The Black Art of American Elections

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Every US presidential race of recent times brings with it claims that Candidate X is running the dirtiest or most dishonest campaign ever seen. In the current contest both sides have levelled the charge at the other, with Cindy McCain the most recent to cry foul, claiming Barak Obama was running the "dirtiest campaign in American history".

In fact, complaints of unfairness and shouts of moral outrage over the distortions and character assassinations have typified American elections since their earliest days: dirty tricks, smears and outright lies are all part of the process, and have been right back to the time of the Founding Fathers.

Modern candidates are merely continuing a long, although not exactly proud, tradition.

In fact, the dirty politics of today can seem quite mild when compared to the outrageous slanders of the past. Since it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to actively campaign, the most vicious mud-slinging was left to proxies, usually via the newspapers of the time. (Today, the equivalents are "independent" political action committees that usually have suspiciously close links to campaign officials.)

For example, a newspaper supporting John Adams against Thomas Jefferson for the presidential election of 1800 claimed that, should Jefferson win, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced". Even the most partisan of outlets would be above such extreme hyperbole today – although perhaps not above sneaky suggestions of "terrorist fist-jabs", as Fox News did about Obama.

Some smear tactics have never lost their lustre. One pamphlet disparaging Andrew Jackson on behalf of John Quincy Adams read, "He is wholly unqualified by education, habit and temper for the station of President", which sounds vaguely familiar. However, the most memorable smears are the result of undeniably catchy slogans and chants. "Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?" was the refrain directed at Grover Cleveland after it was revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child (the response after Cleveland’s win in 1884 was, "Gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!").

Franklin Pierce, elected president in 1853 and known for his excessive drinking, was subjected to the taunt, "Franklin Pierce, the Hero of Many a Well-Fought Bottle". And Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign, responding to an inane Barry Goldwater catchphrase ("In your heart you know he’s right"), fired back with, "In your guts you know he’s nuts".

Television ushered in a new era of dirty campaign tactics, allowing mud to be slung further and more quickly than ever before. One personal favourite is the ad deployed by Democrats in the 1968 campaign, which simply featured the words "Spiro Agnew for Vice President", accompanied by howling laughter. However, this ad, in the short but colourful history of television smears, is a lightweight. Witness Lyndon Johnson’s infamous "Daisy" ad, which the campaign paid to have aired only once, before it was repeated – free of charge – on every major news broadcast.

The only ads comparable in terms of notoriety and poor taste are the "Willie Horton" commercial, on behalf of the elder president Bush, and the more recent "Swift Boat" ads, on behalf of George W Bush, both of which ran without official approval from either candidate.

No ad in this campaign has yet managed to offend as effectively as these, although with weeks remaining – and the McCain camp promising to vigorously question Obama’s character – it is still possible.

The current campaign is experiencing another media revolution of sorts, being the first to fully embrace the power of the internet. Rumours, innuendo and flat lies can be spread quickly, anonymously and, most importantly, cheaply. The internet can also be used to air the less palatable aspects of a candidate’s history, as Obama’s campaign is doing with a website dedicated to McCain’s involvement in the "Keating Five" corruption scandal.

The internet also provides a forum for the more extreme supporters or opponents of a particular candidate to publish the sort of libel not seen since the days of Adams and Jefferson.

Issues that begin to gain traction in blogs can quickly become widely reported by the mainstream media, such as John McCain’s apparent gambling habit.

YouTube can make or break campaigns, with videos of candidates making controversial comments (or just fools of themselves), potentially receiving millions of views. Such was the case in Virginia’s 2006 Senate race, which was consumed by footage of then-incumbent George Allen referring to a member of rival Jim Webb’s staff as "macaca" – an apparently racial slur. In a similar vein, a clip of McCain referring to Obama as "that one" in the second presidential debate has been widely viewed and caused wider argument: just what did McCain mean by the comment? A quick search for videos on either McCain or Obama will find numerous matches with incendiary titles.

None, it must be said, include anything as sensational as Michelle Obama using the word "whitey", or McCain calling his wife a – …never mind. However, despite the lack of proof, rumours of such stories have captured the imagination of partisan websites, and were soon spread to more legitimate sources.

For a country such as Australia, whose most scandalous ads involve a union boss shouting "we’re coming back!", such extreme levels of antipathy towards opposing candidates can seem alarmingly over-the-top.

But the sad fact remains: "going negative" works. Psychiatrist Drew Westen, in his book, The Political Brain, found that while people say they disapprove of negative campaigning, it is hugely influential in defining the opposing candidate. "Make the bastards deny it", Lyndon Johnson would say.

McCain is pinning his hopes of overcoming a surge in support for Obama on this very strategy, with Sarah Palin already accusing Obama of "palling with terrorists", prompting ugly cries of "kill him!" and "treason!" from her audience.

As the race widens, there is a strong possibility that Obama will face a torrent of slurs. The McCain campaign has not yet gone hard on Obama’s relationship to the controversial Reverend Wright. As well, somewhat bizarrely, the McCain camp has actually announced its intention to wage a negative campaign throughout October.

Meanwhile Obama, has shown his willingness to respond. What has been a relatively civil war could easily become a bloodbath, with no one’s dignity or high-mindedness left unscathed.

It might appear unseemly to us that the leader of the world’s most powerful nation should be decided based on who could most effectively smear their opponent, but we shouldn’t be too surprised by the combative spirit of American politics. This is, after all, a country whose former vice president once shot dead its first Treasurer in a duel.

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New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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