A sojourn into the land of smears

It strikes me that I’ve been pretty heavily verbal lately, so I’ve decided to go for the visuals today. In this post, we’ll explore the wonderful world of campaign advertising. Now, I’ve written quite extensively here about the use of fear in politics, mostly in the realm of foreign policy. For example, this little gem, released in the final weeks before the 2004 election:


However, I’d like to spend today’s post discussing another sort of ad that’s been a winner for the GOP over the years: the sort that plays on racial fears. Here are two ads, from two different races in the 2006 cycle, both run by the supporters of white Republicans running against black opponents.

The first, run by supporters of Bob Corker against Harold Ford Jr. in the Tennessee Senate race:


And the second, run by the Kerry Healey campaign against Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race:


Now, aside from the traditional, almost cartoonish “the Dems’ll raise your taxes and take your guns” stuff in the Corker ad, the message running through these ads is pretty straightforward if you’re paying attention. Namely, “hey, white folks, you’d better vote for me, because otherwise that black fella and his friends are going to come after our women.” It’s not exactly a new tactic, this sort of imagery has been around for centuries, in contexts as varied as George Wallace’s warnings about “race-mixing” and King Kong (I’m serious, there’s a brief mention of it here). What’s surprising and saddening is how well it still works.

Bob Corker wound up winning his Senate race against Harold Ford by a slim margin, and it’s not absurd to think that this ad may have made the difference. Kerry Healey lost her race, but the “Deval supports rapists” tactic did gain her a bit of traction, and was just about the only time the Patrick campaign lost control of the public debate. And that was in Massachusetts, bluest of blue states.

The reason I bring this up is twofold. First, to get y’all ready for more of the same. There’s a pretty decent chance that the next Democratic nominee for President will be Barack Obama, and if that’s the case, I daresay we’ll be seeing more than a few appeals to our racist demons. Secondly, understanding these tactics can help us to put an end to them.

People use advertising that appeals to the worst in us because it works. The first President Bush got a huge boost from the Willie Horton ad. The 2000 whisper campaign about John McCain’s daughter in South Carolina arguably cost him the primary, and ultimately the Republican nomination. Why abandon a tactic that’s been proven to so consistently get results?

The only way that this sort of advertising will stop is if it stops working, and it’ll only stop working if we learn how to resist it. So when that latest campaign ad comes on the TV, stop and pay close attention. Political parties pay advertisers lots of money to find the weak points in voters’ psyches and exploit them. It’s not enough to listen to what they’re saying. You have to figure out what they’re trying to get you to think. Are they really addressing an issue, or just trying to make you afraid or angry? And if it’s the latter, why? We need to ask these questions. If we don’t, we’re just going to get more wolves, bunnies, and darkened garages, and democracy will be the worse for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>