I don't often pull comments to a previous post into a new one, but I feel compelled to do so by a comment posted by my WI-Interest editor, Marc Eisen, a lefty who, while he does many other things, has also been hired by a conservative publication (edited by the dread Charlie Sykes!) and for whom I have come to have a great deal of respect (in part because, in addition to doing the normal writerly scrutiny, he challenges my reasoning). Marc and I are headed for a showdown fueled by a few adult beverages in the near future. I think it will be great fun.
Marc thinks the ad on Reuben Mitchell was brutal and awful and illustrative of a degradation in our political discourse. While I don't think (as some do) that it defines Mike Gableman (about whom I have other sources of information), I don't disagree. But there are some additional things to be said.
The first is the problems presented by this type of ad is not unique or new. Our friends on the left don't want to see the demagoguery in their own messages. Spots accusing George W. Bush of indifference to the racially motivated murder of a man in Texas or suggesting that John McCain was advocating a huge middle class tax increase were despicable. Ads and robocalls sponsored by opponents of the Wisconsin marriage amendment were, by any measure, explicitly designed to mislead. Mike Gableman should not have run that ad, but he is hardly the first candidate to allow his consultants to get the better of him.
Campaigns are a bit like fist fights. Remember that, in the Gableman-Butler race, pro-Butler ads were run by independent organizations suggesting that Gableman was soft on sex predators and portraying him as a clueless, ethically challenged bobblehead.
So if Marc's point is that our political discourse has become degraded, I agree - although I am not sure that this is new. Political slander has a long history.
In the local blogosphere, there is very little engagement. Folks think that the value in a blog is the extent to which it validates and is validated by the like minded. So they take opposing arguments out of context or restate them inaccurately and in bad faith. "Shorter" Esenberg is a way to avoid confronting what Esenberg has to say. Bloggers crow about how silly and stupid and corrupt the "wing-nuts," "teabaggers" or "moonbats" are.
I don't mean to dismiss anyone who has ever had a little fun at the other side's expense. A little political smack is fine and there are certainly folks on both sides of the political spectrum that are deserving of ridicule, but there is a world out there with a full spectrum of colors. To ignore that is to miss something.
There are literally no ethical standards among political consultants who can, with some credibility and justification, claim that they aren't going to play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules while their opponents do not.
Marc wonders if "this corrodes the democratic spirit, makes voters cynical, and serves as a warning shot to citizens to not offer themselves up as candidates for fear their reputations will be destroyed in a lying 30-second commercial?" I think it does. When I was approached to run for public office, I worried about that alot although it is not the reason I decided not to run.
But that brings us to the second problem. I don't trust the state - i.e., the very politicians who offend - to fix it. While I am not prepared to say the the First Amendment leaves no room to sanction false political speech, I tend to think that room ought to be fairly small. It seems likely that the cure will turn out to be worse than the disease.