Gangster Al Capone authored the negative-campaign credo. (Think of it as the reverse-raincoat version of the Golden Rule.) “Do it to them, before they do it to you,” Capone said. For now, the “them” is all Northwest consumers of news and entertainment, braced to watch sepia-toned political profiles while a disembodied voice intones about candidate X who apparently spent his 20s water-boarding widows and orphans. The tone evokes something primal, like the voice that warns you never to smoke. Be careful, the brakes tend to stick, the voice says. And watch out for the incumbent who enjoys tearing the wings off of flies.
Around the Northwest, the cavalcade of negative political ads wears down the television blab-off, just as it diminishes faith in the electoral process. Ideas are the foundation of a campaign, but defining the opponent — however embellished or out of context — is the scaffolding. Is there a constitutional way to make political speech more civil? No. The difference is the scale of mass communication and one key variable — financing.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, hemorrhaging money to influence elections became a form of constitutionally protected free speech. The hitching of money and politics culminated in the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, a ruling that ensured unions and corporations have zero restrictions on independent political expenditures. Cry “no restrictions” and let loose the dogs of the ad wars.
The primary value of Citizens United is its galvanizing effect. Republicans and Democrats both get slammed, and the public weathers the airwave fallout. Montana, which once had strict guidelines on independent expenditures, is catching the brunt. (Billings alone got hit with 31,241 ads, according to the New York Times.) In July, the Snohomish County Council passed a resolution advocating a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. It was one of several regional and national efforts to stir a groundswell to advance an amendment.
Plugging part of the money spigot by overturning the Citizens United decision (an inspired idea, we believe) still won’t compel candidates to be civil. One antidote is a candidate code of conduct, voluntary signed, swearing off negative ads (including darkened pics that resemble hangover-style mug shots.) In 1998, Rep. Jack Metcalf and challenger Grethe Cammermeyer agreed in principle to a conduct code, and it made for a mostly histrionics-free campaign. The problem? Third parties still weigh in, permitting candidates to feign ignorance as well as responsibility.
As Washingtonians mark their ballots, we begin to look critically at negative ads, teasing out the details of who is underwriting what and how this informs a candidate’s judgment and character. It’s OK to vote against the mean campaigner, especially if she or he claims it’s only politics. As Yeats wrote, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”