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Watts: Negative Ads And Elections

Lucy Rogers
Zac Mayo and Lucy Rogers perform "Society" by Eddie Vedder.

Vermonter Bill McKibben has received death threats for his work to stop pipeline expansion and clean up the environment. In an on-line forum his address was posted along with a not-so-veiled threat to get him to shut up. Taking pen to paper, Mckibben described the incident. Disagreement is one thing, he wrote, but let’s at least agree not to kill each other. Now, two weeks from the mid-term election we’re once again seeing some deeply unpleasant ads and attacks on candidates. The lack of civility is clearly evident in our political discourse, and it starts in our campaigns.

In Arizona, after the leading US Senate candidate accused her opponent of treason, her poll numbers increased. Experts tell us these types of negative - and often harshly personal - ads are intensely memorable, sticking in the mind like the jarring noise of fingernails on a chalk board.

But there are signs of hope. In a closely watched race for Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District, the Democratic candidate has foresworn negative ads. Amy McGrath, a former marine combat aviator, in one of the tightest race in the country has met her opponents’ relentless attacks with positive ads about herself.

And back here in Vermont, two young candidates for the Vermont House finished their debate a few weeks ago by taking out musical instruments. Lucy plays cello and Zac, the guitar. Then together, they sang the song “Society” – about rejecting greed and valuing community. Their duet was so unusual that it was featured on the CBS evening news. “It strikes a chord,” Zac told CBS, "To say to the world that this is a better way."

But research tells us that young people are turned off by the relentless negativity of our political debates and so the least likely segment of our population to vote. In fact, in the coming election, the young demographic is expected to vote at less than half the rate of some of their older peers.

So when I talk with young people – I urge them to get involved. And I send them the link to Zac and Lucy’s song. Things can change, but only if we ALL get out and vote.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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