In a book* writtenÂ a fewÂ years ago, I argued that negative political ads hurt left-wing parties more than right-wing parties. If you’reÂ a classic small-government conservative, rising distrust of politicians is consistent with theÂ 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 itâ€™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 â€” one side making general attacks, the other specific ones â€” 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 â€œthe forward-looking campaign.â€
The rules are simple. Never mention the opponent. Donâ€™t talk about the opponentâ€™s policies. Donâ€™t question the opponentâ€™s character. Donâ€™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 Americaâ€™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 â€” 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.