The virtues of going negative

Posted: Sep 12, 2000 12:00 AM
I'm sorry, but I'm growing a bit weary of all this negative talk about negative campaigning. I think it's time we started being positive about this gloriously negative American tradition. Who says negative campaigning is negative? Don't you agree that it's a positive force in a democratic society -- OK, a "constitutional republic" for you nitpickers? Let's consider the principles involved. First, it is generally a good thing for voters to be informed, on the theory that informed voters make better choices. Underlying this premise, though, is the corollary assumption that the candidates should provide reliable information to the voters -- being informed with erroneous data obviously is not desirable. Next, shouldn't we come down off of our collective high horses and squarely face the truth that being informed means knowing about as many facts as possible, negative as well as positive? As participants in a democratic society, we all have an obligation to contribute information to the political discourse. Even if you don't accept that idea, surely you will agree that, at a minimum, the press has that obligation. Wasn't that one of the driving forces behind the First Amendment? Yes, you say, but how do you combat disinformation? How do you counteract lies? I'm glad you asked because that brings me to the point about being negative, which is a positive. When candidates or their surrogates are disseminating false information either about themselves, their opponents or the issues, they must be exposed. If we keep our eyes on the big ball, we will understand that such negative exposure is a positive. Is it negative campaigning? Yes, but remember: Negative campaigning is not a negative. Negative campaigning is talking negatively about your opponent, his programs, his character, his record or his lies. There's nothing negative in being negative about negatives. In fact, it's a positive step toward properly informing the voters. It is just plain silly to suggest that there's anything wrong with a candidate going positively negative in this manner. If he is truly interested in improving society -- and if he isn't, that's surely a negative thing -- then he must tell on his opponent when he misbehaves, even though tattletales are generally seen in a negative light. We probably would not be obsessing about so-called "negative campaigning" if we were not knee-deep in this regrettable Clintonian age of semantic and linguistic confusion (please excuse the double negative). However, we live at a time when words -- through misuse, overuse and abuse -- have sometimes lost their meaning. The word "negative," of course, has a negative connotation. However, in the context of campaigning it shouldn't. Properly defined, negative campaigning is affirmatively positive. So what should be out of bounds in the world of politics? Is everything fair in this cynical age? No way, not no how. What is not fair is lying about your opponent, his programs, his character or his truths -- it is not fair to characterize the truth as a lie. And while we're on this point, let me add that I don't want to hear any nonsense about the relativity of truth. Yes, there are gray areas, but facts are facts, and it is not OK to distort the facts. Lying is bereft of positive qualities. We mustn't call these negative practices "negative campaigning" anymore. Carvillian propagandists have seen to it that this phrase no longer has any meaning. The confusion allows them to avert legitimate criticism by accusing their opponents of being negative when they are just trying to inform voters. Henceforth, we must insist that "negative campaigning" has a positive connotation. Instead, let's call those unsavory practices "dirty campaigning." What's even worse than dirty campaigning is when the media assists a dirty campaigner to do his dirty deeds by establishing moral equivalency between his dirty campaigning and his opponent's mere negative campaigning. That allows the dirty campaigner's dirty campaigning to be seen in a less negative light, and there is nothing positive about that. So, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore join to shut down the government in October and then blame Bush and the Republicans, that will be dirty governance and dirty campaigning at their finest. Then, when the media conspires to falsely blame the Republicans for the shutdown, we must remember to come out with our guns blazing. In pointing out the lies, we must be most negative. I'm positive about it. Anything else would be positively unpatriotic, which is unacceptably negative.