Tune into replays of the latest Democratic debate in New York, and chances are you’ll see Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton verbally jousting over the other’s qualifications for the presidency.
In fact, they have been at each other’s necks on everything from campaign funding to reform of the financial sector to foreign involvement. And naturally, in the grand tradition of the American election period, they have begun attacking each other. Unfortunately, these attacks are debasing each other’s campaigns, and this is unacceptable in the big picture.
Political attacks are designed to question not only the policies of a political candidate, but also his or her very character. There’s a noticeable difference between simply promoting one’s own ideas and getting at the faults of others, and it’s a slippery slope to something much more ugly, which is outright blasting those you’re running against.
These movements can be very powerful – in 1988, campaign advertising against Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile resulted in his losing a referendum on the continuation of his regime, ending his time in office after 16 years.
And the power of political attacks means they should be used responsibly. In this election campaign, the candidates must run against each other, but they should not get into petty games of defamation for the greater good of the country. Instead, they should focus on the larger picture – the presidential campaign, where they must go up against, and surely must defeat, either a xenophobic narcissist who’s never held public office or an ultraconservative who’s advocated committing war crimes and carpet bombing cities on national television. It’s already troubling that 62 percent of independents, one of the key demographics that could swing the race, have a negative opinion of Clinton, who leads in the polls.
Joan Phillips of the Loyola University Chicago says that negative information is “more salient, it scares us, and we’re more likely to remember it” and that’s why such rhetoric works.
For example, Sanders’ rhetoric actively targets Clinton’s reliance on large donors who he argues will have sway over her policy decisions when she is elected. He and his supporters also like to point out that Clinton has been a fair-weather politician; she used to be for mandatory minimum sentences as recently as 2008, but now wants criminal justice reform, she used to be pro-Trans-Pacific Partnership as secretary of state, and now she’s against it because her voting base is. To be fair, Sanders also mistakenly claimed she was taking money from the oil and gas industry, which was simply not true, according to FactCheck.org.
On the other hand, Clinton and her supporters are also unloading on Sanders. She’s questioned his lack of support for the Democratic National Convention and his inability to explain in detail how he would achieve his ambitious goal of “breaking up the big banks.” In a recent viral online clip created by Sanders supporters, Clinton is shown blasting Sanders by asking “[Where was he] when I was trying to get healthcare in ’93 and ’94?” implying he does not have her track record, until a video comes up showing Sanders standing literally behind Clinton as she made those speeches in one of the two aforementioned years.
And to those saying this is impossible, it isn’t. Watch Swedish political ads, and you’ll almost never see any slander against particular parties, only matters of policy. Meanwhile, Clinton and Sanders have already begun running indirect attack ads against each other.
Positive emotions can also work – the ads against Pinochet focused on joy, or “alegría.”
Sanders and Clinton can better use their energy criticizing those whose ideas go completely against theirs, not bashing those who simply have slightly different, but ultimately very similar views. These candidates are already in the ring in a fight over the future of American politics. The race is about to enter the 12th round. So in the spirit of Rocky, let’s see a good, clean fight.