Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Challenging the Escalation of Negative Politics

Michael J. Gerson


August 17, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

For those of us concerned about the tone of politics, the news gets worse and worse. 

It is true that all presidential campaigns, at some point, go negative. And that is not always illegitimate. A presidential contest is not only about aspiration. It is a choice between contrasting stands and viewpoints. And vividly drawing those contrasts is an essential part of political life. The disagreements in American politics – on economics, foreign policy and medical ethics – are not small.  And the arguments on those issues will not be calm or mild. 

The problem comes when facts are distorted, false impressions are left and attacks become cruel and personal.  Even when this helps the attacking candidate—and sometimes, unfortunately, it does—it hurts the political system. It discourages good people from entering politics.  It encourages public cynicism, disillusionment and disengagement.  And once an election is over, it undermines cooperation in the common good. 

This challenge is even more dangerous because it is self-escalating.  Every time a campaign crosses an ethical line, it becomes an excuse for opponents to cross that line, and then go a little further. Whenever I write on the issue, I get the same response: the other side is worse. And both sides have plenty of reasons for grievance. 

This presidential election is no exception. The scale of negative advertising by campaigns and “Super” political action committees (PACs) is unprecedented. If you live in a battleground state as I do, the flood of negativity is remarkable. The fact-checkers have been busy confronting distortions in ads from both parties, from both campaigns. 

But it is not enough to throw up our arms and complain about politics in general. It is necessary to confront specific abuses that escalate the partisan wars. And recently we’ve seen one that is particularly disturbing. A PAC closely associated with the Obama campaign has made the charge that Mitt Romney was responsible for the closing of a business, which cost a couple their health insurance, which contributed to the death of a woman from cancer. 

The problem is this:  Romney was not connected to the closing of the company, the couple had health insurance from another source, and the woman’s cancer was diagnosed five years after the firm shut down. 

I’ve been around presidential politics a long time. This is not politics as usual. It is not the typical distortion of a candidate’s views. It is the accusation of complicity in a women’s death. And it has not come from some fringe group or marginal figure. It has come from President Obama’s closest political allies and associates, and has been embraced by his campaign. 

Partisans would counter: “The other side has done terrible things too.” This thinking demonstrates my point. Once an ethical line is crossed, all partisans feel morally justified in going even further. And politics goes from the gutter to the sewer to the cesspool. 

There is only one way to stop this escalation. Citizens must be offended at offensive things—whatever candidate they come from—and show that they backfire. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”