Here’s my proposed constitutional amendment. It’s not complicated. “It shall be unlawful for any person or corporation to display any election campaign ads on television. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” If, within ten years after enactment, the amendment has raised the level of political discourse in our country (as I believe it will), I would then propose an expansion of the prohibition, something like this: “It shall be unlawful for any advertising agency to have anything whatsoever to do with any political campaign.”
I know, I know. Banning all TV election campaign ads would violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. But wait!
Here’s why I’m suggesting that the U.S. Congress initiate the process for amending the Constitution: For several years, the standard tool for persuading voters to support or reject a candidate or an electoral proposition has been the 30-second TV ad, usually negative. For the most part, these ads are uninformative, misleading, dishonest, deceptive, manipulative -- and from the point of view of helping the voter to make a rational decision on how to cast his or her vote -- utterly useless.
The targeted candidate doesn’t get a chance to rebut the distortion or half-truth until later, sometimes much later. Meanwhile, the distortion seeps into the TV viewer’s brain, well, like sewage into a sump. Ninety per cent of all political TV ads this electoral season are expected to be negative. Of them, many if not most will contain distortions or outright lies. Since the Republicans excel at this endeavor, the election results could again be disastrous. We've got to come up with a long-range solution to the scurrilous-ad problem.
From the racially fear-mongering Willie Horton TV ad used against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, to the sickening Osama bin Laden ad used to trash a severely disabled war veteran, Democratic Georgia Senator Max Cleland in 2002, to the Swift-Boat smear of John Kerry in 2004, to the current flock of ads -- like the one of a jailhouse-gang-in-a-prison-cell recently used by Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum against Democratic candidate Bob Casey -- these artifacts of propaganda add nothing to rational decision-making.
Of course, encouraging voters to make a reasoned decision isn’t what the game is about. It’s all about emotion, and these days the emotion being “marketed” is fear. In recent years, political parties and groups have spent billions of dollars on these TV ads, which has been extremely profitable for advertising agencies. They’ve sharpened their skills enormously since Joe McGinnis wrote The Selling of the President in 1968. Putting ad agencies out of the elections business would be a praiseworthy act of patriotism.
Don’t worry; they won’t starve. Since ad agencies are so good at what they do, they’ll still be able to sell cars, trucks, beer, perfume, real estate and whatnot, using sex, faux-patriotism, snob appeal and reverse snob appeal.
Academics argue over whether negative campaign ads are intended to disgust segments of the public to the point of discouraging them from voting (“demobilization”), or whether the ads are intended merely to convince voters to vote against the ads’ targeted candidates. It doesn’t matter which academics are right. The point is that America would be better off if these ads simply disappeared from our TV screens.
In their place, candidates and supporters/opponents of propositions should be required to debate one another on TV (or, in a possible compromise proposal, to provide rebuttal time within their ads). In that kind of exchange, the debaters could rebut each other’s claims and misrepresentations, and the public could better assess the contenders. Since most people (except for the internet-oriented 18 to 36-year-old segment of the population) get their news from TV, this reform would go a long way towards improving our democracy.
Is my constitutional amendment such an outrageous idea? Maybe not. Consider some of the other amendments to the U.S. Constitution that have been proposed in recent years. Constitutional amendment proposals to reverse Supreme Court decisions have included banning abortion, allowing prayer in public schools, displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, and criminalizing flag burning by political protesters. In June, President Bush proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage -- which certainly doesn’t threaten the republic. On the other hand, a manipulated electorate does.
These right-wing proposals were (and remain) very controversial and divisive. They supposedly reflect the notions of morality held by some Americans. But isn’t lying about a political opponent immoral? Why should anyone oppose the scuttling of a delivery system for deception, manipulation and political poison? Well, some people might, so let them be heard.
My modest constitutional reform may not eliminate entirely the polluting aspects of political smear tactics in election campaigns, but it would at least vaporize the worst of them from the most powerful medium -- television.
Rivkin, author of
GI Rights and Army Justice, is a San Francisco-based writer and
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