Why do negative campaign ads work?
Negative campaigning works because it harnesses the enormous and ubiquitous blind energy of envy. Envy is as fundamental to the mind as hunger is to the body. In fact envy is frustrated psychological hunger. The paradigm of wanting something, feeling frustrated at not having it, and feeling angry is established very early on in life. And our consumer driven market economy depends on the premise that we will never be without unmet cravings.
But it goes far beyond material goods. Our culture constantly bombards us with the feeling that we would really like to have more sex appeal, status, and style. Yet time and again we run into the fact we do not.
Over a lifetime these resentments accumulate and become a bottomless supply of vitriol, vulnerable to the inflammatory effects of the subliminal psychological suggestion that negative ads really are. "Don't deny yourself the free expression of hate we are offering you." Like flowing oil, envy follows whatever opportunity the terrain allows it, and it can be directed toward new targets that have nothing to do with the original source of the deprivation and resentment.
To direct the torrent of envious rage to an opponent, all the political demagogue must do is create an image that evokes envy--someone more attractive, more intelligent, more articulate, more popular--and then provide a triggering moralistic rationale to "justify" unleashing the envy-based rage against the target. Step one triggers the envy, "Obama is so popular." Step two provides the moralistic rationale for unleashing the hatred. "Isn't Obama getting too full of himself?"
In my recent book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, June 2008.) I discuss what I contend are the real battleground states in America, the psychological states of envy, paranoia, and sexual perplexity and how they are shaping American politics.
If money is the mother's milk of politics, envy is its petroleum. In the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry, a decorated war hero, had his most politically valuable qualities turned against him, even though he was running against two men who had avoided military combat. Virtue was converted to venality through the black magic of negative campaign ads.
In the summer of 2008, we hear the same numbing drumbeat of attacks against Barack Obama. Obama would "rather win an election than win a war." He enjoys "cult status" around the world, but is a "narcissistic," "immature," "elitist" whose fame is as deserved as the vacuous Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton. He gets the glory we all crave, but is absolutely undeserving of it. It is hard to imagine any message more astutely crafted to unleash torrents of envy against Barack Obama.
Barack Obama has--at most--a few weeks left to understand the political dynamics of envy. Otherwise he will join the ranks of Al Gore and John Kerry as a vastly superior candidate who lost at a critical time in our nation's history.
When the negative ad comes, the envy it unleashes is out in the political system and it has to either be redirected or personally absorbed. The latter can prove fatal to a political candidate. And yet, despite the negative McCain campaign, progressive forces have not called attention to John McCain's own very serious personality flaws that are directly relevant to the issues he is raising. As is often the case in negative campaigns, the attacks from McCain are important clues to his own personal vulnerability. Thus, effective Obama counterpunches could expose serious hypocrisy on the part of McCain and add substantial power to the counterpunch. The meta level message would be very appealing, "Wouldn't you like to hate a politician who uses these negative ads and is such a hypocrite to boot?"
For example, if maturity and fitness to hold such an important office are the issues McCain wants to raise against Obama, those issues become fair game for both parties. The psychology of envy dictates that Obama point out in reply that McCain's well-documented, childishly explosive temper raises serious questions about McCain's fitness to "answer the phone at three in the morning." And speaking of narcissism, few progressives have commented on the narcissism of a seventy-two year old man who has had melanoma three times and, yet, still believes HE is best suited to lead his already-traumatized country.
John McCain also has a lifetime of flaunting rules-- from military academy days to his marital infidelity and to the Keating scandal which almost ended his career. When these are added to the mix, which candidate comes out better in their mutually presumptuous claim that they are the best candidate to lead our nation.?
As another presidential aspirant from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, said in providing the rationale for one of his own negative counterpunches, "If you don't stop lying about me I am going to start telling the truth about you."