Political campaigns no longer are designed to inform voters, and instead teach us “to hate each other” through emotional attacks on opponents, Project Vote Smart co-founder Richard Kimball says.
He told a forum at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics on Thursday that politicians using dirty campaign tactics are nothing new, “but there has never been so many of them.”
Worse, “We haven’t just learned to tolerate them or expect them. We accept them. We encourage them. We support them. We vote for them. There’s no penalty, as there has been in the past, for misbehavior,” he said.
His nonpartisan Project Vote Smart seeks to counter that by providing voters extensive information online about candidates’ backgrounds, votes and stands — something Kimball said campaigns too rarely offer voters themselves.
Negative campaigning gained momentum with the rise of TV election ads in the 1960s, when politicians quickly found that it is much easier “to move people emotionally than move them intellectually. You can move prejudice. You can move hatred. You can easily move the most popular thing to move — which is fear — in a 30-second TV ad.”
Politicians also learned that “you cannot move people on the options dealing with an issue facing society in a 30-second ad,” he said. “You can’t discuss it, you can’t get to the points — so you don’t bother trying if you want to win.”
Kimball was a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against John McCain in his first U.S. Senate campaign in Arizona. He said he soon learned, and even said in a debate, “We spend all of our time collecting money from people we do not know, who are going to want access to us if we happen to win.”
Campaigns today almost always use these vast amounts of money “to trash whoever their opponent is.” With that, “We are all learning to hate each other, to distrust each other. You can particularly see it in Congress.”
Kimball said that in 2012 for the first time, a majority of campaign ad money went for attack commercials against opponents. “In 2016, it crossed 80 percent.”
Kimball said candidates also have learned that it is safer “not to answer [voters‘] questions … when it is against your pollster-approved safety-net approval issues.”
Project Vote Smart tried for 10 years between 1996 and 2006 to get congressional candidates to answer questionnaires on top topics. The percentage who would do so dropped from 76 percent to 48 percent. At the end, only 26 percent of incumbents would do so.
“You are being systematically stripped of the information you need in order to make intelligent, good decisions,” he said.
To show how dangerous that is, he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “If the nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be.”