FARGO: Ads breed cynicism in young people

November 17, 2012

Anthony FargoThe election is over, but there are still some unanswered questions as we clean up the toxic debris from the campaigns and get back to focusing on other things.

Here’s one: Is anyone thinking about the effect of the negative campaign ads on young people?

I ask because I saw a disturbing Facebook post from a student on election night. This student stated that he had been excited about finally being old enough to vote this year, but by the time the election rolled around, he was so cynical he didn’t think he was going to bother.

He was the exception to the rule among my virtual circle of friends. Most of the students who posted comments about the election were excited about voting and urged their friends, including the cynical guy, to cast their ballots. But his comment stuck with me because it resonated with a concern that’s been nagging at me for a while.

Much has been made of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case and whether it would unleash a torrent of interest-group campaign ads. We have the answer to that, but not the answer some were expecting. Democrats assumed Republican supporters would far outspend them, but it turns out supporters of both parties have deep pockets. It also turns out that no amount of money will make some candidates attractive enough to fool voters.

But the torrent of ads in the Mourdock-Donnelly Senate race, to take one example, likely had side effects. They were relentlessly negative. Voters who didn’t have the time or inclination to learn more about the candidates were left with choosing between two people marked as extremist ideologues. This meant that, to some voters, the only choices were to not vote at all or to vote for the lesser of two evils.

In the end, one of these men was elected to represent us all. Those voters who came to believe that a vote for Joe Donnelly was a vote for Satan will probably find that hard to accept. If we lose the belief that we are bound by our collective decisions in choosing representatives and by the decisions those representatives make, we eventually will lose the country.

That may seem like an overreaction to one Facebook post, but my concern goes deeper than that. The negative campaigning, the constant drumbeat of aspersions that opposing candidates are not truly Hoosiers, or Americans, the talking and shouting heads on radio and television questioning the president’s citizenship and loyalty, the “Not My Man” bumper stickers that stayed on cars long after the election, all send a message.

That message is that opposing political candidates are not just good people who happen to disagree on the issues. It is that one is right and the other is wrong, and if the “wrong” one is elected, the state or nation is doomed.

Despite all the negativity, I believe we managed to elect competent people from both parties to tackle the challenges we face. But getting them to work together on those problems seems to get more difficult each year, thanks in part to the scorched-earth politics that both parties and their supporters practice.

Young people are not blind to what is going on. Many of the students I see are confident they can build a country that is more cooperative, less prejudiced and more just. But some are also angry and frustrated that win-at-all-costs political machinery is wasting millions of dollars to pit us against one another while failing to address our problems as more than talking points.

My plea to the political establishment is simple: Before you plunge into another round of negative advertising and bitter recrimination, think about the kids.•

Fargo is an Indiana University journalism professor and member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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