Saul Alinsky and the rise of the attack ad
Today's attack ads aim to personalize and polarize
By: Anne McTavish
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 05, 2012 06:00 am
All political parties are children of Saul Alinsky.
I will get to justifying that statement a little further on, but let me start by explaining the difference between a negative ad and an attack ad.
Let’s first take a look at the early political career of one of Canada’s most famous Canadian prime ministers: Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
In 1877, Laurier had to stand for re-election after he was appointed to cabinet by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. Until 1930, you see, MPs who were appointed to cabinet had to resign their seats and stand for re-election in a ministerial by-election. Laurier lost.
How? Dirty politics.
His Conservative opponents spread the rumour that “Not one of the Lauriers’ children has been baptized.” In the staunchly Catholic rural Quebec of 1877, this was a scandal of epic proportions and proved fatal to Laurier’s re-election. The rumour was also misleading misrepresentation, or a selected portion of the truth. You see, Wilfrid and his wife, Zoé, had no children.
And that’s where the difference between a negative ad and an attack ad comes in.
A negative ad will tell an inconvenient or unpleasant truth about something that happened, but tweaking it to distort what happened turns it into an attack ad. Attack ads don’t uncover flaws, they create them.
Political parties of all ideologies justify using attack ads by saying they help uncover candidates’ flaws, helping voters with their decision. But that’s true only when the ad doesn’t distort or mislead.
Attack ads rely on our belief in the saying, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Just remember that attack ads are more likely to be smoke bombs than fires.
Deceptive tactics and personality-based political attacks are nothing new, and are not limited to any one country or culture. What is new, however, is the unrelenting cruelty of the attacks. When one attack is shown to be factually untrue, it is replaced with multiple malicious attacks.
When you look behind the politics of personal destruction, you’ll find two guiding ideas: (1) We’re right; they’re wrong; and (2) the end justifies the means.
And that leads us to Saul Alinsky, an American community organizer and writer. Barack Obama taught his community-organizing tactics before he became president.
Alinsky set out his power tactics in his book Rules for Radicals. As Alinksy wrote, “The most effective means are whatever will achieve the desired results.”
One of Alinsky’s rules, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” gave rise to today’s attack ads. Don’t talk about the issues, focus instead on how bad your opposition is. That’s why any question about policies or events is answered with an attack on the person rather than on the desirability of the policy. Attack ads don’t want you thinking about the issues, they just want to get you mad.
So what can we do when we’re faced with an attack ad? We can ignore it. If someone repeats an attack ad, we can ask what the source of the information is. If it’s “Somebody told me,” or “I heard that … ,” we can safely set it aside as unreliable. We can also ask for more details. For example, in the case of Laurier, asking, “Which children weren’t baptized?”
If we’re discussing an issue and the other person starts playing the blame game, we can politely say, “Sorry. I didn’t ask who was to blame, I asked what happened.”
If we’re watching a talk show and they start avoiding the question, we can change the channel. If we’re at a town-hall meeting and the speaker starts the blame game, we can get up and walk out. We don’t have to accept what they’re saying, and we certainly don’t have to listen to a verbal brawl.
Attack ads and dirty tricks might be part of the political game, but we don’t have to listen to them, and we certainly don’t have to accept what they tell us.
Troy Media columnist Anne McTavish is a conflict coach and lawyer. Her work appears on www.troymedia.com.