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All Things Considered – January 2013

Election Madness


December 14, 2012
By Jim Knisley


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When I was young the world went MAD.

Schools across North America held drills teaching children to hide under desks. My public school – a classic eight-room, two-storey, brick and concrete edifice built in the 1930s depression – went beyond desk hiding. In the basement there were two large windowless rooms: one was open and used as a recess area on rainy days, while the other had a massive, steel bank-vault-style door that was only opened during drills. Inside were shelves of canned goods, containers of water, blankets and first aid kits. On drill days the pupils were led into this room, and once inside, the door was closed.

It was, in effect, a massive bomb shelter designed to protect the young from Mutual Assured Destruction. In retrospect. the drills and the bomb shelter were unnecessary.

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Although the nuclear arms remain, we have moved away from that edge. But people seem to have a need for MADness, even if the current forms come with less catastrophic baggage.

In the recent U.S. election campaign, spending exceeded $6 billion and the presidential campaign television ads appeared – by one estimate – a million times, with most appearing in just 10 states. Living across Lake Erie from Ohio and Pennsylvania, I was able to watch this play out on Cleveland, Ohio, and Erie, Penn., television.

I saw character assassination, misrepresentation, obfuscation, distortion and, not to put too fine a point on it, lies. This was accompanied by demagoguery, deceit, derision and deception. This went on, particularly in Ohio, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. The barrage was so intense that it filled virtually every 30- and 60-second spot and drove other advertisers from the airwaves.

At times, this became almost laughable. There would be, for example, a 60-second Republican ad, followed by a 60-second Democratic ad, followed by a repeat of the Republican ad.

Making the situation even worse, in my view, is that the people or companies supplying the money to pay for these ads are mostly hidden. They seemingly lack the courage or moral fibre to be accountable.

The end result of all the attacks and all the spending was that both presidential candidates and many candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives were diminished in the eyes of voters. If anyone had accepted and acted upon what they had heard in all the ads, the only rational choice would have been to vote None Of The Above.

In the end, American voters – if they believed the ads and the broader campaigns – were left with a choice, not between outstanding candidates who disagreed on fundamental issues, but between two destructive ogres.

But for all the ads and all the spending, minds seem not to have changed. The election results in November reflected where the polls were six months earlier. The sole discernible impact was the raised level of cynicism.

Many analysts have concluded that the decisive votes were driven by a modern version of the oldest political strategy: the “ground game,” or neighbour-to-neighbour politics and the ability to get supporters to the polls. The Democrats, at the presidential level and in competitive Senate races, had a better ground game.

This has also been seen in recent Canadian elections. While there are ads, which can be as bad as those in the U.S., the Conservatives have been better on the ground, particularly in contests for competitive seats.

One of the lessons from the U.S. election should be that trying to outspend your opponents and deploying billions in money bombs is an excerise in futility. If both sides have the capacity to, as they used to say, bomb until the rubble bounces – all you leave is a political and intellectual wasteland. 

One analyst, whose name I’ve forgotten and who was taking part in one of the innumerable panel discussions that followed the election, observed that a couple of hundred million in ad spending would have ensured voters were aware of the issues and informed of the differences between the candidates and their parties. The additional billions were wasted.

It could also be argued that a better purpose for all that wasted cash would be direct job creation. Or it might have been useful in helping deal with ongoing mortgage problems or assisting schools or students faced with surging tuition costs. The money might even have been squirreled away for a rainy disaster like Hurricane Sandy. 

Just about any use would have been better than the mutual assured destruction that recently played out on U.S. television.


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