Past U.S. presidential campaigns have been knock-down, drag-out fights, history shows
BY NOUR HABIB World Scene Writer
Sunday, November 04, 2012
11/05/12 at 9:36 AM
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Barack Obama is a foreign-born socialist. Mitt Romney is an out-of-touch elitist. And they're both liars.
Well, that's what some of each candidate's supporters will have you think about the other.
With Election Day just around the corner, Americans may feel that the vitriolic words being exchanged this election cycle are increasing.
But, are they any worse than the political discourse of years past? Not really.
Past vs. present
"There are some notably aggressive campaigns in the past," said professor Michael Mosher, chair of the political science department at the University of Tulsa.
Mosher said even early in our nation's history, as early as the 1796 election - which was to determine the country's second president - vicious barbs were exchanged between the campaigns of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson's supporters said Adams and his party, the Federalists, were monarchists trying to reinstall aristocracy. And Adam's allies called Jefferson, of the Democratic-Republican party, a French nihilist.
"Don't Know Much About the American Presidents," a book by Kenneth C. Davis published in September, expounds on this early race.
"The race offered little powdered-wig, debating-society civility," Davis writes. "The candidates never went out on a campaign trail, but pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers began to do the dirty work of presidential electioneering - including the dreaded 'negative campaigning.' "
Newspapers at the time gave no pretense of being fair and balanced, Davis said. The Philadelphia Aurora, a paper openly supportive of Jefferson, described Adams as "old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, [and] toothless," Davis says.
And Adams' allies referred to Jefferson as a Jacobin because of his sympathies for the French Revolution. Davis writes that the modern equivalent compares to calling your opponent a "radical leftist who pals around with terrorists."
Since then, political discourse has often been aggressive, Mosher said.
"Whenever you have a really transformative president who appears to shake up interests that get served, you have viciously fought campaigns," he said.
Laura Belmonte, a history professor at Oklahoma State University, agrees.
"For Americans to conclude that somehow 2012 is more aggressive is off-base," she said.
That's not to say, however, that nothing has changed.
"What is different now is the rapidity with which allegations a campaign makes against the other spreads," Belmonte said.
She points to a comment about "horses and bayonets" that President Obama made during the third presidential debate to refer to what he views as outdated arguments by Gov. Romney. Within minutes, the phrase was trending on Twitter, was made into a Tumblr account and became a page on Facebook liked by thousands of users.
"Social media has brought in a whole new chorus of people to chime in," Belmonte said.
Michael Hirlinger, government professor and department chair at Oral Roberts University, says social media also feeds the tendency towards more negative discourse, partly because people have lost the "face-to-face" element of debate.
"What it gets going, it's not more of a debate about issues or a debate about electoral trends or what the polls are looking like or what demographics are supporting what candidate," he said. "It's about some of those things that are out there that may not be true."
Jerry Buchanan, who serves as the Oklahoma GOP's 1st District vice chairman and who was a delegate at the Republican National Convention this year, said social media and the Internet in general have given more people the opportunity to voice their opinions to a wide audience.
Buchanan said he thinks having that platform makes people more aggressive. And because in-person interaction is lacking, people are more emboldened to make negative comments.
Political coverage and sources of information
There was also a shift in the tone of political discourse after television became more prevalent in the 1960s, according to Buchanan.
TV news commentators and analysts began to set the tone for the way people spoke about politics, he said.
"A commentator simply making a comment could change people's attitudes and infuriate people or settle people down," he said.
Tulsa attorney Doug Dodd, who has attended four Democratic National Conventions - the most recent as a delegate and his first, in 1976, as a journalist covering the event - said the fact that current media reports sometimes focus on seemingly unimportant topics considered "hot news," such as something a candidate said five years ago, also distracts from having a more serious political discussion focused on issue positions.
The variety of options now available through cable networks also means that fewer people are turning to more objective outlets, like traditional network television or newspapers, for their news.
"Everybody can pick something that they already like," Dodd said. "I don't think we spend enough time watching the other side's stuff."
What makes some races more contentious?
So, although aggressive campaigning and negative political discourse have long been part of America's presidential races, not all races are created equal. And those who feel that the 2012 race is on the more aggressive side aren't totally wrong.
Hirlinger said aggressive campaigning is more likely to crop up in close races.
"Why would you have to get negative when you're already 15 percent ahead in the polls?" he said.
And while negative campaigning may not win you the votes of undecided constituents, it could decrease voter turnout and keep certain people who would have voted for the other candidate at home.
"In a close race, that can be the difference between winning or losing," he said.
Mosher said "demonizing rhetoric" also crops up when the stakes of a race are high.
"Obama is not a completely transformative president, but Republicans feel if he wins another term he could become transformative," Mosher said.
The stakes are definitely high this year, Belmonte said.
"It's really not hyperbole to say that this is really one of those critical elections," she said. "Because the country is definitely at crossroads about what the form and function of the federal government should or will be in Americans' lives.
"We've reached the point where there are some issues, particularly the fiscal issues with the national debt, that have reached the point where we really can't kick the can down the road anymore."
Original Print Headline: Power Punches
Nour Habib 918-581-8369
SUSAN CYRUS/Tulsa World
Delegate Doug Dodd is seen at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Courtesy
Delegate Jerry Buchanan holds up an Oklahoma banner at the Republican National Convention in Florida. Courtesy