Politics is a rough business. There are a lot of misleading claims out there. But rather than countering them directly -- with more speech -- a disturbing number of politicians and analysts suggest that we should suppress speech instead.
For instance, back in 1999, John McCain -- a leading contender for the presidency in two years -- said “If I could think of a way constitutionally, I would ban negative ads,” a statement that should disturb every freedom-loving American.
Others are less explicit, but insinuate that things would be better if we somehow limited negative ads. In a New York Times op-ed today, Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College (my alma mater) bemoans the way in which negative campaigning disadvantages inspiring candidates, concluding with this passage:
[U]nless something is done to quell “gotcha” journalism and relentlessly negative campaigning — and as long as we continue to enter the voting booth looking for reasons to say no — the ciphers will be the winners.
But nothing can or should be done to "quell 'gotcha' journalism and relentlessly negative campaigning" in a democracy that protects free speech and a free press. Schwartz is a respected scholar of psychology (my wife got me his book The Paradox of Choice for my birthday), but I don't like the implications of this passage.
Postscript: Schwartz's larger point, which is drawn from psychology research, is that people approach decisionmaking tasks differently depending on whether they are choosing whom to accept versus whom to reject. His argument is that negative campaigning leads voters to focus on choosing whom to reject, which leads to this bizarre passage:
If somehow the cynicism lifted, and we saw ourselves charged with the task of deciding who to say yes to, we’d have more candidates like Parent B. Just one negative feature would not be enough to disqualify someone, in our minds. There would be little to gain by capturing and broadcasting “macaca moments,” or subtly invoking old Southern fears of black men cavorting with white women. Candidates would be able to take positions and speak their minds. This might lead to the arrival of candidates who actually have positions and minds. We might even be willing to risk generating a little enthusiasm at the prospect of being led by them.
Why should we believe it would be a good thing if "macaca moments" were not broadcast? And why shouldn't voters disqualify George Allen on that basis given his ugly racial history? Even if voters were choosing "who to say yes to," they surely would consider negative information as well. It would be bizarre if they didn't.