Sunday, March 19, 2017

Attacking Attack Ads

You can hardly go an election for dogcatcher without seeing a candidate piously declaring that they're going to avoid mudslinging and stick to the issues, unlike that smear-loving dirt weasel running against them, a week before running an attack ad. It's politics as usual at this point.

Most people hate this fact. They don't like attacks - they feel that it lowers the level of the discourse, and that elections should be about explaining why you're better, not explaining why the other guy is worse. They think that modern elections are far too focused on attacking, and the result is that they get to vote for candidates they hate to block ones they hate slightly more. To some extent, they're right - it's sure not a pretty scene.

But there's some under-appreciated wisdom in having attack ads, and I'd like to stand up for them. Partially, that's just my contrarian reflexes kicking in, but mostly it's because I think that the effects of attack ads are poorly understood, and they do more good for society than people think.

Consider a courtroom. There's invariably three groups there - the prosecutor/plaintiff, whose responsibility is to prove the claims as best they can, the defence, whose job is to disprove the claims as best they can, and a judge/jury, whose job is to decide which of the others is right. This is not an accident. It's a carefully designed system, evolved over hundreds of years to produce the fairest outcomes that fallible humans can create. The reason is simple. People make the best decisions when they know all the facts, and having both sides represented by explicitly partisan advocates gives the system as a whole the incentive to produce all the relevant facts they can. If a fact looks good for the defendant, the defence will bring it to trial. If that fact is weaker than it looks at first, the prosecution will have a chance to explain why it's not so good. If one side finds something inconvenient, the other one will keep them from sweeping it under the rug.

Politics functions the same way. Every politician has good features and bad features. They've had successes and they've had failures. Voters should be as well-informed as possible when we cast our ballots. For the good features and the successes, the politician will happily tell you about them - they'll brag about having founded the city's largest widget factory, or defeating the polar bear hordes threatening the world, or whatever else they've done.

But who will tell voters about a candidate's flaws? Yes, the media does some of this, particularly for candidates that most journalists dislike. But they're not a partisan advocate. The media's main bias is towards increasing readership, not towards any particular candidate, so they're not incentivized to dig up everything like an attorney is in a trial.

The only people who really have that incentive are a candidate's opponents. They're the ones who gain directly from revealing a candidate's flaws, so they're the ones who want to publish them. Given that publishing them is in the public interest - again, this is how voters learn as much as they can about candidates - then we want candidates to have this incentive. We want them to run attack ads, because a candidate who hasn't been attacked is a candidate where we only have half the story. Yes, sometimes attacks are difficult, and sometimes opponents choose not to try - Toronto-area locals will remember Hazel McCallion going basically unchallenged as mayor for decades, because basically everyone liked her and didn't feel that trying to unseat her made sense. But in any race where we have a choice, we should ensure that it's an informed choice, a choice where we know everything we need to know. You don't do that with fluff pieces, you do that by putting people on the defence sometimes, by making them explain their errors, justify their decisions, and convince voters that they can be trusted not to make the same mistake twice.

It's not a seemly process. Sometimes attack ads are hilarious in retrospect, but more often they just feel icky. They do lower the tone of the discourse, they do sap people's trust in their leaders, and they do result in some sketchy people winning mostly because they're a bit less sketchy than their opponents. But politics is a dirty game even when it's practiced by the best people. Terrible people get elected sometimes, with or without attack ads. If we're going to have bad leaders sometimes, I'd rather know in advance and be able to act accordingly. It's not as pretty as a world where we all get along, but it's much more practical.

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