Your Friendly Neighborhood Politicians: Attack Ads in American and Dutch Elections


So do political parties in multi-party systems use attack ads? This is another post in the series based on a Facebook conversation with my neighbor M that started here.

M: Yes, the structure of the system has some important impacts. But does it also result in better people in office? Is it that attack adds don’t work as well with multiple competing parties? Is it that personal attacks specifically become less common when you’re voting more for a party than a specific person? Is this the actual experience in the Netherlands?

People are the same everywhere and it’s human nature that politicians will do whatever they can get away with in their own (party) interests. But if there are 20 other parties, who are you going to attack? How do you choose? Because you don’t have the time or money to attack them all. Dutch political parties can’t even afford much more than the five subsidized minutes about once a month all year on public television and a whole lot of smallish posters during the election season. They can’t afford to waste those opportunities on badmouthing one another.

The debates, which in my time in the Netherlands were usually between the top 3 or 4 parties, allowed those few parties to argue about the issues, and I wouldn’t doubt that politicians who are interviewed will give the occasional stab, but mostly they use those opportunities to promote their platform.

Of course politicians have rows, with one another and with their members, throughout the four years they’re at work, but often the problems are more that the members want their party leader to grow a pair and show more leadership, or that they feel the representatives are straying too far from the party’s platform. That the politicians of the labor party often don’t agree with the ideas of the conservative party is obvious, and therefore it goes without saying.

The thing with so many parties is that each party is looking for like-minded voters. They don’t want or need everyone’s vote and they don’t try. Imagine you’re a moderate Republican in a multi-party system. You wouldn’t want the Tea Party votes, would you? So why spend money on attack ads aimed at the Tea Party leader?  Let them have their own party and the representation they deserve.

This is the last post in this series.

6 responses to “Your Friendly Neighborhood Politicians: Attack Ads in American and Dutch Elections

  1. I would have to agree in some way that a two party system does tend to encourage attack ads. It’s less about what your party brings to the table and more about how the other party is a bunch of schmucks and your life will be a total hell on earth for generations to come if their guy wins. (Each election I am reminded of the 1964 campaign between Arizona republican senator Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. It is widely thought that the one single element that influenced votes against him which led to his ultimate defeat was a simple TV commercial. Goldwater and the republican party at the time represented a strong anti-communist, get tough states’ rights stance. It was popular fodder in those days given the previous couple years of Soviet expansion in Cuba –missle crisis- and the Cold War heating up. The Dems aired a commercial showing families at play, at work, children frolicking about, doing the “fun” things families in America do. The fun imagery stops abruptly and is followed by an atomic mushroom cloud. The message: If you vote for Goldwater he will bring us to total destruction.)
    No one likes attack ads except the party campaigners themselves and that’s because humans by nature are pretty gullible. People want to see substance and issues and what guy is better for the next four years based on objective debate. But admittedly, I feel used and abused during these elections. My sense are being toyed and played with when all I want is objective discussion. Here’s a typical example of how gullible we are. If you slap an image of the Pope on the right side of the TV screen and on the left side just print the two words… “Lobbyists” and under that word print “Special Interests”. Then find that announcer with the low dramatic voice who does the narration for next week’s crime drama (“Next week on CSI someone from the team… DIES!”). Get him to say in the background of our commercial with the Pope… “HE voted NO!”. Then have him change his voice to a more higher pitch and happy sound as the image on the screen changes to some soccer mom political wannabe arriving home from shopping with her kids… “…and SHE voted yes.”. My point… you will likely walk away from that ad thinking the Pope is corrupt and must have voted for something only HE wanted that will not benefit you. This is the stupidity of the electioneering process yet it works for the parties. Oh.. and while we are on the subject of stupid… can anyone tell me why we need a vice presidential debate?? Franklin likely said it best when someone asked him how we might formally address the vice president in our new nation. He suggested “Your Most Superfluous Excellency”. In other words… they guy (or lady) has no roll in government other than that of first in succession following the President, President of the Senate (voting to break a tie), and to preside over the joint session of Congress when it convenes to count electoral votes. Other than that there is no other Constitutional role. So do I really need to care what the two vice presidential candidates have to say? I mean, regardless of the presidential and vice presidential candidates of a given party raising each other’s hands in what appears to be a “team” approach to victory… that’s pretty much where it ends for the VP, unless the Prez can’t perform in his job anymore. Ah, well… only in America.

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    • Hmm, I’ve got to disagree with you about the vice-presidential debates. First of all, I just love watching Biden debate. But more importantly, one of these guys could be president. I think choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate was the undoing of McCain in 2008. McCain wouldn’t have been the worst republican you could imagine, but the idea that Palin would be running the country if McCain died was too horrifying to even consider. And it made me seriously question McCain’s judgment. The vice-presidential debates are a way to get to know the running mates, and we do need to know them.

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  2. Yeah, I can see a basic importance in knowing the running mates but that being said.. if a running mate is less than personable and marginal at best do you then toss out the presidential candidate whom you like simply because in the event he dies we don’t want the schmuck to take over? Or worse yet, you prefer the other guy’s running mate and there’s no option of that happening. The fact that he (or she) IS a running mate already suggests that they support the primary candidtate’s platform, so I’m not sure of a real value of a VP debate.I dunno.. the campaginers want you to know that you are voting for a team but that’s from from the real reality.

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    • Well, I suppose it also depends on the state the presidential candidate is in. McCain was a little long in the tooth, so Palin being president at some point was a very real possibility. It would be interesting to know how many people decided not to vote for McCain for that reason, but I do bet more than a few people did.

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  3. My typos in the above post aside (some dumb login window seems to cover a section of the reply box so I actually have to wing it typing at that point)… I first made note of Biden during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings for Thomas’ appoint to the court way way back… with the Anita Hill thing and hairs from body parts on Coke cans. I personally think he’s a great pick for a VP… he has Washington savvy, can look presedential, and can say things a president is unable to say. Attack dog is good sometimes. 🙂

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    • Exactly. I like Obama for president, but Biden would definitely do if he had to. He’d have some f-bombs in the wrong places, I’m sure. I can just imagine him whispering just a little too loudly in Queen Elizabeth’s ear when visiting Buckingham Palace that “this place is fucking amazing!” but Hey, Johnson bared his butt to show the media a scar. Gotta love America…

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