Go "negative" or go home!
I find it very telling that in the recent Liberal outcry over John Tory going “negative”, the focus is not at all on the undesirability of negative campaigning but rather that Tory stated he wouldn’t stoop to such tactics. The Liberal response, in other words, was a negative attack on Tory’s credibility. Sometimes two negatives do make a positive. Not to be missed here is that Liberal strategists like Kinsella are no longer even shy about the fact that they’re tethered and committed to negative campaigning. Going negative has become de rigueur and an accepted fact of politics for the Ontario Liberals. Go negative or go home!
Still, what distinctions get lost in such a sweeping view of negative campaigning? Personally I favour reasoned debate, even old school sophistry, to its modern day replacements: petty spin and puerile negative attacks. But, surely, we haven’t lost entirely the ability to distinguish between attacking an opponent’s logic, argumentation and political record from adhominem attacks on an opponent’s character and personal history. Surely, although both are forms of “negative campaigning”, there still exists a recognizable difference between vilifying candidates by dredging up personal details from their teens or by disingenuously misconstruing their statements and intelligently and reasonably critiquing an opponent’s statements and political record.
So is attacking the Ontario Liberal government’s pitiful record, negative campaigning? Surely, we don’t mean to dispense with“critique” in politics. While I lament the virtual absence of critical thought and dignified comportment in politics, I wouldn’t want to lose it as an “ideal” (in fact, I’ve long argued given the decline in critical thought, eloquence and articulateness in political discourse that all newly elected officials should be subjected to a rigorous regimen of literature, rhetoric and political philosophy).
However, even if we grant that “negative” campaigning, marked by sleazy smears, distortions, distraction, disingenuousness, petty partisanship, etc. has or will soon become the norm, ought we not to aspire to something better? Or is the fact that dirty politics can be highly effective in modern day elections sufficient reason to be resigned to this kind of campaigning? Does the fact the voter turn out and public perception of elected officials is at an all time low possibly owing at all to this? Have we become so focused on ends that we entirely neglect the legitimacy of the means by which we strive for those ends? If I’m focused on attaining a watch, it matters substantially whether I acquire it legitimately or I steal it, for the latter will always never be just a watch, but a stolen watch.
I recently had a very interesting discussion with a teacher. She pointed out that today students are so focused on end results that cheating has become rampant. When she addressed her class in a very frank and gentle way, students told her that they consider cheating only as cheating when they get caught, otherwise it’s called being savvy and getting the job done.
Is all of this completely unrelated? Or is this part of the ravages to the human soul inflicted by capitalism? Is this not the logical extension of narcissistic self-interest? Is negative campaigning not perfectly suited for a consumer society that has neither the appetite nor the time for focusing on issues and rather delights in seeing other torn asunder. Are these not by-products of late capitalist societies? For while the material gain and leverage brought to human societies by their adoption of capitalist economies is undeniable, we’re often less prone to scrutinize the inevitable changes wrought on human beings themselves by these transformations.
So what are we left with in Canadian politics? Principles, ethics and integrity are luxuries that a party focused only on power cannot afford. Polling is the moral compass of most of today’s politicians and the Ontario Liberals have whole heartedly embraced this kind of politics.