"Civility" was a popular buzzword last year when then-Senator Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren signed a much-hyped "People's Pledge" to keep third-party advertising out of their rapidly escalating US Senate contest.
"The Senate race in Massachusetts," Fox News cheered, "is going for the civility vote." Springfield's daily paper hailed the candidates' "push for campaign civility," applauding "their efforts to reject the nasty rhetoric spewed by third party groups." A few weeks later, New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal lauded Brown and Warren's "mutual disarmament" pact as heartening evidence that some candidates, at least, would hold themselves to a higher standard of "respect for civility, fairness, and the truth."
Well before the Senate race ended on Nov. 6, it had become clear that Brown and Warren, like other politicians, were quite ready to blow off "civility, fairness, and the truth" in pursuit of high office. Massachusetts voters who thought the "People's Pledge" would transform the campaign into a cordial Socratic dialogue were swiftly disabused of that idea. Brown pronounced Warren unfit to be a senator because she failed the "test … of character and honesty and truthfulness." Warren's campaign accused Brown of "running a relentlessly negative campaign filled with personal attacks and intentional distortions." His staffers mocked her with "Cherokee" war whoops. Her commercials painted him as hostile to women.
By September, "civility" had given way to a different byword. Far from proving "the nation's most civil political race," CNN reported, the Brown-Warren battle "has morphed into one of the ugliest." BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray, in a story headlined "The Ugliest Campaign in America," concluded that Warren and Brown's pledge had "accomplished roughly the opposite of its goal," driving the Bay State race to an "unusual depth of personal nastiness."
The Warren-Brown pledge was about as effective at elevating the tone of the race as it was at holding down its price. "By some projections, the campaign could cost at least $60 million," reported the Boston Globe when the agreement was first announced, with a third of that coming from outside spending by third parties. In the event, the two nominees managed to burn through more than $76 million all by themselves according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making theirs the most expensive Senate race of 2012.
But at least Brown and Warren succeeded in their primary aim of blocking "special interests and outside agendas" from inundating Massachusetts voters with attack ads, right?
Wrong. "Outside cash fuels blizzard of attack mailings," the Globe reported in a front-page story three weeks before the election. Since the candidates hadn't included direct mail, printed flyers, and door-to-door drives in their pledge, political groups right and left were using those options to besiege voters with negative messages and incendiary images. All told, outside expenditures added another $6.6 million to the campaign.
So the "People's Pledge" didn't keep the Senate race from getting nasty. It didn't keep the candidates from spending record-smashing sums of money. It didn't keep third parties from finding ways to reach voters with information and advertising. Yet somehow Brown and Warren managed to generate a new urban legend: that their agreement set a new standard for transparency in politics. "It's something that I'm very, very proud of, and I know she is too," Brown said on the day before the election. "It's really a model … for the rest of the country."
That, as Joe Biden might put it, is a bunch of malarkey. The Warren-Brown pledge boiled down to two politicians demanding that no one say anything about them without their approval. This wasn't just an effort to thwart deep-pocketed super PACs from out of state. The two candidates explicitly aimed to squelch anyone – individuals, charities, businesses, political parties, advocacy groups – from airing ads supporting or opposing either side in a high-profile election. The one glaring exception, of course, was the media: Brown and Warren didn't dare tell news organizations not to comment on the race. How many journalists would still be applauding their attempt to monopolize electoral speech if they had?
The "People's Pledge" was never legally binding on the people and groups it was intended to stifle. But in spirit it was arrogant and antidemocratic, an affront to the marketplace of ideas. Trying to silence citizens with strong views about politics should have no place in American life, above all during an election cycle. Free speech may not always be pretty. The alternative is usually worse.