An observation about the recent debate: The undecided voters in the CNN focus group slammed personal attacks and rules violations every time. Even the slightest hint of negativity turned them off, and it did not matter which candidate delivered it.
So, why is watching TV such a chore in October? How come all the negative campaign ads? You get them, because attack ads activate sluggish supporters and depress sluggish opponents, who make up most of so-called "independents".
One of the great fallacies of American conventional wisdom is that there is this large chunk of unaffiliated voters. Sure, the pool of self-styled Independents is growing. However, most of these are what I call part-time partisans. They either vote in a given election for their preferred team, or not at all. And both major political parties like things that way. If they weren't part-timer supporters, they might wander off and form a new major party someday.
The result is few people are true swing voters who might vote Democratic one election and Republican the next. They form roughly five percent of the voting population in every election, from the radio campaigns of the 1930s to the present day.
Since true swing voters are such rare birds, neither party pays them much mind, since it's a low percentage bet. What they do is focus on hedging against their randomness. Thus, attack ads.
Once more into the breach,dear friends...
Uh, say what? Didn't you just say true undecideds don't like negativity? Why yes I did! Remember what attack ads do: activate sluggish (part time) supporters and discourage the opponents' part-timers.
And that's not all: attack ads discourage true swing voters from voting - and that's a bonus because they're a random element. They're a risk. How many Presidential races poll outside of a five point spread, ever? Not this one. Not the last one until the end or the one before that... you get the idea. If the pool of swing voters was further reduced, the two political parties would pay them no mind at all. You'd probably see the end of debates, period.
So, while it was gratifying to see the CNN focus dial slam bad behavior, there's nothing in 80+ years of mass media history to suggest that attack ads are going away. And it will get worse, because as more people declare themselves independents (becoming sluggish Democrats and Republicans, respectively), the value of attack ads actually goes up: the major parties will have to invest more money in messaging (a nice way to put more attack ads) to activate more and more part-time supporters and make life hard for the other team. And, let's not forget the bonus goal of keeping swing voters (thing of them as referees with votes) out of the game entirely.
Such a situation, like spiraling health care costs and college tuition, can't go on forever because at some point (a) everyone becomes a part-time supporter, (b) the cost of attack ads will become prohibitive or (c) people will get sick and tired of the entire thing and stop voting... oh yes, the other risk.
Take the comparative example of college costs. One solution is going to college while working (people have been doing that since universities were invented, but someday almost everyone may). Another is lowered expectations of higher education, or doing without. A third is abandoning the concept that one must go to college, or acquire a virtual college degree, at all, since that model of education may be obsolete already. The health care industry offers similar parallels. Hospitals, after all, were originally hospices for the sick and wounded to come and die by default.
Let's bring this back to politics. We have the political culture we have - one of part-time acrimony on partisan lines - because that is how we have coped with the distress of nonstop raw nerves. As there are relatively few true swing voters, there are relatively few nonstop partisans in both camps - neither faction can dominate the entire body politic, nor is it a good idea that they ever should. The Framers of the Constitution - the Founding Fathers, if you will - knew this ahead of time, and constructed our current form of government to make the rise of any one faction or party to total party all but impossible.
However, there are other dangers. One we live with, have lived with for many decades: Apathy. We have become disengaged, not just from party but from every institution. When the airwaves are filled with nonstop contention, we draw back from the public space. We hesitate to speak of ourselves first, and then the things that concern us, then even the things that entertain us fall away from conversation. This is not a political breakdown, it is a social breakdown.
True swing voters are rare. They might be rare in any regime; people do like to gather into factions for good reasons and bad. The Founders knew this. However, swing voters are rare in our Republic as a consequence of one specific, actively pursued goal (win elections) and a commitment to winning them with negativity.
For now, the attack ad approach (and the larger regime of ever more adversarial politics) works; otherwise the major parties and supporting organizations and action committees would not be sinking billions of dollars into doing so. Otherwise, we as a larger society would not tolerate being chopped into two competing Americas within America.
Perhaps tolerate is a bit strong. It might be better to say some embrace it, while most endure the pressure. Still it grinds us down as a society. More of us become part-time partisans to cope. But that just means that to reach these voters, the parties jack up the intensity and scale of attack ads and overall adversity even further.
Economically speaking, this will work so long as consumers are willing to pay the price (in terms of time and convenience) to get their red meat and so long as serving up the carcasses remains affordable for the major parties, either alone (no longer) or in concert with outside organizations.
Our current model of investing the most health care dollars in extremes of neonatal, trauma and (likely) end of life care does save lives (yours truly, for example). It also sets an expectation of receiving 22nd Century care with 21st Century convenience at 20th Century prices. A whole lot of people have to get paid to make that supply chain happen even for a few. A whole lot more people have to do without care at all due to costs. And there is another whammy: Spiraling costs for all employers crowd out funds that could be used to hire people, so they would have jobs, so they could afford to pay for ever more expensive insurance and cover their deductibles. Something's got to give.
The same goes for college. The choice for many middle class families is save for retirement or for their kids' education, or look to student loans that might be equally unaffordable down the road. I worry terribly for my two boys and they have every possible natural advantage to win scholarships. But it's a competitive world. And forecasts are that college might cost them a cool million each. If you are on this writer's friends list, it's likely that's huge stakes for you too. Something's got to give.
This brings us to the cost of adversarial politics, and back to our undecided voters. Something's got to give. A pervasive culture of attack is crowding out all public conversation. We have nonstop media. We have the Internet. Yet we know less about our aspiring public leaders (and our elected officials) than ever before. Fact checkers and researchers and whistle-blowers are demonized. Don't even get me started on investigative journalists.
Informing the voting public has gone from a virtue to a vice. Clearing obstructions to 'messaging' (getting one's attacks out) is the new normal and the new righteous. Even moderators and private citizens asking uncomfortable questions are fair game in the adversarial order.
We all pay the cost. A free society requires more than free exchange of currency. A free exchange of values must take place as well. We pay, because we can no longer talk freely. As a result, we are doing more than falling apart politically. When we can't talk of the issues, we can't talk of ourselves. We turn to ever smaller sets of 'safe people'. We cease being part of the world and part of the nation. We cease being part of our own communities, in time even of our own families.
Tell me - any of you - that you have not lost any family and friends to despairing of further conversation. I have. Lots of people. But maybe it's just me.
Most of us don’t embrace as much as endure the mutual adversity. We have come to accept it as a condition of life. We cope. Yet I think we cannot cope forever. None of us can. Human beings can't coexist so wound up and stay calm. Eventually, the weakest and most volatile will snap. We will write them off as nuts, head cases, crazies. Lone gunmen. These sad sorts are the canaries in the social coal mine.
Yet I stand corrected. There's no 'eventually' about it. As Gabriel Giffords and even less fortunate people have learned the hard way, the canaries in the coal mine are already doing their thing.
The good news is that poison of engineered adversity can be rejected. We can stop the gassing of our society with hatred. We can leave this dark place, if we but choose it. We can do so, and we can do it together.
I think this is what the focus group dial was telling us Tuesday night. Our true swing voters might be rare... but they are all the more precious for being so.
Lights in the darkness always are.