How Did We Lose Our Democracy?

I don’t think I have ever been as sick of negative political campaign advertising as I was this year. The Illinois gubernatorial election was important. The state is in dreadful shape economically with huge debt and under-funded pension liabilities. The candidates had very different ideas about how to address the economic situation. Bruce Rauner won. The televised ads on both sides were mostly negative. The opposing candidate was accused of greed, self-interest, weakness and pandering to special interests. One ad accused the candidate of responsibility for the deaths of vulnerable elderly people because of negligence by the nursing homes in which he had financial interest. The opposing campaign ad accused the candidate of responsibility for major crimes, including rape and child molestation by criminals released from state prisons. There was much more, of course, including races for Senator, Congressional representatives, and state offices. Often they would come in series, back to back between innings of the World Series. Never was I so grateful for the mute button on the television remote.

Who pays for these commercials? Not the official Democratic or Republican campaign organization, of course. In fact, the sponsors are Political Action Committees (PAC) and Lobbies whose donors remain anonymous because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Citizens United” case. In a recent editorial, New York Times journalist Timothy Egan asked, “How did we lose our democracy? Slowly at first, and then all at once. This fall, voters are more disgusted, more bored and more cynical about the midterm elections than at any time in the past two decades.” (“The Disgust Election,” 10/26/14) Egan invited Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, the swing vote on the Court to “wade through some of the muck that he and four fellow justices have given us.”

“Citizens United” removed restrictions on the amount of money individuals and organizations can contribute to political campaigns anonymously. The effect has been dramatic – and toxic. Spending from outside groups has gone from $5 million in 2000 to $1 billion in 2012 and it will be higher this year. The result is clearly to hand to the very wealthy enormous power to manipulate the political process.

The Supreme Court also upheld states’ restrictive Voter Identification laws that some predict could keep as many as 600,000 people from voting, mostly poor people and minorities. Ironically, there is very little evidence that voter fraud is a problem anywhere. In her dissent from the Court’s decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called the law purposefully discriminatory, probably unconstitutional for imposing what amounts to a poll tax and denying the right to vote to otherwise legal voters.

The effect of the two decisions is to increase voter cynicism about the entire political process and that is never a good thing. It is not new, of course. In 1828 John Quincy Adams’ presidential campaign called Andrew Jackson’s mother a prostitute and accused his wife of promiscuity. Abraham Lincoln was mocked as “ape-like.” One newspaper suggested that Lincoln was so ugly that he moved to Illinois to scare away wolves. More recently the Lyndon Johnson presidential campaign, in a frightening ad showing a little girl picking petals from a daisy, suggested the Republican Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected. Elizabeth Dole called Kay Hagan “godless” in her 2000 senatorial campaign. Sometimes negative ads backfire. Dole lost and analysts attributed it in part to the negative ads.

Political analysts and academics are studying the effects of the proliferation of negative advertising, and while the matter is exceedingly complex, the consensus seems to be that there is a measurable effect. Professor Ruthann Weaver Larisey, of the College of Journalism at the University of Georgia says we are flooded with these negative ads “because they work and work very well” and that negative advertising is related to political apathy and inactivity.

The saddest thing I know about the human condition, even though my Calvinism should have taught me better, is that negative political advertising actually works. But my faith, at the same time, gives me hope for better, saner, more responsible, issues–oriented political campaigns of the future, haunted as I am by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation that the great sin of respectable people is refusing to be responsible.



  1. annette bacon says:

    Go for it! She still isn’t asleep!


    Sent from my I Phone


  2. Kristi Peterson says:

    Oh thank you, Reverend John. You have greater hope than I – so I shall cling to yours.

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