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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Voter apathy the fuel that drives deceptive political ads

Joe Konopka

Should political advertisements be held to the same standards as commercial product ads? At the launch of the Republican primary election, a Litchfield woman suggested doing this in a letter to the editor of the Hudson-Litchfield News.

Denise Crompton wrote, “We have laws to protect consumers from false claims made by advertisers. Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive; advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims, and advertisers cannot be unfair.”

Ignoring these requirements incurs Federal Trade Commission penalties. This Sword of Damocles benefits consumers.

So, if such oversight keeps product advertising honest, why then, Crompton reasoned, would it not do so for political ads? Are voters not consumers of a product? Should they not be protected from politicians who peddle that product with minimal truth, if not outright dishonesty? Yet, Crompton found nothing at the FTC website to address this.

Consequently, she appealed to “some courageous senator or representative to file legislation that would protect the voting public from the many outrageous and blatantly false statements made by politicians and their spokespersons.”

Her final sentence summed up the problem: “I’m tired of spending a lot of time searching for the truth.”

It was this that had me save her letter. Like her, I spend a lot of time Googling things I read in papers or see on TV networks. In my experience, old media sources can’t be trusted to provide objective or complete information about political or social issues – a proclivity exhibited in CBS’s half-true reporting of President Barack Obama’s mandate that Catholics sin and of the stage-managed Sandra Fluke testimony.

People who don’t question old-media news sources wouldn’t know about that. How could they? Only with disparate sources could they find out. That’s especially true for political ads.

Knowledge conveyed by these ads is normally incomplete. Incomplete knowledge begets ignorance. Ignorance invites emotional manipulation by politicians counting on intellectual laziness. Intellectual laziness buys a ride on the road to serfdom.

Obviously, Crompton wanted to avoid that road. She maintained opinions in ads should be clearly stated as such; they shouldn’t be presented as facts.

Will we ever see that? It’s doubtful. Dishonesty is strongly rooted in politics. It’s existed since America’s founding. The 1800 campaign involving Thomas Jefferson and John Adams set the tone.

Jefferson’s surrogates accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adams’ camp called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

There’s more, but you get the drift. Dishonest campaigning is a tradition; stopping traditions is difficult. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Segregation was a tradition, but it was ended.

Even so, it’s not easy. Honesty in political ads should be the domain of the Federal Election Commission, but its website contains nothing about the subject. Liability and slander laws provide some remediation, but courts move at the pace of a lame snail. The political process offers an alternative, but the snail would die of old age while waiting for results.

Crompton would need a massive political movement to change that. This requires a dedicated organization and money to arouse enough public interest for politicians to support it. However, that support would probably be superficial. Few politicians would be inclined to surrender the advantage that deception brings.

The influence of apathetic voters is also difficult to overcome. In their ignorance of facts and issues, they encourage deceptive political ads by voting as those ads suggest. If that didn’t happen, politicians wouldn’t use the ads.

Additionally, informed voters who fear being labeled “judgmental” should they criticize the ignorance of apathetic voters also bear some blame for that apathy. Constructive criticism has value. Being politically correct does not.

When a different standard becomes a condition of social acceptability, people change. Criticism drives that change. The demise of overt racism and ethnic bigotry exemplifies that; it was the direct result of interpersonal criticism.

Might criticism motivate the change Crompton proposes? That lies in the hands of voters themselves, but it’s doubtful. Primary-season attack ads have confirmed Crompton’s concerns. Yet, few others have echoed them. Why?

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski may have the answer. During a PBS interview, he observed, “I would say that of the major democracies in the world, our public is probably the least informed.”

Clearly, apathetic voters and their susceptibility to political advertisements are but symptoms of a greater decline in America. We really are on the road to serfdom.

Joe Konopka, of Hudson, is a freelance columnist. His column appears on the third Sunday of the month. E-mail him at