By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
It’s easy to be tough on politicians. Some of the lowest hanging fruit for a writer is criticizing the latest way a politician or the political class in general has let us all down.
I’m no different. I’ve frequently chided office holders and office seekers when I’ve seen cause to do so. I’ve been especially critical of political advertising this election cycle. The personal attacks. The pious appeals to faith. The who-can-out-Trump-the-other contests. More and more it seems like candidates are stooping to satisfy the lowest common denominator rather than rising to reach for the stars.
Silly politicians. Republicans and Democrats, they should all know better. A pox on all both their houses!
See how easy that was?
The problem with being so quick to criticize politicians for the degradation of our public discourse is that it leaves out one important culprit: us.
We – the people, the voting public, society – are partially to blame for political campaigns going into and staying in the gutter. And, more importantly, we hold the key to getting them out.
Why? Because they’re only telling us what they think we want to hear. Most campaigns spend serious resources – money, time and energy – trying to figure out what voters want. A lot of times that means polling, or telephone surveys to determine scientifically-reliable information about the electorate. Sometimes it is listening to voters on the campaign trail and paying close attention to significant trends or anecdotes. But every time, candidates and campaign advisers pour over the various bits of information to determine what messages are going to earn the most votes on election day.
So, when politicians decide to deliver empty, negative or overly pious messages, it is because they have determined that is what will ultimately help them win. And they didn’t arrive there by accident hoping for the best, but by careful consideration of expensive opinion research.
Why does a race devolve into a contest to see who loves President Trump the most? Because most polls show that’s what Republican voters care about the most. (It’s the opposite for Democrats, by the way. They want the candidates who will fight Trump the most.)
Why are there so many ads with candidates touting their extensive religious background and deep spiritual commitment, sometimes from the church pew? Because if you ask GOP voters what characteristics they want in their next congressman, senator, governor or dog catcher, being a Christian is right there at the top with supporting Trump.
Why are there so many negative personal attack ads? Because campaigns routinely poll voters to ask if we would be less likely to vote for the opponent if we knew this embarrassing fact about them, and we routinely answer “yes.”
In voters’ defense, I think these data are often misapplied. For example, just because you want your senator to be a Christian doesn’t mean you want them to constantly say they’re a Christian.
Also, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting candidates to support the president, share your Christian faith, or expose their opponent’s flaws.
The problem is if that’s all we ever demand of our candidates, that’s all we’re ever going to get from them on the campaign trail or in office.
And there’s so much else to discuss!
What’s the future of healthcare? How are we going to pay for roads and bridges? What steps are we going to take to improve schools? How will we make sure our tax dollars are spent equitably? Go down the list.
Challenge candidates to tell you more about the policies they’ll pursue. Show up at a meet-and-greet to tell them you’re an issues voter and are turned off by the petty attacks. Speak up on social media to communicate what you expect from candidates and campaigns.
Polling numbers on Trump’s popularity, the importance of faithful leaders, and the effectiveness of attack ads will not likely change. However, don’t underestimate how seriously campaigns take feedback and anecdotal evidence. I promise you they’re listening. But, I’m not sure enough of us are talking.
The primary campaign is over this week, and we can all be grateful for that. November will be here before we know it. If we want more from our candidates than we got in these last few months, then it’s up to us to demand more of them.