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Political Bullies
This election's mudslinging sets a bad example
Baaria Chaudhary

Last year, two freshman girls who were running against each other for class council got in trouble for taking negative campaigning to new heights at our school. The girls had begun publicly insulting each other, calling each other names like “b-tch” and “slut.”

My history teacher, who was also the student council adviser, described what happened when she met with the two girls in the principal's office.

The principal began the conversation with an allusion to the election. “Have you been following the presidential election lately?”

The two girls nodded.

“So you know how Romney and Obama have been insulting each other’s personal character?”

The girls nodded again.

“Do you think it’s right for them to do so?”

“Well, no,” one girl said, “but sometimes you have to do things you don’t like in order to win.”

After my teacher told the whole class this story, she asked us a question, clearly concerned. “It makes me wonder. How does negative campaigning affect the way teens view politics?”

Her question stuck with me. As I followed the presidential campaign, I began to ponder how a student council election at my high school could be influenced by national politics—how negative campaigning could have somehow affected not only a student council election, but maybe even how teenagers behave in their daily lives.

Big Money

More than three-quarters of the nearly $666 million dollars spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns in this election funded negative advertisements, according to a study by The Washington Post. Eighty-one percent of the money Barack Obama’s campaign spends on TV ads, and 88% of Romney’s, went to negative ads.

And then there are the super PACs. A super PAC, or Political Action Committee, is an outside group that seeks to influence the outcomes of elections by supporting particular candidates or promoting a certain agenda. Unlike campaign donations, there is no limit on the amount of money an individual can donate to a Super PAC, which potentially gives corporations and small groups of wealthy people a lot of power to influence elections. According to The Wall Street Journal, super PACs have spent more than $177 million on the 2012 election—the majority of that to support negative campaigning.

For example, an ad endorsing Mitt Romney shows how income has fallen and debt has risen since Obama took office and says Obama is “failing American families.” This particular ad doesn’t show Obama—only Romney, a woman in a cap and gown hugging a little girl, and a sad-looking 10-year-old who is supposed to appeal to our sympathies. Ads supporting both Romney and Obama have suggested that the opposing candidate “kills” jobs.

The negativity isn’t just between candidates from opposing parties, but between candidates from within the same party. During the Republican primaries earlier this year, a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich released a 30-minute “documentary” called “When Mitt Romney Came To Town” that characterized Romney as a heartless, Wall Street-loving, job-crushing money grubber, predicting disaster for ordinary working people if Romney were to be elected president.

They’re Acting Like Bullies

Only a few of my peers seem to have a real understanding of the issues behind the campaign rhetoric. Some of those who do follow politics seem to view the presidential election as a sporting event, cheering on their favorite athlete. But the more they see campaigns as a sport, the more it’s about the candidates’ perceived strength based on who can come up with the better insult, and less about what the candidates actually stand for. I think that invites bullying.

Parents, teachers, and society in general tell teenagers that bullying is morally wrong and damaging to its victims. Again and again, teenagers are drilled with the message: It is hurtful to call people names and make them feel inferior because of their weaknesses. It leads to nothing but trouble and there are always consequences. We're told: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

But this message appears to have gone over the heads of many politicians. Although they may not call it bullying, they attack not only their opponent’s stance on issues, but his personal character. In turn, their opponents often fire back with insults of their own.

The definition of a bully is "one person picking on the perceived weaknesses of another person." Negative campaigning encourages this bullying behavior, and politicians spend a ridiculous amount of money on negative campaign ads.

What I want to know is, How can teenagers be expected to respect each other when politicians—our national leaders—can’t manage to get elected without insulting one another? It sets a bad example and might damage our political process in the long term.

Living in a Bubble

Negative campaigning—mudslinging—is not new. But political mudslinging has evolved (or devolved) over the years. Ever since Watergate in 1972, Americans have become less trusting of politicians. (The Watergate scandal involved a break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate office complex. President Richard Nixon resigned over his administration’s involvement with the break-in and attempted cover-up.) Ironically, politicians use this cynicism to their advantage, raising doubts about their opponent’s honesty.

The rise of cable network news organizations like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News have also contributed to the nasty tone of politics today. In competing for larger audiences, they produce political programs that sound like shouting matches, where the representative of one party tries to drown out and insult the representative of the opposing party.

The Internet has also changed the tone and style of campaigning. Many people tend to visit the sites that reflect their views: Conservatives go to conservative sites and liberals go to liberal sites, according to a study released in September by the Pew Research Center. My Advanced Placement Government & Politics teacher, Andrew Boufford, said that when citizens stay in their own little "bubbles" of information, it's "dysfunctional for democracy" because "people of different views aren’t really talking to each other and they’re getting their news information only from [sources that support their viewpoints].”

Although people say they don’t like the negative tone of political campaigns, I believe they are less likely to protest mudslinging against the opposing candidate if they’re going to sites that only reflect their own position—and get their positions reinforced by friends and like-minded followers on social media. The political dialogue has devolved as a result and become meaner.

What I Learned—Or Didn’t—From the Debates

I watched the first two presidential debates hoping that, finally, I’d learn about the real issues. Instead, the debates further showcased how negative attacks were equated with a candidate’s strength. After the first debate, Obama was heavily criticized for being too soft, while Romney emerged as the “winner” in terms of public opinion—not necessarily because of what he’d said, but because he’d been more aggressive than Obama. In polls taken in the days following the debate, Romney, who had been trailing Obama, now nearly tied him.

In response, Obama stepped up the mudslinging. After the first debate, he accused Romney of radically flip-flopping. “My opponent, he was doing a lot of—a little tap dance at the debate the other night, trying to wiggle out of the stuff he’s been saying for a year, doing, like, a –it was like ‘Dancing With the Stars’ or maybe it was ‘Extreme Makeover: Debate Edition,’” Obama said at Cleveland State University in Ohio the day after the debate.

Or when he said, “Governor Romney is going to let Wall Street run wild again, but he’s going to bring the hammer down on Sesame Street. You want me to save Big Bird?” The tone was very jeering and sarcastic—almost bullying. It was a very different Obama from the debate night. He seemed to be responding to public and media pressure to be more aggressive and critical of Romney.

That set the tone for the vice-presidential debate: Vice President Joe Biden aggressively interrupted Congressman Joe Ryan, shook his head repeatedly, and kept laughing at things Ryan said. To me, this kind of behavior seemed downright rude and condescending—I know that I would be in serious trouble if my mother ever saw me behave like that. But Biden's strategy worked; he was seen as having won the debate.

In the second presidential debate, Obama’s performance improved. He spoke at great length and even interrupted Romney a few times. In return, Romney interrupted Obama as well. There were times during the debate where one of the candidates failed to answer an audience question and instead used the opportunity to attack his opponent’s position. It became quite tedious. I got it the first time that Romney doesn’t think Obama knows how to fix the economy. But how does pointing that out repeatedly show that Romney had a better solution?

Turned Off to Politics

I wondered what teenagers thought about all this aggression and negative campaigning, so I conducted a survey of 50 students at my high school. Almost half of those surveyed weren’t interested in politics and didn’t make an effort to follow the campaign.
"No...too much drama," said one student.

"[Politics] is a messy, corrupted world," said another.

I believe many teens are turned off to politics because of the tone of the campaigns. With all the conflicting claims and selective information, it’s hard to know what's true. In my survey, 30% of teenagers said they wouldn’t consider a career in politics (lobbyist, staffer, running for office) because of the corruption and negativity.

“There are people who have concluded that ‘I can’t trust anything anyone says.’ All [politicians] are doing is mudslinging and attacking," Mr. Boufford said. "It’s a horrible message to be sending to young people, especially because we want young people to become [politically] active as they get older.”

“Why would a healthy, sane individual go into politics knowing that they will be attacked? For young people, it’s a horrible message,” he added.

But what can we do to change it? Can we change it? Or are politicians just a bunch of overgrown schoolyard bullies who need to go to the principal's office?

We teens have been bombarded with assemblies and posters and films encouraging us not to bully one another. This month is even the official "bullying prevention month." But I'd like to create a "Political Bullying Prevention Month" and force Congress and everyone else running for office to sit in an assembly about respecting one another.

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