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The Saturday Debate: Are attack ads bad for politics?


“Political attack ads call all of politics into disrepute, ultimately undermining trust in all politicians and eroding citizens’ confidence that democracy is the best system for choosing our leaders,” writes Peter Lowen. On the other side, “what voters need to know is not just what’s desirable but what’s possible, and how,” writes Rick Salutin. “It’s useful to see candidates pick each other and their proposals apart. Ads are just one way of doing that.”


Peter Lowen

Incoming director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

Negative politics — and its favorite tactic, attack ads — erode trust in our democracy, polarize voters, and cause enmity between citizens. Attack ads are not good for our politics.

Of course, in the short term, attack ads may be good for politicians. Attack ads can convey important and true information about an opponent’s past statements, their current policy positions, and even their future actions. In short, they may be informative.

Precisely because attack ads are cast in a negative light, they may attract more attention from voters, causing them to attend more closely. Humans, after all, are hard-wired to pay attention to that which makes us anxious or threatens us. Attack ads may also lead voters to think the stakes in an election are higher and that the divisions between parties are greater than they really are. In sum, they may be motivating.

Attacks ads may well work to serve the ends of one politician over another. In the business of getting votes and winning elections, then, they may be good for politicians. But are they good for politics?

Potato chips are wonderful for satisfying a craving. They are a poor basis for a healthy diet and a long life. Attack ads may help in the short term. In the long term, they degrade our politics.

Here are principal ways of attacking ads are bad for our politics.

  • First, they call all of politics into disrepute, ultimately undermining trust in all politicians and eroding citizens’ confidence that democracy is the best system for choosing our leaders. A small thought experiment makes this point.

Why, for example, does McDonald’s not run advertisements running down Burger King’s products? Surely, they believe their own are better and that consumers ought to choose them. Why not simply “raise an interesting question” about where exactly Burger King’s beef comes from? At least one reason is that this could erode the total market demand for hamburgers. If Burger King is bad for you, maybe McDonald’s is, too.

Politicians are in a different business, though. The party that takes power does so irrespective of how many people vote in absolute terms. All that matters is the share of votes received. The steady decline in turnout we have seen over the past half century has at least something to do with the persistent negativity of our politics.

  • Second, negative ads likely increase polarization. Politics — even in Canada — is increasingly polarized around issues. This polarization can happen in at least two ways.

One way is that voters take increasingly extreme views on issues, rather than centrist views. This is at least partially caused by political rhetoric that emphasizes strong positions.

The other is that voters are more consistently ideological in their views, so voters who have a certain position on one issue — say abortion — will have a certain position on another unrelated issue — say, capital gains taxes. By engaging negative campaigning on issues, parties increase the stakes of those issues, compelling partisans to get in line with other partisans, rather than entertaining a diversity of opinions. This polarization, as shown by my colleague Eric Merkley, is not limited to the United States.

  • Third, negative advertising and campaigning increases enmity between people. Attack ads that call into question the fundamental motivations and values ​​of politicians cause voters to hold more negative opinions of those leaders. But the effect is not contained. Instead, it bleeds into their evaluations of the people who support those leaders.

Again, as my colleague Eric Merkley has shown, voters in Canada have increasingly negative feelings, not only about politicians in other parties, but about the people who vote for them.

One of the great tricks of democratic politics is that it allows us to solve a big problem — who will make and enforce the rules for our lives — in a peaceful way. And by doing it only every few years, it allows us to otherwise go about our lives peacefully and productively.

If negative politics threatens that, it does so by deceiving us into believing that this is a bad way to govern ourselves and by leading us to think that our fellow citizens are not deserving of our respect because we disagree about some small set of issues. This may well be good for politicians seeking to be elected, but it is bad for us and for our politics.

Peter Lowen is the incoming director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.


Rick Salutin

Freelance contributing columnist for the Star

Bad for politics? Attack ads are politics in our system, more or less. We have an adversarial politics, just as we have an adversarial legal system. So there’s a loyal opposition, with the emphasis on opposing. Scrapping attack ads would be like eliminating cross-examinations in court.

Different systems are surely possible. Some countries have “neutral” judicial bodies that investigate and judge crimes. We have places in Canada — Nunavut or the Northwest Territories — that operate on consensus politics without an opposition, the way municipalities are supposed to.

But there’s something to be said for attack strategies in politics. Long ago I studied with a Marxist, Herbert Marcuse, who called his book, “One-Dimensional Man,” an “exercise in the power of negative thinking.” That itself was an attack on a sappy bestseller of the time called “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

It’s too easy in politics to burble on positively, making promises. What voters need to know is not just what’s desirable but what’s possible, and how. They often say that their vote comes down to choosing the least worst option. So it’s useful to see candidates pick each other and their proposals apart.

Ads are just one way of doing that, and they should certainly be regulated. But the plus is that we’ve seen all so many ads, essentially since birth, that we can be judgmental ourselves, and learn things even from dubious cases.

Take the stupid Willy Wonka ad that Conservatives put out before the last federal campaign, with Justin Trudeau’s face ineptly superimposed on a film character. It was like saying, “If we can’t even make a competent ad, why would you trust us to run Canada?” Their own MPs were embarrassed and it got pulled.

Or take the current flood of ads about Ontario’s coming election.

The PCs are running a radio ad of Doug Ford saying, “I hear it all the time, politicians are famous for finding reasons to say no. That’s not me … we are the party saying Yes.”

My first thought was: what a weird assertion, that I’m the Yes man. Who said you weren’t? Oh wait, there are long lists of things he cut, even during the pandemic. (Though he does say Yes to his developer buddies on building Hwy. 413, where they own big plots of land along the way.)

In effect, he’s become his own attack ad against himself. So this week, when he told immigrants not to come to Ontario to rip off “the dole,” you think that doesn’t sound very Yessy. Or last week: “Folks, I’m gonna tell you something, the worst place you can give your money is to the government.” That’s a pretty big No from Mr. Yes.

The NDP have dropped a pile of ads against Ford and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. No one who knows them will be surprised that the emotion in the anti-Liberal ads is fiercer than the anti-Ford ones, though Del Duca’s a minuscule player in the legislature — without even a seat — and apparently no money for ads. The NDP have always hated Liberals for usurping what they see as their rightful place as progressive leaders. It’s only human; most of us have been there.

The ads drip with sarcasm and are voiced by what sounds to me like an actor directed to personify a worker. The result reads to me like a middle-class actor’s notion of straight-talking workers. It rings like a caricature. The music under it is arch and cute, like “Only Murders in the Building.” The NDP’s always had a problem with a sense of humour. It doesn’t have one but doesn’t know it.

The scripts are worse. They tell people what they should feel: Del Duca is “back for power, not for you.” What does that mean? If you’re trying to make up your mind, it gives you no help. My own experience writing for workers in, say, leaflets for union drives or strikes, is that they want information that’s specific (but concise), not attitudes. give them info; they’ll provide opinions.

Del Duca’s response, by the way, to those attacks is to say something positive about the other leaders. It’s often smart to march in the other direction.

I’ve run out of space here but I must say, now that I’ve started reacting to these angry, hostile, attack ads, that it’s lots of fun. Keep them coming!


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