Negative campaigning, then and now

Today’s New York Times ran an article today, “Strident anti-Obama Messages Flood Key States,” about some of the negative ads being run against Obama.

For fun, and by way of comparison, here is a video put together (from, I believe, actual accusations from the election of 1800) of how negative attack ads might have looked in 1800:

Election of 1800 attack ads

All this raises a question, of course: is there anything similar about these two eras–now, and the Federalist period–that inclines the country towards political polarization and attack politics?  Share you thoughts in the comments.

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7 Responses to Negative campaigning, then and now

  1. Sam W says:

    Well just like the bias in our media today in the way they chose what to bring up and what to leave out along with how they spin things is timeless. One of the ways the Federalists and Republicans campaigned against each other was by establishing lots of newspapers that would support them and spread their message to the media. Everyone knew it at the time and read whatever they liked more, but now we direct flak at bias for the less popular opinion (Fox comes to mind), and ignore the others (NBC and The New York Times) come to mind. They are all terrible places for news.

  2. Carrigan says:

    Honestly, it seems as though not very much has changed at all. The Federalists and the Republicans have a lot of similarities to the Republicans and the Democrats. They both try to paint each other as being completely evil and self-interested, while stating that they are better for people. It’s a bit sad to realize that there was already a rift in the American people, and to learn that factions were created this early. In fact, it seems as if the divide between political parties has actually grown smaller. The attacks made from one candidate to the other actually seem somehow less violent, which is surprising, since there was no party system just 10 years earlier. However, the problem with the modern party system is that the Republicans and the Democrats have been the same for at least 150 years, so it is harder for them to work together. They are stuck in their ways, and their ways are bad for America.

  3. ageyelin2015 says:

    I partially agree with Carrigan, but I also think that modern technology has allowed for a much larger quantity of less significant attacks. By this I mean that once a candidate is recorded doing something, that video or soundbite can be seen by anyone. This cause candidates, campaigns, and the people to mercilessly attack the other side over taken-out-of-context phrases such as “you didn’t build that!” and “I like being able to fire people”. While the animosity may be similar in terms of its presence, i think that much of it has divulged from the core issues, and is now simply trying to take (sometimes insignificant) quotes out of context and use them against the opponent. This could have happened a few hundred years ago, but it would be much more difficult, because people would have no way of verifying if a candidate actually said something or not, unless they were present.

  4. Ben R says:

    I am in agreement with what’s stated above. Negative political attacks were, and continue to be, a driving force behind political party polarization. Voters see these biting statements, and can be easily influenced by them. Even as the campaigns of President Obama and Governor Romney launch acerbic attacks against one another, there is a perceptible pattern that seems to crop up throughout these presidential elections. In addition to watching the attack ads video, I also came across this article on the so-called “America’s first dirty campaign.”

    While the wording of these attacks has changed, the substance and intent behind those words remains the same. Whether it be the Romney campaign spinning the “You didn’t build that” quote into a different light, the Obama campaign attacking Romney’s business record at Bain Capital and his tax returns; or the Adams campaign claiming that Thomas Jefferson was a dirty “son of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father,” these insults and attacks are meant to hit the opponent where it hurts, the voter. There have been insinuations and intimations throughout elections that are, for lack of better words, ridiculous. Even as I write this, the President has been quoted in Rolling Stone magazine calling his opponent, governor Romney, a “bullsh**ter.” The time has changed, but the methods of campaigns haven’t, and although the technology has improved, allowing room for more widespread controversy and scandal, the bias and the bitterness remain the same.

  5. Madison says:

    I believe that the two eras are very similar. Political polarization and attack politics are still as prevalent today as they were during the Federalist period. Just like during the Federalist period, there are two major political parties today that represent two basically different points of view about what government’s role should be. Just like in the Federalist period, each party differentiates itself from the other party in order to attract supporters. A reason why each party is so different from the other then and now is because the United States (and previously the colonies) is (and was) filled with people who think differently from one another. People came to the colonies for very different reasons, such as to start a new life or to escape religious persecution. They all had different stories to tell, learned from different experiences, and were exposed to different schools of thought. Today, the United States is referred to as a “melting pot” of different religions, beliefs, ideas, races, and political affiliations. Immigrants came to the United States from different countries, each with, again, different stories to tell. The inherent differences of ideas between people lead (or led) them to side with one party or another, and lead (or led) different parties to take steps to attract one group of people or another.
    People still use attack politics today for some of the same reasons as they did in the 1800s. Candidates care very much about whether or not they win. Some may be only seeking power, while others may sincerely feel that they could steer the country in the right direction. There is a lot of pressure and candidates want to win so badly that they resort to negative ads. These ads may always be a part of our society’s elections, given that they have continued to exist for over 200 years.

  6. Sarah W says:

    Ben, I really appreciate your point in regards to the idea that bias has survived just as effectively then as it has now with the birth of revolutionizing technology. Upon watching the video and reading the New York Times article, I also observed that neither attack ad was based solely on politics, but rather explored the personal pasts of the candidates, a method that I consider irrelevant and ineffective. The modern Republican attack ad on Obama accusing him of being the son of a communist supporter and the findings of “nude” images of his mother is not only ridiculous, but it is also irrelevant and ineffective campaigning. While these attacks may or may not be true about Obama, why should anyone care about what his mother does? While I do understand that Obama’s father’s supposed communist support would be detrimental to his campaign, it seems to me (and in the attack ads of the 1800s) that these attacks are no longer based on the candidate, but rather the candidate’s uncontrollable past. In my opinion, this campaigning “style” is less obvious in the 1800s attack ad video. Unlike the New York Times article, the video brings up issues that were actually based on real political events, rather than solely on the personal lives of the candidates.

    Nonetheless, both the New York Times article and the video portray an important theme that has reappeared since 1887: separatism is inevitable, even in a country that is founded on the ideals of unity and tolerance. It raises the question as to whether or not America has succeeded in living up to the ideals of the Revolution. Ever since the discussion of ratifying the constitutions, separatism has existed and has survived to the day. How unified are we really if American politicians attack each other so ferociously?

  7. Dr. K says:

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll just make a few remarks in reply.

    I appreciate the point that Alex makes about the effects of technology–it makes it easier to take some small thing and blow it out of proportion. Of course, technology also makes it easier to spread rebuttals. I remember hearing a story that in the 1800 election at one point a rumor circulated that a particular candidate had died–when in fact he hadn’t, it was just a rumor planted by his opponent. But spreading the news that the candidate was, in fact, alive and well was very difficult.

    Madison, you seem to ascribe the polarization to sharp ideological divides. That’s quite possible. I’ve seen some analyses that describe the ideological split in the Congress has the sharpest it has been in more than 100 years. That gets to Sarah’s point, too: it suggests a lack of unity. And yet, I’ve also seen analyses that suggest that voters (as opposed to Congressmen) are not that split ideologically, and that there is a high degree of agreement among them–e.g., certain views shared by 75% of Americans or more. But the extremes of the parties get more attention. The question would be why.

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