The Negative Side of Negative Politics

By GEORGE LIGHTBOURN | October 8, 2010

You will have to forgive me, you see I’m in the ideas business and, as such, I have a fair amount of disdain for politics.  Being election season, this is a tough time for me.  There is a whole lot of politics in the air.  Ideas have taken a holiday. I’m somewhat like the baseball fan coming to grips with the way football has come to dominate the sports scene.  I get it but I do not like it.

Yet it isn’t really politics that I find troublesome, it’s the phenomenal way that negativity and attacks have taken over politics.  On a personal level, it’s made television watching more of an effort than usual.  And it’s not just me. 

My ultra-liberal daughter stopped by the other day (I was probably watching baseball) and, after a couple of attack ads ran back to back, she pronounced that she hates them all; Democrats and Republicans.  This was the kind of venom she usually held in reserve for that Bush/Cheney fellow. I had to agree.

My real concern is less about what it does to my television habits and more about what it means for our government.  After all, this business of negative campaigning and attack ads is effectively the most important part of the job application for our elected leaders.  Yet, for whatever reason, we’ve come to accept the current state of campaigning.  I guess the collective hope of the electorate is that the negativity will end when the election is decided and the combatants will buckle down and do the people’s business.  While we might long for that Currier and Ives picture of government, the reality is that it hasn’t really worked that way for nearly two decades. 

There is no safe harbor in government, no DMZ. The end of one campaign season is the beginning of the next one.  Political operatives melt into the woodwork and offices of the Capitol, stridently biding their time until the next battle begins in earnest.  In the meantime, the chief combatants simply have a new field on which to engage the enemy.  It might be the hearing room or the floor of the State Senate or Assembly, but the battle continues in plain sight. 

It is no wonder that, as this hand-to-hand Kabuki Theatre plays out, the citizens feel less and less connected with this insular institution called government.  They rightly see their government as having been turned over to a handful of special interests.  They overwhelmingly give government poor grades, probably because their principle exposure to government comes via the river of mud coming through their television screens prior to each election.  The public scratches its head, who would trust those people to do anything important?

It is no coincidence that, as the professional bickering spills over from the campaigns to the Capitol, the ideas that once fueled our government recede further into the background.  So the complex, bold thinking that might actually yield economic growth takes a back seat.  The tough love that would lead to higher K-12 educational standards and a better future for Wisconsin kids is never touched.  And the conversation of school aids is stuck in a 1985 time warp that essentially says we need more money to get better schools. 

Worst of all, if the next group of battle-scarred politicians who show up in Madison on January 3rd continue to conduct business as usual they will miss a rare opportunity.  You see, the public – all of the public, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents – are ready to support big beefy changes.  Seventy six percent want pension reform, eighty-two percent want a high school graduation test and fifty –six percent favor raising the sales tax to offset a 20% cut in the hated property tax. 

Yet these ideas have received no serious attention in Madison in recent memory.  Is it any wonder that sixty-eight percent of the public rates their state government as doing a fair or poor job?