A place called Hope

In a book* written a few years ago, I argued that negative political ads hurt left-wing parties more than right-wing parties. If you’re a classic small-government conservative, rising distrust of politicians is consistent with the Reaganesque ‘government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem’ message.

Writing in the New York Times, Kevin Sweeney takes a similar tack, arguing that the Democrats should eschew negative campaigning entirely, in favour of ‘the forward-looking campaign’.

Why progressives? Because it’s in their interest: pervasive negativity takes a far greater toll on progressive causes than on conservative ones. Conservatives typically rail against big government and bureaucrats. But by attacking the current administration, progressives unwittingly join the anti-government chorus. The differences between the two — one side making general attacks, the other specific ones — are details. Both project negative messages about government, but the advantage still goes to the conservatives.

To level the playing field, and restore clarity to progressive values, I propose “the forward-looking campaign.”

The rules are simple. Never mention the opponent. Don’t talk about the opponent’s policies. Don’t question the opponent’s character. Don’t talk about votes the opponent may have cast last week, last year or even 10 years ago. Refuse to run against anything or characterize any group; choose instead to run for something. Rather than engaging the opposition, the forward-looking candidate will engage the American people in a conversation about our future, keeping the focus on what we can accomplish as a nation and as individuals.

The forward-looking campaign can help a progressive candidate satisfy America’s yearning for moral values in politics. The landscape is crowded with political leaders who talk of morality, and who wear their Christian values on their sleeves. (The religious values of love and forgiveness, of course, are often contradicted or overwhelmed by political tactics evoking hate, fear or vengeance.) Rather than framing divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage to project its values, the forward-looking campaign would let its very conduct do the job. Without mentioning any religion, it could project religious values.

We reap what we sow. Divisive campaigns lead to divided government, a fate the American people can no longer afford. The forward-looking candidate, focused not just on electioneering but on governance, knows we must ultimately join hands — so he stops pointing fingers.

The 2004 election, according to some, was a race between fear and anger. Republicans raised fears; Democrats expressed anger. But it is obvious in the abstract that anger could never defeat fear; the two emotions are too closely linked. A forward-looking campaign offers a better strategy for combating fear. It offers, finally, respect and hope.

* In case you’re wondering, my co-editor David Burchell and I did not choose our book’s cover.

Updates: Andrew Norton disagrees. Dave Lynch points out that Michael Ignatieff’s campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Liberal Party has been based around the theme of hope.

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7 Responses to A place called Hope

  1. Michael M says:


    It has been a considerable time since I have checked in on you Blogging. In fact I had trouble remembering the name of the old web site. I googled Australia Blog Andrew and the old site came up as the number one listing !

    The subject of Election Campaigns and Advertising is a very interesting one. Negative advertising is an aspect that draws my wrath more tahn most issues. A campaign of missinformation inparticular.

    Of recent times was the Liberal Parties ads suggesting rising interest rates if the Labour Party was elected.

    My knowledge of economics is above average but well below any form of Degree. I am simply interested. There was no doubt that interest rate were going to rise Labour, Liberal Green or Democrat being in power. Since this type of advertisment is likely to form a belief in the mind of the voter should not the ACCC take action.

    Implied in this advertising was vote Liberal to keep interest rates down vote Labour and push them up. It is reasonable to assume that a “reasonable person” could form this belief is not the ad its self illegal.

    Should a voter be able to prove they voted Liberal on the basis of keeping rates down would not a law suit to seek relief from the increased loan repayments have a chance of success.

    Any way an interesting post.

    Mike M

  2. Martin says:

    I think Mr. Sweeney’s argument is particularly relevant to the US where citizens must be inspired enough by their politicians make the effort to vote. In Australia where citizens are forced to vote I would imagine negative ads would be a bit more useful. But you raise the valid point Andrew that ads such as these do reflect badly on government as an institution, therefore playing into the hands of the small-government conservatives.

  3. Joel says:

    I think you misunderestimate the opportunities the Left have to run negative campaigns. Think about the potency which an issue like Social Security or farm subsidies has in the States, or Medicare has in Victoria. I’m not sure if you were aware, but the ALP ran the highly effective and quite famous “tap” ads in Victoria in 1999 as a scare campaign about funding cuts in regional and rural areas.

    Assuming the Left are running on a “big government” theme, they have the capacity to run a very different kind of negative campaign, but a negative one nonetheless. It basically takes the sacred cows of society (the ABC, Medicare, farmers) and says the government wants to destroy them. And it can be a very potent message, if the politicians behind it are credible and capable and the electorate is off balance due to destabilising forces in the broader world.

    Conversely, you can run a very effective positive campaign from the Right. Think Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush campaigning about the amazing capacity of the American people for acheivement, self-improvement and charity towards their neighbours. All you really need to do is pick some highly positive aspect of individual behaviour and then talk about how wonderful it is. If the broader debate is going on in the background, people will get the inferred message that all the government has to do is get out of the way and let the people get on with it.

  4. I’m not sure of the relative effectiveness of negative and positive ads, but in the Australian context I very much doubt that declining trust rating for politicians has reduced the view that the government should do more. The long series of polls on taxing and spending have no obvious relationship to the only slightly shorter series of polls on political trust. I have argued in posts I can’t link to because Catallaxy is down that the distrust is a bit of pose anyway. Australians, regrettably, remain seemingly incurable statists, hope forever triumphing over experience.

  5. Seneca says:

    I agree that small vs big govenment isn’t really a major issue between Coalition and ALP, and can only defer to Andrew Norton’s comment. The only reason for the qualification is that I sometimes see a resistance to being lectured by Government on what to do or believe (which may have been part of the anti-Keating wave).

    An example of what AN is talking about came up yesterday with a news item on a report on childcare, from some large companies, which appeared to put the responsibility for increasing supply of child care places on the Federal Government – not in the sense of examining supply constraints from regulation but in the sense of putting a lot of money into it. The report also found that in a survey of child care seekers there was a strong preference for government involvement, at least to the extent of tax rebates. And maybe it was just me being cranky but the tone of the comment was about what the government should do for productivity but not a mention of the companies’ maybe incorporating child care in the workplace for example. Off topic but I would be interested in Andrew Leigh’s take (and Andrew N) on the childcare supply question – any papers on that in the archives?

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Seneca, the government takes a pretty reasonable position on childcare – give a subsidy, but don’t run the market. From what I understand, most shortages aren’t absolute constraints, but an undersupply at a given price (mostly in inner-city areas where childcare suppliers pay high rents). And it’s not clear that there are major information problems in this market; parents generally do a lot of research before selecting a provider.

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