Demonizing the Opposition

For the life of me I don’t understand why political campaigns today are so hell-bent on demonizing the opposition.

One has only to turn on the television in Illinois to see the rabid attack ads Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and challenger Judy Baar Topinka (R) are hurling at each other. Blagojevich’s ads, which offer ostensible proof of Topinka’s poor thinking in the form of Topinka sound bites, commonly end with the taunt, “Judy Baar Topinka, what’s she thinking?” Topinka has taken to attacking Blagojevich, offering for the viewer’s consideration tidbits about one of Blagojevich’s 7-year old daughter receiving a $1,500 birthday gift from one of Blagojevich’s lifelong friends and 2003 campaign treasurer, Michael Ascaridis. Yes, it sounds wrong. Who gives a $1,500 check to a 7-year old? Or rather, who gives a $1,500 check to a 7-year old and expects us to believe that the money was simply a casual gift — to the 7-year old?

The simple fact is, both of these candidates look aweful now. The insults and accusations they have leveled at each other have tossed at each other have reduced both gubernatorial candidates to a pair of foolish, trifling clods. Neither one appears to be a good choice for governor in Illinois, a state that desperately needs and deserves to see some dignity return to the state’s highest elected office.

But all of this is simply symptomatic of a larger, much older trend in politics. Political candidates may and often must disagree with each other. How else can the voter distinguish which person is best for an office? But the tendency to demonize the opponent, attack not the ideas but the person, this is truly a horrific and increasing trend in contemporary politics.

And it is so easy to do. Much of it is done in “whisper campaigns,” when one candidate is travelling door-to-door. The simple and sad fact is that most voters do not pay attention to campaigns. Many do not even know who their local elected officials are, let alone who their state representative, state senator, or congressman are. Many people respond to dirt. It’s sad. It’s true. Many of the malicious charges that are made in today’s politics are calculated and cold, not angry outbursts. People make up the most outrageous fabrications about an opponent because many in the American electorate believe such things without question. We’ve become so fatigued with rude and scurrilous behavior from our candidates that we don’t want to have anything to do with either the accused or the accuser. So, sometimes the accuser wins, even if he or she has put forth outrageous fabrications.

The American electorate deserves better. But this is not new.

In the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson ran against President John Quincy Adams. Jackson was convinced that he had the 1824 election stolen from him (sound familiar?), and put himself forward as the people’s candidate. During the 1828 campaign, Adams charged Jackson and his wife with adultery. The charges grew from Jackson and his wife’s gullibility. Jackson’s wife had been unhappily married to Lewis Robards. In 1790, the Kentucky legislation passed a resolution granting Robards permission to sue for divorce. However, Robards never did so.

Andrew and Rachel married in 1791 after making a declaration of divorce, but not realizing that Rachel Donelson was still legally married. Robards finally sued for divorce in 1793, citing Rachel’s “adultery” with Jackson. The Jacksons remarried in 1794, but the political damage was done.

Rachel died a few weeks after her husband’s inauguration. Jackson blamed her early death on the public discussion and the outrageous accusations about their supposed immorality during the campaign.

We haven’t come far. What are we thinking?