Once the New York primaries were completed here, I knew what was next – a non-stop barrage of negative, nasty, overly dramatic, misleading political advertising leading all the way up to November. And sure enough, it didn’t take long to get rolling. The darkly lit, scary commercials with images of dank swamps or apparently starving children, with the threatening voice-over that gives us the impression that if we vote “the other guys” into office, the world as we know it will cease to exist and we won’t be safe in our own homes.
Doesn’t it sound like the same guy does all those political voice-overs? It really sounds like the same exact voice in all the ads – Democrat, Republican, Conservative, whatever. If so, the guy must make his whole year’s salary in these few manic election months. He probably makes a fortune saying things like: “Joe X voted with his party bosses 98.6% of the time! He supports laws that would tax you into oblivion. He is out to destroy the American way. He wants your first-born children – and we suspect that he will eat them.”
And the images? Campaigns comb through every media image of the opponent to find that one awful picture of them chewing food, or scratching their face, or just plain tired after a long day of campaigning. That one terrible picture – one second out of millions of seconds – can become a turning point in an election because we voters are such a shallow bunch.
A classic example is the recent primary campaign where New York’s 23rd congressional district candidate Doug Hoffman’s opponent found a bizarre video of Hoffman, apparently waiting around for his turn to speak somewhere. He looks bored and tired, and clearly has no idea someone is filming him. By the time his opponent’s marketing team converted the video to black and white, blurred it just a bit, and, I’m pretty sure, distorted it slightly, Hoffman ended up looking either creepy or clueless or both. I’m sure that odd video clip, along with Mr. Scary Voice reading the script, was a substantial contributor to Hoffman’s defeat in the Republican primary. Sadly, I’ve seen plenty of other images of Mr. Hoffman where he looks neither creepy nor clueless, but more like just an average, decent guy.
We voters all say we want to know about the issues, and we all shake our heads with a ‘tsk, tsk, tsk’ over negative advertising. But all the studies prove that negative campaigns work. Which means that we are clearly not being honest with ourselves. We’re allowing Mr. Scary Voice to freak us out about the boogeyman/boogeywoman of the “other” party. We’ve been conned by Mr. Scary Voice to accept every terrifying political factoid he so solemnly recites without question. Who’s brave enough to argue with Mr. Scary Voice? Or Mrs. Scary Voice, who shows up occasionally with the threatening woman’s voice to the same effect? Next will be their offspring, little Suzy Scary Voice, trying to get children to scare their parents away from voting for someone!
When I hear those stats of “Mary X voted 1,459 times to raise your taxes!”, I always take it with a dose of salt. There’s usually more to the story than just a big scary number. I don’t know if I have enough salt to get through another election season, though. I vowed not to vote for anyone who uses scare tactics to get my vote, but what can I do when every candidate hires Mr. Scary Voice? I vowed to do my own fact-checking, but every candidate has Mr. or Mrs. Scary Voice reciting one alarming story after another, and I can’t keep up with the Googling required to double-check everything. I’d love to be able to say that “my” party walks the higher ground, but of course, they don’t. They hired Mr. Scary Voice too, much to my dismay.
I took a call yesterday from a woman claiming to be conducting a survey. Whenever I see political poll results, I say “who ARE these people they’re polling?” So if I get an opportunity to participate, I try to do it. The questions started innocently enough. “What do you think New York’s biggest challenge is?” (taxes). “Are you familiar with NYS Assemblyman Al Stirpe?” (yes) “Are you familiar with Assembly leader Sheldon Silver?” (<shudder> yes) “Are you familiar with candidate Don Miller?” (no)
Then the questions took a weird turn – after I said I had a “somewhat favorable” opinion of Al Stirpe, she asked me if I would have a less favorable opinion of Stirpe if I knew how many times he voted with “New York City Liberals”. Whoa – that’s a bit of a leading question, isn’t it? And it just got worse. Would I be less likely to support Stirpe if I knew he raised taxes 924 times? If I knew that he voted against funding for upstate, but in favor of that same funding for New York City? If I knew that he voted for a law that would put sexual predators on our streets…. Cue Mr. Scary Voice!
The next few questions were the same type of exaggerated politics. I stopped her and told her that this was clearly NOT a survey, but instead was a campaign call, and I hung up. But how many people fell for it, and allowed themselves to be directed down a path that was clearly being dictated by Mr. Miller’s campaign staff or his supporters? It wasn’t Mr. Scary Voice conducting the call, but it may as well have been.
The Mr. Scary Voice tactic is getting old. I’m tired of people trying to scare me away from the opposing candidate instead of trying to pull me towards theirs. I’m tired of trying to figure out who’s telling the truth. I’m tired of a process that discourages qualified citizens from running for office, because what reasonable person would want to go through all the mudslinging and viciousness?
But we Baby Boomers were raised to vote. We were taught, and rightly so, that it’s our duty, right and privilege as a citizen. So I will still do my best to ignore Mr. Scary Voice and vote for candidates with the most positive, rational, informative campaigns, no matter how tough it may be. When I hear Mr. or Mrs. Scary Voice, I will automatically be skeptical of what they say in their threatening tones. I will take the time to dig through the vitriol and try to determine who is being the most honest about their claims, positive or negative. And I will try not to think of all the voters who think Mr. Scary Voice really is the voice of truth and reason. Because that’s a thought scary enough to cause nightmares.