
Adams’ supporters charged
that Jefferson was “a meanspirited,
low-lived fellow, the
son of a half-breed Indian
squaw, sired by a Virginia
mulatto father,” a weakling, a
an atheist, a libertine, and a
Today’s negative political
advertisements may be a little
more refined, but they contain
the same basic elements of
exaggeration, distortion and, at
times, outright falsehoods.
With that in mind, we examine
some of this election season’s
political advertisements.
There seems to be no end of
political advertisements out
there painting the other candidate
as some kind of political
extremist. This is particularly
evident in the race for U.S.
Senator between ex-Navy
Admiral and Congressman Joe
Sestak and former Wall Street
and Hong Kong banker,
Congressman Pat Toomey.
Sestak claims that Toomey
“is Pennsylvania’s most rightwing
Congressman.” Using
Toomey’s own statements,
including one in which
Toomey called Sarah Palin “a
spectacular governor.”
Another Sestak ad links
Toomey to the Tea Party and
has former conservative
Republican Pennsylvania Sen.
Rick Santorum quoted as saying
“Pat Toomey is too conservative
for Pennsylvania.”
Sestak accuses Toomey of
endorsing Sharron Angle, who
says “we need to phase
Medicare and Social Security
out,” and U.S. Rep. Paul
Broun, who has called for the
repeal of the 16th and 17th
Amendments, which respectively
allow the federal government
to levy the income tax
and provides that U.S.
Senators must be elected by
the people.
Toomey responds that Sestak
“is too extreme for
Pennsylvania,” in an ad that
ties his voting record to
Democratic House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi’s, describing
Toomey as just “another Nancy
Pelosi liberal.”
Although Toomey’s ads
often describe Sestak as a “liberal,”
his supporters go farther.
One pro-Toomey ad from the
National Republican Party has
the banner “Left, Far Left, Joe
Keeping with the extremist
theme, a Toomey ad charges
that Sestak wants to give terrorists
“the same rights as
American citizens,” a reference
to the fact that he wanted
Khalid Sheik Mohammed tried
in a criminal court rather than
in a military tribunal. An ad
sponsored by the National
Rifle Association accuses
Sestak of wanting to take away
American’s “Second
Amendment Rights,” something
that could only be done
by amending the Constitution.
Another major feature in this
year’s political advertising is
placing blame for the country’s
current economic mess on your
Toomey accuses Sestak of
voting for a “Wall Street
bailout” and a stimulus that
failed to create jobs and created
a record deficit.
Responding, Sestak, in a creative
video of him cleaning up
his dog’s poop, says it made
him sick to have to bail out the
banks, but he had to “clean up
the mess left by these guys,”
pointing to a video of George
Bush and Toomey.
Going after the senior citizen
vote, Sestak hits hard on
the fact that Toomey supports
privatizing Social Security,
which he claims would have
wiped out seniors’ retirement
benefits in the stock market
crash of 2008. Sestak ads
make a lot out of Toomey’s
long connection with Wall
Street. “Pat Toomey is working.
to bring jobs to China,”
according to the Democractic
Senatorial Campaign
Toomey, for his part, tries to
turn around Sestak’s statements
about accountability,
claiming that Sestak failed to
keep a campaign pledge by
keeping campaign contributions
from employees that benefitted
from public contracts.
And so the mudslinging goes.
It is somewhat ironic that it
was Jefferson who stressed that
a self-governing democracy
requires an informed electorate.
Numerous commentators
have agreed with his
assessment, including Jim
Lehrer of Public Television
and the late Supreme Court
Justice Elihu Root. It was
Justice Root who said that
modern constitutional government
depends on “the exercise
of reason and considerate judgment
by the individual citizens
who constitute the electorate.”
It is hard to see how distorted
political advertising results in
an informed electorate or provides
us voters with a rational
basis for the exercise of reason
and considered judgment.
Is Toomey a fiscally responsible
politician who will look
out for the interests of all
Pennsylvanians, a Gordan
Gekko-type that will mainly
serve the needs of Wall Street
and the wealthy, or an ultraconservative,
Tea Party-type?
Is Sestak a Congressman that
worked hard to clean up the
economic mess that began during
the Bush administration or
is he far out on the liberal
fringe, pushing policies that
will harm America?
As Shakespeare wrote, “that
is the question.” So what will
you base your vote on?
Negative political advertising?
Informed opinion? Blind party
Once again, the country’s
political course hangs in the
balance. And the politicians
seem to be hoping to influence
your vote by demonization
rather than by seriously debating
the issues.
Don’t worry if your candidate
loses this election.
There’s another big election
only two years away. Another
opportunity to watch the political