If we want better from our politics, it starts with us | Ray E. Landis

We must stop this slide into acrimony and division. We’re the ones who can save our democracy

November 6, 2022 7:35 am
A week out from Election Day, outside groups have reported spending $7.7 million on behalf of Democratic and Republican candidates. (Photo by Daniella Heminghaus for the New Jersey Monitor)

(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus/New Jersey Monitor)

It seems many people get their greatest joy from attacking those they disagree with. The loudest sports fans are those who scream insults at visiting players. Internet trolls revel in posting unflattering and often untruthful information about people with opposing viewpoints. Many people treat anyone who has a different skin tone, religious affiliation, or ethnic background with contempt.

Our political system is certainly not immune to this tendency. Candidates for public office need to demonstrate the differences between themselves and their opponents. Unfortunately, the biggest applause lines in speeches from certain politicians are those that question the personal integrity of their rivals.

Attacks on personal indiscretions are not a new phenomenon in American politics. The run-up to elections in the 1800s featured accusations about presidential candidates committing murder, fathering children out of wedlock, and engaging in debaucheries.

But mass media and the internet has enabled this kind of electioneering to reach a greater audience in the 21st Century. Campaigns feature a series of negative advertisements designed to create fear about candidates running for office which saturate popular websites and television programs as elections approach.

And as more people are exposed to the exaggerations and distortions contained in these attacks and amplified by overtly partisan media outlets such as Fox News, the cynicism of many voters grows and their commitment to a democratic system of government wains.

Unfortunately, it is not only voters who appear to lack a commitment to a democratic system of government and the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Too many elected officials have seized upon false rumors and innuendos about fraudulent voting to call into question any election result which does not favor their political party.

The reaction of Republican-led legislative bodies since the absurd claims about the 2020 Presidential election are eye-opening. Whether it is the demonization of voting by mail, limitations on early voting, or random, petty insults such as prohibiting the distribution of water to voters waiting in line, some elected officials seem intent on making it more difficult for people to vote instead of making it easier for more people to vote.

The combination of negative campaigning and voter suppression have changed the nature of how many candidates approach their quest for political office.

Gone are debates about substantive issues, press conferences, discussions with editorial boards of major newspapers, and voter guides with answers to policy questions from all candidates. Their attitude is if you can’t change their mind with an attack ad, don’t let them vote.

And it is hard to blame the campaigns because it appears this kind of approach works.

A significant number of voters are not willing or able to make a choice based on how a candidate views a range of issues. It is simpler for these voters to focus on what they have been told in a campaign commercial – never mind whether the message has any truth in it.

And it is even simpler to turn up their nose at a candidate because of the way they look, or speak, or what sports teams they root for, instead of determining how that candidate might approach fixing our transportation system or ensuring nursing homes are safe places to live.

As we get down to the final days before this year’s elections, the real question for many voters seems to be not who they are voting for, but rather who they are voting against. This is not how our civics lessons taught us we were supposed to approach elections.

But in today’s political environment, where candidates speak in vague terms about what they would do in office while being emphatic about exactly what their opponent would do, it is hard not to prioritize the negative implications of electing the “wrong” candidate over the positive results of voting for the “right” one.

We might not like it, but this is the reality of elections today. And we know this year’s elections matter a great deal to the future of this country.  Democracy itself is on the ballot in many places, as candidates who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of 2020 presidential election could be placed in positions to disrupt the 2024 race

If candidates will not or cannot speak to the general public and the media about their positions on issues or hide behind vague generalities, they are fair game to be defined by their opponents. And given the importance of the 2022 elections, we should not fault truthful efforts to ensure voters understand the potential consequences of the choice awaiting them at the ballot box.

We should all wish our electoral process was different. But that wish cannot come true until the American people prove their votes are not influenced by the negative approach to campaigning. I won’t hold my breath.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.