The Downside of a Negative Campaign

  In a previous blog, The CamPAIN, I commented on the presidential campaigns spinning out of control – and with all of the spin doctors (both the campaign spokes people and the media talk show hosts), the imagery of campaigns spinning out of control is a most appropriate one.

One event which caught my attention was McCain’s own supporters booing him when he tried to defend speaking respectfully about Obama.  The negative irony of the very people claiming McCain is the candidate they would follow, booing him when he tries to the lead them should not be lost on anyone. 

Booing their own candidate is a natural result of a negative campaign, for the negative campaign is not so much about getting passionate for your candidate as it is about  getting passionate against the other candidate.  The passion of a negative campaign is hatred for the other.     What happens in negative campaigns is that people are not so much for “their” candidate as they are riled up against the other candidate.  It becomes a hate vote.   You are not for someone, you are passionately against someone else.

I think that is what you see in the reaction of the crowd to McCain’s calling for them to be respectful.   McCain’s party base is not passionate about him, but they can be riled up against Obama.  And so the campaign aims for what it believes is the best appeal they have this election – keep the other guy out of office even if you aren’t for our candidate.  On the other side, many Obama supporters seem genuinely to be for him, not just against McCain.  Obama has excited his supporters in a way that McCain has not been able to excite his own base.  This says nothing about who would be the better president but might give some indication about which man might enjoy more positive support once elected.

Appealing to hate, which is what negative campaigns do (though they would deny that is what they are doing), has many risks.  Among them is that after the election the electorate is polarized into adversarial and antagonistic antipathies with no hope of the bipartisan cooperation politicians so like to praise.  So when after a divisive election the country needs to be brought together again, the hatred fed during the campaign takes a life of its own.  Hatred is a powerful emotion which has become stirred up during the campaign.    As the FBI webpage on hate crimes notes, “Hate itself is not a crime-and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”  Campaigns push freedom of speech to the limits, and respect, reason and responsibility right out of door.

For my fellow Orthodox, I continue to advocate tuning out all of the negativity which I personally do not think is in any way helpful to our country or to our spiritual lives.  Negative campaigns are an effort to manipulate your feelings – to create heat not light.

As I mentioned in the sermon this past Sunday, remember the words of the prayer before the reading of the Gospel:

Illumine our hearts, O Master who loves mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your Gospel teachings; implant in us also the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing to You: for You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

We are to fear God and to fear displeasing Him.  We do not need to let the fear of a presidential candidate overwhelm our reason or our hearts.  We are to both do and think such things as are well pleasing to God.  Many of the passions stirred up in a contested election are not pleasing to God, and do not bring us to think and do things which are godly.  Let us not give leave to our senses because of the claims of a presidential campaign.   God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  No candidate can change that truth.

8 thoughts on “The Downside of a Negative Campaign

  1. Looking at it from a distance, I have seen little to distinguish the candidates in their policies or the way they are likely to behave when in office. It seems to be a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But reports of their “campaigns” (which seem to have a life of their own, independent of the candidates themselves, make Obama seem much more attractive. It is said that you know people by the company they keep, and the McCain/Palin supporters seem to be a pretty nasty bunch.

  2. fatherjamesearly


    Forgive me, but there are many significant differences between the two candidates. I’ll give the two most obvious examples:

    1. McCain is pro-life and in favor of legal restrictions on abortions, while Obama is strongly opposed to any restrictions on abortion, including even partial birth abortion.

    2. McCain wants low taxes for all Americans. Obama wants higher taxes for many Americans.

    There are many other differences, but time doesn’t permit me to go into them. Also, don’t you think your statement that “McCain/Palin supporters seem to be a pretty nasty bunch” is a gross over-generalization. I know many McCain and Palin supporters who are very good people who love the Lord and are very kind and gentle people. Don’t let a small number of rowdy loudmouths color your opinion about ALL McCain/Palin supporters.

    Fr. Ted, just because you are passionately against a candidate, it does not follow that you “hate” him. IMHO, you’re falling into the classic left-wing trap of tarnishing anyone who disagrees with someone with the “hate” label. I am a McCain supporter. To me, Barack Obama seems to be a genuinely decent human being who wants to do good. I would love to have him as a neighbor, a co-worker, or even as a family member. However, as a conservative, I am passionately against his policies, not against him as a person. His voting record is unquestionably the most liberal in the entire Senate, and there’s no reason to think he would change his positions on issues as president.

  3. FWIW, I find a number of folks citing the same differences: one took on goliath and ran for the nomination when most honorable men in his party seemed to find they had other things to do and “couldn’t be bothered” to make it this year. Family called… only it didn’t and they ran for something else. Hmmm.

    And then there’s the case where one has an army of volunteers inspired by a 2004 speech… and another finds his paid crew quitting on him – twice. He even hired the guy who told our current present he “didn’t need the middle, that we can govern from our (narrow) base” and then proceeded to take the country down every dead-end and run toward every nightmare that to this day one wonders that the man who heard “in church” the “voice of god” telling him to run for president… whether it wasn’t in fact a delusion of the enemy…. as we are told of in “The Arena”. But that was then and this is now.

    There is a place where I go that I know neither one is going to provide the answer. The change that is promised is less the grass roots level, the gut level, the social renewal that we need… begins much more personally… but instead we’ll pretend its sufficient to simply change the top name plate – a new guy to be disappointed and dissatisfied with… when in fact if we’re honest, we’re dissatisfied with ourselves.

    But there is opportunity all the same, and maybe it will be seized. And there is promise… and so I find the one who offers to organize, to challenge me to do the hard thing, and to vote to do something that might not be good for me personally in a direct immediate way… has some appeal in taking on some of our long deferred, longer term problems. And yet there is the downside of party baggage… and unintended consequences… that if we could off-load some of it under the present circumstances maybe we could build what we really need rather than build some temple to past ideas not tried for some very good reasons… but perish the thought.

    Then there is the tenor of the argument made by one side that somehow seemed to turn almost strictly on the personal rather than on the matters so obviously at hand… and for the first time in my 50-plus life, I have written my congress persons and given money to a presidential campaign. I’m still not drinking the Kool-aid, but I’m not able to maintain the political agnosticism I prefer to either party. One party needs to join the Whigs in historical obscurity… and thereby scare the other into reconnecting with the real people… and leave the Hollywood glitter, financial pandering, media know-nothings, academic subterfuge, and the rest of the fancy people who want to tell us how to live our lives behind. Maybe we’ll get that… and maybe we won’t. But we can take a shot.

    So I gave a few bucks to Barry. He’s got his own “Love Unlimited Orchestra” and doesn’t need mine… but he does have discipline while his opponent seems to have little. And the last time we had as much promise, we had a president with little self-discipline. Maybe we’ll do better this time. Call me in four years. ;0)

  4. Fr. Ted

    Fr. James,
    I do agree with you that passion for a candidate is not equal to hate for the other.

    My distaste – my hatred! – is against negative campaigns. That does not imply that all people who are for a candidate are negative or filled with hate. But a negative campaign does appeal to base passions – alarmist, terrifying ideas that should the other person win there will be horrorific doomsday consequences. Negative campaigning is proven to work, even if people don’t like its methodology, which is why all campaigns use it. We could change that by turning off campaign ads and tuning out of the spin doctors. But the world is complex and hard to understand so we often rely on our emotions to guide us through complex issues which are difficult to understand.

    I actually admired McCain for how he handled having to disagree with a supporter at his own rally. But I do believe he was put into that ridiculous and unenviable position by the passions raised by negative campaigning. Which is why I take my shot against such negativism.

    I did not intend to imply that ALL supporters of either candidate is filled with hate for the opponent. Obviously many supporters believe in the position of their candidate. But my reaction against negative campaigning is very strong as I do feel it appeals to the basest passions in people. The sense that some Obama supporters seem more enthusiastic about their candidate then McCain supporter’s about theirs came to me not from liberals but from some quite conservative McCain supporters who made that observation to me. They are dismayed by the enthusiasm for Obama, but they told me it is obvious to them that their candidate has not sparked the passion that Obama had and they felt their vote was more passionately against one candidate than for the other. Am not trying to generalize to any other group nor am I saying anything about why you support McCAin. Apologies for giving the wrong impression.

  5. fatherjamesearly

    Fr. Ted,

    I appreciate the correction, and I agree with everything you said in your comment. It certainly seems that the Republican Party this time has more or less repeated its mistake in 1996; that is, nominating a noble grand old warrior of the party who has “paid his dues,” rather than selecting someone with charisma like Obama.

    A concern I have is that many people (yea, even many pro-life Christians) are flocking to Obama because of his intelligence and charisma, without paying much attention to his positions on the issues (especially pro-life related issues).

  6. fatherjamesearly

    By the way, Fr. Ted, I also agree with you that negative campaigning is the pits. I had thought that this year would be different, since the two candidates seem to both be considerate and honorable men. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. How refreshing it would be if we could have just one campaign where the issues could be debated, one by one, and each candidate attempt to demonstrate the superiority of his/her position on the issues rather than just attack the opponent’s character. I doubt this will ever happen.

    Let me also say that I really enjoy your blog. I discovered it about a month ago and have read every post since. In fact, I have put a link to it on the sidebar of my own little blog ( I hate that my first comment was argumentative. Anyway, thank you for doing this blog. Your posts are always quality. I especially enjoy your take on the OCA situation, of which I have a limited understanding.

  7. Fr. Ted

    Thanks for your words.
    My son who got me started blogging would say this is the very place for an exchange of ideas. So no need to apologize for presenting other ideas.
    I also appreciate the different comments as it is a chance for me to refine ideas and clarify statements. I have been to your blog and commend you for your work. You, I think, did most of the work on your own in creating that blog while I am reliant on my son for the tech questions of blogging.

  8. Apologies for clogging the bandwidth earlier. If you’ll forgive another:

    Negatives from the Obama group seem to be focused on Gov. Palin. She’s not my cup of tea, but she’s not earned the vehemence directed her way either. Negatives from the others proceed from the very top. Distinction perhaps without much of a difference…

    Suggestion of turning lives toward Christ and away from the noise is 100% on the mark. Our over-engagement with politics seems to reflect a misdirected religious fervor that would otherwise be channeled appropriately. Secularization begats substitution. Methinks we elect someone to run the ship of state, not to become our prophet or messiah, but what do I know? JFK’s unfortunate legacy seems to involve a continual search to anoint the next Camelot (vision thing) instead of a good manager.

    Excellent recent article on the pro-life debates pointed out that neither party has done any heavy lifting to even begin to make abortion rare – preferring the side show of its legal status. Most seem content with this grand standing as the sum total of their concrete social policy. Another substitute? Pushed to a false dichotomy yes/no only, nothing is done to assure it becomes rare – beginning by changing attitudes but also rebuilding orphanages. While it seems instead a lip-service only issue for many; nevertheless, Fr. James hits squarely on the weaker aspects, greater discomforts, and inconsistencies of the Dems platform. There are many others. But then again, if it takes Nixon to go to China, and Clinton to end welfare (lots of help in both cases)… it may more likely take a Dem to change the abortion “consensus”. Not suggesting Obama’s that person… but what if?

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