Morris: A History of Negative Campaigns

October 29, 2018

by Leo Morris

We’ve all heard that if we can’t remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it.

But the truth is that even when we remember it, we repeat it anyway. We can’t help ourselves. As Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a 1930 letter: “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another — it’s one damn thing over and over.”

Like many other weary voters, I can’t wait for the coming election to be over and done with, because I’m sick and tired of the ugly, angry political ads blanketing television, especially the ones featuring either Republican Mike Braun or Democrat Joe Donnelly accusing the other one of every vile thing under the sun.

Now, I’m sure both U.S. Senate candidates are decent, honorable people. They are loving to their families and kind to strangers, they pay their taxes and obey the law, they find ways to contribute to their communities instead of looking for loopholes that would let them shirk their duties.

But if all we knew about them were the things we’ve heard from their opponents’ ads, we’d run them out of town, never mind actually wanting to spend any time with them. We could easily imagine them coming to the party and spitting in the punch bowl and kicking the dog on the way out before they go home and throw their aging parents into the street.

It’s a sign of the times, we keep hearing. Political campaigns are getting nastier and nastier because the electorate is getting more and more rigid in its political beliefs. The divide is so great that there is no bridging that Red State-Blue State gulf. Politicians represent us, after all, and if we can no longer be civil and open to respectful discourse, how can we expect them to?

History begs to differ.

Politics has always been a blood sport.

In the first U.S. presidential campaign featuring political parties, former great friends Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and their supporters in 1800 traded vicious insults and outright lies more reprehensible than anything today’s politicians can muster.

Adams was described as “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” and “one of the most egregious fools upon the continent” and a “strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” not to mention a wannabe monarch.

Of a Jefferson presidency, it was said: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” What else could be expected from an atheist who would kick God out of the country?

How tame by comparison it is to hear Braun and Donnelly each prissily sniff that the other one is collaborating, er, trading with the enemy (China in Braun’s case and Mexico in Donnelly’s). They both seem too dense to realize they are making the case, however ironically, for a global marketplace in which capital will go where it can most profitably be used.

They do sound mean, granted, despite history’s baser examples. So the question is, why would two ordinarily decent people sink to such despicable tactics? Well, say apologists on both sides, it’s not them; it all comes from political consultants who only know negative campaigning. No, sorry. The candidates have to sign off on their ads, so it is on them.

The answer is, of course, the quest for power. Braun and Donnelly and all the others know what Jefferson and Adams knew — if you get to Washington, you have the power, so you do whatever you must to get there.

If we want to see a reduction in low-down political campaigns, then, all we have to do is persuade the ruling class in Washington to relinquish some of the control it has on America’s fortunes. We can go to America’s past and find an example of that . . .

. . . nowhere.

History, alas, doesn’t know everything. We can’t remember what was never there in the first place.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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