Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
Credit: Hillary for America/Flickr

Going negative” is a powerful tactic for winning elections, rooted in the power of what psychologists call the “salience of the negative.” Loss aversion is a powerful phenomenon; as we’ve seen with the ongoing GOP attempts to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, Americans will show up to chastise a member of Congress who is scheming to take away their health care coverage, even though most didn’t earlier mobilize to get the coverage enacted. The negative emotions of fear, anger, and hatred also tend to displace more positive emotions, to box us into simplistic us-and-them thinking, and to block rational reflection on what is truly in our interest.

Republicans have been masters of negative campaigning, while Democrats have been weak both in their own negative campaign—and in countering attacks from the GOP. This has contributed to the onslaught of devastating Democratic loses—but it need not be so. If Democrats adopt a positive vision of opportunity for all, they can also initiate an effective negative campaign that labels Republicans as the party that undermines voters’ economic opportunity, and that threatens to rob children of their future.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign pulled out all the favorite negative campaigning techniques preferred by demagogues—his messages on the campaign trail stoked anger and hatred, as he scapegoated immigrants and people of color for all the problems distressing voters and the nation writ large.

In contrast, Democrats have been notably weak in handling the negative mudslinging of presidential politics. Recently, Michael Dukakis was ineffective in responding to the infamous, racially-charged Willie Horton ads, Al Gore failed to effectively counter false claims that he claimed to have “invented the internet,” and John Kerry was defeated with the help of “swift boating” lies. Of course, Barack Obama waged two successful presidential campaigns, but once in office, he was thwarted by the failure to respond effectively to negative attacks on his signature health care law. Democrats lost control of the House in 2010—in part—due to the party’s passivity in the face of dishonest attacks on Obamacare.

In the 2016 election, Democrats again failed both to counter attacks and to do their own effective negative campaigning. Hillary Clinton’s efforts to highlight Trump’s unfitness for office were neutralized by Trump’s avalanche of lies against her. And the mainstream media was complicit, all too eager to produce “he said, she said” reports that avoided labeling truth and lies. Clinton failed to effectively counter Trump’s misleading economic claims, and to effectively advance her own. Hillary’s campaign ran three times as many ads as Trump’s, but only nine percent were about economic issues—far below the average 28 percent for recent political campaigns. In the critical closing week and a half of the campaign—after the Comey letter upended the race—Hillary’s campaign manager told pollster Stanley Greenberg, “We can’t win the economic argument,” and Hillary herself decided against final economic ads to close out the campaign.

In contrast to media disinterest in covering Clinton’s policy proposals, the most negative stories were covered extensively: Trump’s accusation of wrong-doing in Hillary’s handling of her e-mails, and Trump’s attacks on immigrants. The media is drawn to insults and quarrels like moths to a flame. Or to put it another way, the “salience of the negative” goes double for the media. In fact, Thomas Patterson, professor at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Media, has documented that the biggest and most persistent bias of the press historically is not a partisan lean, but a tendency towards negative stories. This bias helped further Republican anti-government narratives. “For years on end, journalists have told news audiences that political leaders are not to be trusted and that government is inept,” Patterson writes. “They highlight[ed] the problems and not the success stories. Th[is] creates a seedbed of public anger, misperception, and anxiety—sitting there waiting to be tapped by those who have a stake in directing the public’s wrath at government.”

Regardless of her good intentions, Michelle Obama’s slogan from 2016—“when they go low, we go high”—is fatally flawed. Avoiding personal attacks is important to good relationships in family and work, but politics is a different world. At times, it’s ethical and necessary to go negative on both individual politicians and policies. Instead of Michelle Obama’s maxim, the better rule is, “when they go low, expose the lies and discredit the liar.” Otherwise, a fog of dishonest attacks on the good candidate’s character will neutralize whatever they say.

On issues of policy, going negative effectively requires that you also offer an inspiring positive vision. A hopeful vision is needed to show voters what they will lose if they don’t support you and your policies. Democrats must directly accuse Republicans of supporting policies that will grievously harm people. If Democrats don’t pick a quarrel and relentlessly press their case, the media won’t care enough to cover the positive policy proposals either, and Democrats will again fail to engage a real public debate, or to damage the opposition’s claims.

A positive moral vision which encompasses the core Democratic value of good government is the vision of an “opportunity society,” a society that grows and sustains opportunities for all—poor, middle class, and rich alike, and those of all races and creeds. It includes the goals of both economic growth and social justice, while powerfully appealing to the founding ideal of America: that we are a land of opportunity.

This hopeful vision gives Democrats a decisive edge. For government, and only government, has the three resources necessary for producing an opportunity society: public investments, economic security programs, and legal protections. In all three areas, Democrats have crucial evidence for the necessity of using these government resources wisely.

  1. Public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development have proven world-wide to be necessary for long-term economic growth.
  2. Countries with stronger economic security programs in fact have higher social mobility. Now, with U.S. economic support programs comparatively weaker, we in fact have lower social mobility than most other wealthy countries.
  3. Finally, without strong laws protecting the consumers and employees, the unbridled power of the wealthy has proven to lead to financial collapses (1929, 2008), declining wages from lack of employee bargaining power, and opportunity-robbing discrimination against minorities and women.

In all three areas, Democrats can “weaponize” the evidence to show voters the harm in failing to enact more effective government programs—while simultaneously underscoring how much the nation risks losing by removing existing Democratic programs.

The critical failure of Democrats in negative campaigning has been their inability to discredit the Republican “big lie” that minimizing government—cutting government programs, personnel and taxes on the rich—creates opportunity. Republican attacks on government have gutted the American Dream—as we saw dramatically in 2008—and so the GOP is extremely vulnerable to being discredited. Indeed, they have not even believed in their own rhetoric, as both Reagan and George W. Bush increased the size of government. The only thing Republicans have been consistent about is tax cuts and other favors for the wealthy. And these led to the historic stagnation of middle class wages and the crash of 2008. “These people are not on your side,” as long-time Democratic political consultant Robert Shrum has put it.

A fundamental principle of a winning strategy is to pit your greatest strength against your opponent’s greatest weakness. And in this case, this fault line is also the central point of contention between American conservatives and progressives: whether what’s best for the nation is minimizing government or strong government leadership of the private sector. Now is the time for Democrats to unite and embrace the vision of the opportunity society, while at the same time going negative on Republicans with a sustained campaign to discredit their anti-government policies as grievously harmful to opportunity for all. Democrats need to have a relentless campaign of television ads with the personal testimony of people who have been helped by Democratic programs and will be harmed by their loss, and by showing how not enacting Democratic programs will steal future opportunities in life from voters and their children. If Democrats find the courage to stand up for their core values and against the Republican robbing of the American Dream, they can win in 2018 and beyond.

William Berkson

Follow William on Twitter @WilliamBerkson. William Berkson is a Philosopher and Director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family. He did his PhD in Philosophy under the late Sir Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and Its Enemies. He is the author of Fields of Force (Routledge), Learning from Error (Open Court) and Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life (Jewish Pub. Soc.).