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June 2012
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Disdain for politicians is no mystery

By STEVE WILSON Executive Editor

The Washington Post last week carried a thoughtful story ("Why so many Americans hate politics") about the growing contempt people have for the political system in general and members of Congress in particular.

No sooner had I finished reading it than the biggest reason popped up on my television: the 500th (or is it 5,000th?) negative ad I've seen so far in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.

The campaign is shaping up as the most expensive Senate contest in history, approaching $100 million, with the biggest chunk devoted to reducing the candidates to two-faced scalawags, clearly unfit for public office.

The ads bombard us with plenty of reasons to think poorly of the candidates, not only because of all the negatives pinned on them but also because of the ads' slippery half-truths and distortions, which reflect badly on the accuser.

The Post story cited two examples from the Kentucky race.

An Alison Lundergan Grimes ad showed her asking a retired coal miner why Sen. Mitch McConnell voted to raise his Medicare costs by $6,000. A McConnell ad aiming to tightly connect Grimes with President Obama asserted that huge cuts in Medicare were made under the Affordable Care Act.

Fact checkers for more than one news organization said neither claim held water.

Unfortunately, ample research shows that negative ads work - both in turning voters against a candidate and in boosting voter turnout.

The reasons go back to evolutionary biology. Our brains process information consciously and subconsciously. On a conscious level, most of us are annoyed by the repetitive and sometimes specious accusations.

But subconsciously, negatives about a candidate that might threaten our best interests are more likely to stick in our heads and motivate us to vote. For the same reason you seldom forget an insult, most negative ads are more memorable than positive ones.

Larry Sabato is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a keen observer of the country's political trends. I asked him what he thinks of the negative emphasis in the Grimes-McConnell race, which he's following closely.

"I expect they are going to get even more vicious between now and November," he said. "This election looks to be a battle for turnout, and they both will do all they can to energize voters to cast ballots."

Sabato said he won't be surprised if upcoming ads warn that "Western civilization will collapse if the other person is elected."

That isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. A similar pitch, arguably the most effective in U.S. political history, was made 50 years ago in a 60-second TV spot that was credited with accelerating the negative ad trend.

"Daisy girl" showed a young girl picking petals off a flower, followed by an ominous countdown, a loud blast, a mushroom cloud explosion and an appeal to vote for Lyndon Johnson because "the stakes are too high for you to stay home" and risk the election of an extremist like Barry Goldwater.

Attack ads aren't the only reason politicians' favorability ratings are at or near all-time lows.

The Post story noted that their rhetoric is frequently loaded with half-truths or political spin, big money plays a bigger role than ever in elections and members of Congress "too often posture rather than legislate."

A recent Gallup Poll put the job approval of Congress at 13 percent - a record low for a mid-term election year.

Abuse of power also earns our disrespect. Four of the last seven governors of Illinois have been convicted of felonies and imprisoned. A recent survey ranked the most politically corrupt states based on federal conviction rates of public officials from 1976 to 2008. Illinois came in at No. 4 and Kentucky at No. 9.

Too many politicians today are more interested in scoring political points and denying the other side credit for any accomplishment than in working together for the good of the people they represent.

They see compromise - vital to any democracy - as political weakness. Their eyes are fixed more on the next election than on sound public policy.

All the attack ads reinforce how we're already inclined to feel.

Reach Steve Wilson at


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