The Civility Project,
launched by the Millennium Group of the Duluth-Superior Area Community
Foundation to help develop a next generation of leaders, comes at a
crucial time: election season.
The 2003 campaign season will be a test of the power of a good idea
to improve our community.
The half-truths, distorted records, false inferences, misleading
claims and, sometimes, outright lies that have become a staple of
political attack ads add to public cynicism about politics. Such ads
tend to come late in a campaign -- when it's too late to respond. They
tend to use narrators, stark images and ominous music.
Significantly, the candidate or group behind the ad is not seen or
heard. Many times the sponsor of the ad is barely identified -- small
print, unknown name -- so voters don't know who's really behind it.
These "stealth attacks" turn people off to politics.
The Civility Project -- along with existing efforts co-sponsored by
the League of Women Voters and other organizations in our community --
can play a large role this campaign season in holding candidates and
independent interest groups more accountable. The Civility Project can
discourage attack politics during the election season -- and encourage a
compare/contrast style of criticism over a resort to attack politics.
A "Stand-By-Your-Ad" campaign would help -- encouraging
candidates and independent interest groups to take responsibility by
speaking for themselves in their ads. That means an image of the
candidate himself or herself -- or, in the case of a group, a
representative of the special interest group -- has to appear in each
and every ad.
This personal accountability tends to cut down on false, misleading
Some campaign codes ask candidates and interest groups to avoid
"demeaning references" and "demeaning visual images"
of opponents. You know the type -- using images that make the opponent
look goofy, stupid, unprofessional, incompetent, even drunk or high.
The importance of the Civility Project is to put enough public
pressure against attack ads so that using them backfires with voters.
Force campaigns to buck the conventional wisdom that says when your
candidate can't establish a firm lead, go on the attack. Create a
climate where campaigns believe they must advocate or compare/contrast
candidates and issues.
In this "civility" effort, it's important to distinguish
between attack ads and robust, valuable criticism.
Compare/contrast ads strongly criticize the opponent by pointing to
his or her record, but these criticisms are paired with positive
statements about one's own candidate or position so the overall message
is more balanced.
Challengers, especially, running against incumbents, have to be able
to point out the incumbent's record in strong terms.
An example of how public backlash can work came in the November 2001
election for Duluth City Council.
The political action committee of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce
targeted one incumbent for defeat and bought a ton of television time to
directly attack him. The ads did not target the candidate's personal
life and stuck to the incumbent's record. But their lateness in the
campaign (leaving little time to respond), virtual anonymity ("Paid
for by Duluth First," a reference only political insiders would
know, was the only identifier of the Chamber political action committee
in small print) and lack of any positive message probably just turned
Between the example of the 2001 election and the emphasis on
respectful disagreement with the new Civility Project, we hope
candidates and interest groups will take a cue with their political
advertising: Clearly identify who you are, leave enough time to respond,
have something positive to stay about your own agenda. People don't like
hit-and-run stealth attacks.