NELSON: Attack ads hurt understanding

Political attack ads work but they’re ugly and unhelpful.

Negative sound bites, purposely misconstrued things dredged up out of a rival’s past, statements taken out of context, exaggerated accusations — they all work because they are easy for a disinterested electorate to digest.

But just because attack ads work doesn’t mean they’re helpful, useful or moral.

I suppose, as my colleague correctly points out, elections may be more likely won by a good mudslinger. But is it better to win at any cost or to maintain one’s political dignity?

Unlike spirited partisan debate and argument, attack ads don’t clarify issues, they cloud them.

Their purpose is simple: They want to anger base supporters into getting out to vote, volunteering and donating money to the cause. They seek to stoke the anger and fear of their partisan supporters, to serve up raw meat to encourage the renewal of the fight against a ginned-up boogeyman.

Most important, and the reason such attack ads work so well, is that they appeal to voters with either a vague knowledge of, or indifference to, politics; voters for whom a repeated slogan is easier to grasp than an actual policy.

But much worse, attack ads of the type we have seen early in this provincial election cycle are more than misleading and not nice — they harm our democracy.

Attack ads discourage even a minimal understanding of election issues.

In addition, they breed cynicism about politics. They demean politicians and government, convincing people that politics is not an honourable activity and that government is the enemy.

Alarmingly, in the recent U.S. election, the parties even discovered negative attack ads featuring outright lies about their opponent worked just as well as mere distortions because the average voter hears the slogan but doesn’t get around to unraveling the lie.

In our current provincial election, one leader is trying to maintain his political dignity by not stooping to using attack ads. God knows it must be difficult. I can think of no political leader who has ever faced an opponent whose government’s actions offer so much scope for negative attack ads.

Still, even though attack ads “work,” using them is political bullying, to which we voters should just say no.

Where’s my pink shirt?


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