Smear campaigns are bad news for democracy


You’ve just left Anatomy class when you feel the characteristic buzz in your pocket. Your heart leaps. You have a guess at who it is. Fingers stretching, your anticipation is nearly reaching its breaking point when you open your phone to: This is Ronald with the Republican Party of Minnesota. DEMOCRATS are DESTROYING THE BUDGET and NO ONE is DOING ANYTHING. DO YOU want YOUR CHILDREN to HAVE A FUTURE? DO YOU want to DIE? Vote early NOW.

No, I’d prefer not to die. At the moment, I’d prefer not to hear any of this, Ronald.

Smear campaigns and attack ads are premeditated distortions of an individual, group, or party and their most vile attributes. These campaigns blow up specific moments on or off the public stage, out-of-context words that are sensational, and hyper-extorted characteristics. Exaggeration of this sort occurs through mediums such as Youtube ads, TV commercials, and text spams. As the political season has been in full swing, those in the most contested states find themselves becoming valuable theatergoers, and smear campaigns press themselves upon us. Why? Because these audiovisual creations, often overlaid men and women whose voices belong in Nicholas Cage adventure movies, aim to cover up the real issues behind their target candidates.

Shouldn’t everyone want to know the real issues? Yes, but it’s complicated. The government is supposed to be an effective representation of its constituents, but these campaigns only further polarize an already divided nation. Unfair representation and mass stereotyping does nothing to prove to citizens that manifesting relationships between different political groups is worthwhile. Original purpose is lost. The broadcasting industry that budgets political attack ads often never reveals exactly who pays for them—despite meek warnings from the Federal Communications Commission. Politics is a grab for power, voice, and pomp, especially in the age of populism. Maybe the candidate’s policies aren’t that extreme. Maybe, with legislation, this mode of persuasion wouldn’t pander to society’s low attention spans and Google-grown impatience for information.  The point is that the debatable elements of a candidate’s platform should be clearly shown to voters. Right now, the media falls short of its responsibility to connect, uncover, and persuade based on shared social norms when it comes to informed voting. 

As a female especially, it pains me when stereotypes of the “nasty woman” or the “b****” are exacerbated by smear campaigns. It’s sickening to dive low and twist someone’s vulnerability, marginalization, or point of deviation from the social norm in an attack ad. 

Contention is natural — it’s a part of democracy. I strongly disagree with many candidates’ ethics, and I’m not saying some politicians don’t harbor vile parts of their history or personality (looking at a particular orange-faced Twitter user). Regardless of this, smear campaigns go too far, and they’re more than a joke.

In the end, politics give us the washtub with which to clean up our collective goals and strive together for improvement. Slandering others and breeding the worst in us — fear, racism, sexism, and division? Not goals of mine, thank you, Ronald.

Olivia Hebblewhite is from Waunakee, Wisc.

Her major is English.


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