Political advertising: The triple threat to democracy
At a time when we are all sick of political advertising and the universal tone of negativity that accompanies it, I apologize for adding to the discussion. But I do so as a cautionary tale. In my opinion, negative political advertising is undermining our democracy in three very real ways.
- It denigrates public service as a profession. Admittedly, viewing politicians as opportunistic scoundrels is hardly new. Cartoons on op-ed pages have pilloried politicians for the last two centuries. In my opinion, however, many of the individuals who enter the political arena do so aspiring to be responsible public servants. Yes, they may be dogmatic about their political views and thus antagonize those who don’t share those views, but for the most part, their intentions are based on service, not self-service. Unfortunately, the combination of obscene sums of money available for political advertising and the conventional wisdom about the effectiveness of negativity paints every politician with the same cynical brush. Last month, I traveled to the southeast and to the St. Louis area. Every political ad I saw on television was essentially the same as the ones I see here at home. One could simply replace the candidates’ names and the messages are the same. Scandal. Corruption. Deceit. And, frankly, precious little discussion of serious issues.
- It engenders a cynical and ultimately apathetic electorate. Nothing complicated here. Voters start to believe all politicians are crooks. Why bother voting? My greatest fear is the impact this will have on the participation of each succeeding generation. Without an active and engaged electorate, what happens to the democratic process?
- It is actually undermining the role of media. Let’s put aside any beliefs that the news media is inherently biased one way or another and instead focus on the historical role of the fifth estate in a democratic society. While the outrageous amounts of money being spent on political advertising, especially television, may be gratifying to the business divisions of media outlets, I would submit they are actually sowing the seeds of decline.
It’s no secret that the options available to people to bypass traditional advertising-based media are increasing. DVRs and subscription services are ever more attractive alternatives. As the populace continues to grow frustrated with annoying political advertising, they will eventually vote with their remote controls away from traditional media. When that happens, where will we get our daily news fix? The obvious answer I suppose is the Internet. But we all know the inherent risks of the world wide web when it comes to identity and reliability of news sources. I don’t have a crystal ball. Maybe the new world of news media will actually be better than the current one. We’ll see.
Editor’s note: Four years ago, Thom wrote another article on the impact of political advertising. Our readers may find that article of interest as well. THE AUTUMN OF MY DISCONTENT: THE “FALL”-OUT OF POLITICAL ADVERTISING.
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