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Montana Viewpoint

SMEAR CAMPAIGNS, TRUST, AND THE PUBLIC GOOD

July 7, 2008

The election season in Montana is off to a pretty rocky start, at least if civility matters to anyone. First the Montana primary election saw the “conservative” wing of the Republican Party defeat the “socialist” wing in a smear campaign pretty much unprecedented in my experience; then Republican State Representative John Sinrud took a shot at “environmental radicals and their pet politicians,” meaning Democrats. At least Sinrud was targeting the political opposition. I don’t recall reading of the Democrats eating their own, but just because it didn’t make the news doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

It’s enough to make a person not want to vote, and that’s exactly the purpose. The tactic is to turn off people who might vote for the opposition, and make sure that the people who will vote for your candidate show up and vote. As much as the American public decries the mean spiritedness of negative campaigns they work because we let them get the better of us, and  either  don’t vote or vote for the least offensive candidate; and how we can accurately tell who that is not an easy call given the amount of misinformation and outright lies that are purposefully circulated.

There is no candidate, no matter how pure, who is invulnerable to a smear campaign, to wit; former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia was defeated in 2002 after an onslaught of accusations by his opponent that he was “soft on national security.” Senator Cleland lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam. How anyone has the gall to call a war hero’s patriotism into question is beyond me, but why the public will buy into the misrepresentation is even more mystifying.

I am to the point of voting for the candidate that has gotten the worst of it in a smear campaign.

Although I understand how this kind of stuff works, I don’t understand what causes that amount of meanness in those people who mount smear campaigns. The rationale that the end justifies the means just doesn’t wash with me. Political history is full of the ghosts of people whose lives—not just their political careers—were ruined by other people’s lies and the willingness of the public to believe them. President Lyndon Johnson was very good at keeping politicians in line because they knew he wouldn’t hesitate to ruin even a friend’s career if it could serve as an example. Sixty years ago, Joe McCarthy, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin ruined the lives of hundreds of Americans by falsely accusing them of having ties to Communism.

Montana State Representative Bruce Malcolm, whom I have had the pleasure of working with on several occasions, was one of the “Socialist” Republicans who lost his primary. He is first a gentleman, second a statesman, and later on down the line a politician. The last time I saw Bruce I told him that his loss was Montana’s loss, and he replied, “It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had done it honestly.” Malcolm was accused of befriending serial child murderers because in 2003 he had voted to abolish Montana’s death penalty. Malcolm’s 2007 vote to keep a similar death penalty abolition bill from being debated—essentially a reversal of his 2003 vote—went unmentioned. His real crime was his willingness to vote his conscience.

The negative aspects of smear campaigns go much further than just offending the public sensibility; they give the public a legislature that is dysfunctional. Not every candidate who is the target of a smear campaign loses, and when they take office they are faced with working with some of the very people who were involved in their opponent’s campaign. I can tell you from personal experience it is extremely hard to work with someone who has publically and purposefully made false statements about you, and it is virtually impossible to form a trusting relationship with them.

Trust is the single most important ingredient in forming a working relationship among legislators of different political philosophies and parties. It used to be that majority and minority legislative leaders would meet for a morning coffee or an evening beer to go over the work that was before them.  Today there is little mutual cordiality, let alone trust, between legislators in those positions.

If we want a government that serves us well and respectfully, we have to reject the politics of personal attacks and false accusations. It’s as simple as that, and it’s as difficult as that.

Jim Elliott

jim@jimelliott.org