It's not clear who in the political process should feel more ashamed, the candidates who attempt to persuade voters with deceptive campaign mailers and television advertising or the people who make voting decisions based on them. As a news person who talks to, respects and likes many politicians, it is a point of some frustration for me to hear so many of them complain about the negative tone of campaigning and then see the swill brewed up and served by them or on their behalf. They all justify their own actions, of course, and condemn their opponents'. But, more than their hypocrisy, it's their justification that is most painful to acknowledge: It works.
That, fellow voters, is the frightening thing to contemplate. It is the reason our campaigns get uglier every year. And it is a truth that ought to make each of us take stock of what we are doing when we go to the polls.
Consider what is perhaps the most ludicrous of the accusations being posited this campaign cycle -- the Gov. Bruce Rauner campaign ad claiming that GOP challenger Jeanne Ives is a lackey of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, the undisputed boogeyman of Illinois politics. "Who's really behind Jeanne Ives' campaign for governor?" the ad asks ominously. "Mike Madigan's corrupt insider machine. They've bankrolled her campaign with thousands in shady labor union cash, turning Ives into another Madigan lackey."
The Madigan litmus test is not entirely invalid, but it has become so twisted and overused that it has become comical. If you spend 30 seconds studying the political actions of Mike Madigan and those of Jeanne Ives, you will find the notion that she is his lackey -- or anyone's for that matter -- to be utterly laughable. And yet, based, according to an investigation by the Springfield Journal-Register, on a small, single union campaign donation, the Rauner campaign is only too happy to spread this absurd claim of guilt by association all over the Illinois airwaves.
For her part, Ives, who promises on her campaign Web page not to lie, has no problem declaring that the governor who spent two years locked in a budget battle with Madigan and who vetoed a compromise spending plan is effectively a Democrat. The Ives camp came flying out of the TV-ad gate not only misconstruing various special-interest issues but wildly misrepresenting Rauner positions so as to make it appear he favors taxpayer-paid abortion on demand, letting men merely dressed up as women use women's bathrooms, shoveling state taxpayer funds to Chicago schools and providing safe haven for violent criminals.
This type of advertising is clearly not meant to educate you. And it's pervasive.
JB Pritzker's Democratic campaign for governor would have you believe that opponent Dan Biss -- known by his legislative record as "the Bernie Sanders of Illinois" -- is not a true liberal. Sixth District Democratic congressional candidate Sean Casten published a release complaining that one of his opponents conducted a spurious poll claiming the environmentalist and clean-energy businessman secretly operates a coal plant. In the GOP race for the 59th District state House seat, a candidate is suing over a flyer contending he's a political sweetheart of you-know-who. And, in the 10th District GOP congressional contest, our Russell Lissau wrote over the weekend that one candidate is falsely claiming an opponent who has lived in the district since 2011 is a former lobbyist who changed his residence to run for the office.
One could go on and on. Suffice it to say that if you see Mike Madigan's picture associated with a candidate, the needle on your skepticism-meter should bury itself deep into the red end of the danger scale. If you see Rod Blagovich's, know that a gross distortion is coming. In fact, if you see any accusation of any kind, it is all but certainly a vast misrepresentation intended to prey on your ignorance or your prejudice, not to inform you.
Here's an alternative -- focus more on newspaper coverage in your decision process. Newspaper reporting at least will include some context and responses from the other side when showing the gritty world of political mud wrestling. It shouldn't be your sole election strategy, as broadcast ads and flyers certainly shouldn't be, but it can provide useful, reliable information about candidates and their positions to counteract the effects of negative campaigning.
Try it. It works.