Take Back the Discourse — Fight for Civility!

Cliff Hyra. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

This cry for civility could not be more timely given the subject of my previous post: Libertarian Party candidate for governor Cliff Hyra has called upon Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie to halt their vicious attack ads. The statement he released today is worth quoting at length:

When I first decided to run for Governor of Virginia, I chose to make respect a central tenet of my campaign. All Virginians deserve respect, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs- and regardless of their political opinions. I feel strongly that it is a mistake to demonize those who disagree with you. Our political opponents are not demons- they are our brothers and our sisters, and they bleed like we bleed, and they want, at a high level, most of the same things that we want.

I wish that the other candidates felt the same way. I have watched with growing dismay over the last weeks as initial civility has given way to wild-eyed accusations and divisive rhetoric.

What is politics coming to, what is our society coming to, when two candidates for state-wide office spend millions of dollars on ads accusing their opponent of sympathizing with violent street gangs, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis, and of harboring supporters who want to run over our children with trucks. I cannot begin to describe my disappointment. I fear for the future of our Commonwealth and of our nation, when even the most staid candidates feel they have to descend to this level of discourse to win an election, and are willing to do so.

My family was talking in general terms about the rhetoric we had been hearing, when my seven-year-old daughter asked me, “Do grown-ups really fight like that?” and I said “Well, these two do” and she said “They’re acting like children!” and I said “You’re right.” It’s unbelievable to me that I have to be the grown-up in the room, because these 60-year old men, these establishment politicians, a sitting lieutenant governor and former chairman of the RNC, apparently think that the best strategy for getting elected to the highest office in the state is name-calling. I feel like telling them ‘Don’t make me turn this car around!’

Virginia’s voters want to make their decisions based on the issues. When I talk to Virginians all over the state, they are disgusted by the ads they see. What is important to them is the economy, education, healthcare, criminal justice. Not monuments. Not Enron.

I would add only this: Civility is not just for elections. It’s for all public discourse. Sometimes the polite people of the world have to stand up and say, “Gosh darn it, we’re not going to take this anymore!”

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10 responses to “Take Back the Discourse — Fight for Civility!”

  1. musingsfromjanus Avatar

    Bacon you are on a roll. This should be front page news as I think he is absolutely correct.

    I was just having a conversation with a colleague about this very topic with almost these same words being mutually expressed.

    And who are they influencing? We have seen campaign after campaign throw millions of dollars of this kind of stuff and still lost — maybe the Wisconsin battle over right to work could be a poster child. Personally, I mute all political ads from both parties.

    Is this a great scam of the political advertising agencies which is enriching them, polluting our discourse, and not moving the needle much for their candidates-maybe even harming them in some cases?

    Northam’s truck add tripled Gillespie’s fund-raising for whatever that’s worth..

  2. I wish I could agree. I would like to see lightening strike the perpetrators of these ads. Yet they are effective in motivating a certain kind of unthinking cretin to come to the polls, and these days there are entirely too many unthinking cretins out there on (to use a popular phrase) “both sides.” The problem is not with the ads, but with their audience, the electorate — look at how Gillespie’s numbers have risen. Negative advertising will continue until it costs the candidate more than it benefits him (or her).

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Okay – be sure we define our terms. A negative ad is one that says: don’t vote for that person. A positive ad says vote for that person. Nothing new about negative campaigning if you know anything of American history.

    I remember a especially cynical campaign school speaker telling us that the way to tell if a negative ad was strong enough was to wait for the call from your own mother. If she called you and complained, it just might be strong enough. Maybe. Keep it up a couple more days after that, he advised…..

    The redneck pickup ad certainly passed that test. My instructor would have loved that one….

    Acbar has a point. The problem is too many voters do respond to them, and frankly they don’t even really get the details. It is all emotion. If Gillespie and Northam were running thoughtful discussions of tax policy and tuition inflation and local government cooperation, showing off their kids and grandkids, nobody would pay attention but us geeks. (Actually a really strong positive ad can work. Adams’ endorsement ad from his Navy buddy for example, and both Vogel and Fairfax have some nice family ads – emotion!)

    For the most part the negative ads are not intended to get your voter to turn out, but to keep the other side’s voters at home. They depress us and they depress turnout. The best ones have an element of humor, which has been especially lacking in this year’s crop. This year it might be different, the negative ads may be seen as necessary to boost your own turnout.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    So , maybe a question is – why are people influenced by negative ads?

    I can’t imagine these folks spending gobs and gobs of money on ads that “don’t work”…

    1. Larry, as a communications guy who has worked in the advocacy arena, I know that fear is a powerful motivator. Yes, it does work because human nature is what it is. Hope can work, too, as we saw in 2008, but that’s only after people have grown weary of fear and its outcomes. These things are very cyclical in social and political movements. Fear causes anger, which causes violence, which causes sadness, which causes reflection, which causes hope, which causes optimism, which causes change, which causes fear, which causes anger, which causes … and so on and so on. That’s an oversimplification, but it kind of works that way among all human societies throughout time. The constant throughout is the insatiable human quest for power. That will likely never change, just as the setting sun always rises.

      1. I would add that the quest for power itself is cyclical, especially on an individual level. The weak become the strong, the strong become the weak, and so on.

  5. musingsfromjanus Avatar

    People give up millions of dollars annually to investment advisers when every study has shown that indexed investment will outperform stock pickers without exception over a 10 year period.

    I am increasingly persuaded that political advertising, particularly negative and attack ads, is a great con of the media and advertising industry. It appears that most “scientific” research indicates the impact at best is questionable. Apparently, the data is more conclusive that negative adds are really ineffective with women. I would welcome contrary data from the better-informed and politically experienced readers here on the subject.


    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      Depends on your goals.

      The only way to get rich is to make a successful concentrated bet. This is where an adviser can be worth their weight in gold. Imagine placing a large bet on Bitcoin a few years ago (I only put 10% of my liquidity in it at the time, should have listened to an adviser who said “bet the house”).

      But if your goal is retirement or “maintaining what you’ve got and trying to add some growth”, then, yes, tough to beat a 60/40 portfolio that is indexed.

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Gee, I can read all of that or go with forty years of close observation of the game, including time playing the game. A quick perusal indicates as you said it the research is mixed. All that matters is who wins and then what the exit polls might indicate. Yes this crop has been disappointing, but I’ve seen worse (except the pick up truck!) It has now been more than 50 years since the most famous negative ad in American politics. The mushroom cloud and the missile countdown. The one where LBJ said he wouldn’t take us to war (liar!) and Goldwater would, the one where LBJ said Goldwater couldn’t be trusted with nukes. I just saw the same stupid argument in the ad seeking Trump impeachment, on CNBC 20 minutes ago. OMG he has nukes! Fifty years later and the Dems got nothing new to say.

  7. djrippert Avatar

    It’s not civility, it’s content. I could care less how sharp tongued an ad might be. I think it would be quite reasonable to start an ad with a flag being whipped in various directions during a windstorm as an analog to Northam’s “I supported it until I opposed it” stance on sanctuary cities. However, the ad would then need direct citation from when he supported sanctuary cities followed by direct citations of when he reversed himself and opposed sanctuary cities. End the ad by saying that Ralph Northam flips, flops and waves depending on which way the wind is blowing seems reasonable to me.

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