Political ads such as David Vitter’s new anti-immigrant ad are not only misleading, but they are immoral.
This ad, similar to Sharon Angle’s anti-immigrant ad against Harry Reid, is racist, reprehensible, and unfortunately effective. If this type of scapegoating were not effective, political strategists wouldn’t utilize them. It makes me wonder what needs to change to make this kind of hatred become ineffective, and then subsequently fade from the political process.
Political science professor John Geer argues in his book, In Defense of Negativity that negative campaigns, at least with regards to presidential elections, are positive for the political process and for democracy. Geer contends negative ads provide information about opponents’ weaknesses that help voters make choices, as well as motivate Americans to go to the polls. In short, according to Geer, negative ads contribute to a healthier democracy, even if not a more civil one.
However, the problem with Geer’s rosy view of negative ads is that he fails to consider the effect on the groups being targeted beyond the politician who is being trashed. Geer fails to acknowledge the consequences of how Americans can feel justified—dare I saw vindicated—in their xenophobia and/or racist views towards the latest target of scapegoating for all that is wrong with society when negative ads such as the current ones by Vitter or Angle reinforce irrational fears. One wonders if candidates elected with the assistance of messages of racial hated will be more inclined to support policies with similar animi.
As a Latina who has grown up being viewed as a foreigner at best and a criminal illegal at worst, this stigma can be quite harmful. Who cares if more people will vote in a particular election with more erroneous information? So, maybe negative ads do increase participation, offer misguided choices, and improve the overall health of democracy (if one defines any participation, even ignorant participation as a positive) as Geer maintains. The cost to our civic discourse, or to the quality of our democracy, which in this instance is the acceptance into the mainstream of public discourse of racism against Latinos is not worth it. These costs need to be considered in any analysis that justifies negative ads, particularly ads like the recent anti-Latino ads.
Is there a public policy solution that would reduce the effectiveness of these racist political ads, and then reduce their use? Nothing obvious or easy. Well, if the public becomes less racist towards Latinos (I’m not going to hold my breath) or if Latinos become an effective voting bloc and make it political suicide for any politician to consider approving (even tacitly approving) and airing such ads, then perhaps yes. As the largest ethnic and racial minority group in America, with projections to become at least a quarter of the population by 2050, until Latinos become an effective voting bloc (at least a bloc voting against this kind of treatment, even if not a bloc in the traditional partisan sense), this kind of ad will not change. Because if Latinos wait for the willingness of white voters to ignore racist appeals I think we will be waiting a very long time.