The Common Good

When Winning an Election Undermines Democracy

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Some days, I miss getting a physical copy of the newspaper delivered to my door. The headlines are always much less dramatic when they pop up on my Kindle. But, no matter the form, the front page of this Sunday's New York Times was distressing. The first two articles that appeared were headlined, "Democrats Unleash Ads Focusing on Rival's Pasts" and "Karl Rove is back With a Republican Election Strategy."

The first article started, "Democratic candidates across the country are opening a fierce offensive of negative advertisements against Republicans, using lawsuits, tax filings, reports from the Better Business Bureau and even divorce proceedings to try to discredit their opponents and save their Congressional majority." The second details Rove's work to organize millionaires and billionaires to fund a new organization called American Crossroads. "Already, plans at American Crossroads include anti-democratic barrage of attack ads that will be run tens of thousands of times, a final get-out-the-vote push with some 40 million negative mail pieces, and 20 million automate phone calls, officials there say."

When it comes to free speech, our country has a long, proud, and strong history of resisting the use of government regulation. This must continue. I believe that the best way to change this sort of behavior is through societal norms and social pressure. The reason why so many candidates run attack ads is because these ads have proven to be very effective in changing voter opinion. Voters often judge candidates on the small amount of information they are given directly and don't seek out differing opinions, explanations, or additional facts.

Campaign directors are always crunching the numbers to determine the best way to use the candidate's time and the campaign's money. If they continue to find that attack ads on TV are highly effective ways to change the outcomes of elections, candidates are going to spend more of their time soliciting donations from the wealthy and corporations and less time connecting with your regular voters. When we are informed voters who demand connection to candidates and substance on issues, we reduce the efficacy of attack ads and misleading statements.

One area where the government can help citizens be informed voters is through making it easier for us to know who is saying what. When it comes to health claims on a package of food, medical advice, or strategy for where we put our money, I always want to consider the source. In some cases, the government requires those without qualifications to give their advice with certain disclaimers. When it comes to deciding who I will vote for, I will evaluate the claims of a commercial about Wall Street regulation much differently if I know that it was funded primarily by Wall Street bankers. An advertisement about a candidate's stance on labor or business policy will mean something very different to me if I know that it was primarily funded by unions.

We need to be vigilant defenders of our freedom of speech. But it also makes sense that if a person, organization, or business spends a lot of money in order to send a particular message, they should stand by that message. Societal norms and social pressure won't work as a means of accountability if we don't know who is responsible. Jim Wallis pointed out in his SojoMail column last week that Christians should play a vital role in leading the way on civil discourse. Through our relationships and our churches, we can play a pivotal role in setting standards for discourse that benefit our democratic processes and society.

We should continue to hold ourselves and others to higher standards.

Tim King is communications manager and special assistant to the CEO at Sojourners.

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