Monkey see, monkey do

Monkeys are commonly known to partake in an unusual activity. When angered or threatened, our evolutionary ancestors are known to fling feces at one another.

As evolution has run its course to eventually produce modern man, one would think this odd primate trait would have disappeared. Humans don’t regularly do this (although there have been reports of prison inmates behaving similarly toward guards and other inmates). No, today’s fecal flinging comes in a different package: political ad campaigns.

Despite what some commentators may claim – stating that the use of negative ad campaigns has risen drastically in recent elections – politicians have been using this tactic for centuries. In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson supporters claimed incumbent “John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

However, Jefferson wasn’t safe from criticism. In the Connecticut Current, the editor wrote, “Should Jefferson prove victorious … murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced,” and later asked the reader, “Are you prepared to see your dwelling in flames, hoary heads bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike and the halberd?”

In context, electing Herman Cain with his multiple alleged sexual harassment claims seems preferable to electing this obviously demonic Jefferson. Others against Jefferson claimed he was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.” Mulatto refers to a person with one white parent and one black parent. You mean Barack Obama wasn’t the first part black president?

Other historical examples of political mudslinging include Davy Crockett claiming Martin Van Buren wore women’s corsets (apparently raccoon hats were acceptable, but women’s corsets? No way). James Buchanan, who had a medical condition causing his head to tilt to the left, was accused of unsuccessfully attempting to hang himself, and no one can forget Lyndon Johnson’s ad featuring a little girl pulling petals off a flower only to be interrupted by nuclear holocaust.

If monkeys resort to hurling their bodily excrements because of fear or anger, why are so many of our politicians so eager to do the same?

Well, because fear and anger aren’t strictly restricted to monkeys, and nothing scares a politician more than losing an election. Research by the National Institute for Civil Discourse has found that candidates trailing in the polls are more likely to use negative campaigning. The effectiveness of the campaigning depends on how candidates approach their attacks. Voters today react more fondly to legitimate, issue-based criticisms rather than unrelated criticisms.

When you compare the past to the present, you realize that while negative campaigns today are more prevalent due to technology, the ads used today are typically much more directed at the issues and past track records of candidates than the personal, often untrue, attacks of the past.

Perhaps the worst ad campaigns of politicians today are for themselves. Between candidates like Michele Bachmann forgetting basic history and Rick Perry hoping two out of three in a debate is good enough to pass with a C, it seems simply letting candidates speak for themselves is more harmful than any negative campaign could ever hope to be.

Read the Ka Leo version here.

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