Lately, Americans have been inundated with negative political campaigning — which is not to be confused with chronic negative politics. The first is date-specific; the latter is the American way.
The preeminent bugaboo of this election is Barack Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. , formerly of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Inflammatory snippets from some of Wright’s sermons have filled the communication infrastructure with the posters’ intent to disparage Obama, specifically, and Democrats, generally, by association. The spectres of black racism, anti-American sentiment, and hostility to the U.S. government now haunt white nationalists, and the local GOP in North Carolina is using video from the sermons in negative campaign ads for the upcoming primary there. Of course, negative campaign ads are not new. They remain de rigueur — especially in elections where an “outsider” runs on a reform platform.
One hundred and twenty-four years ago, during the 1884 election, Republicans hit the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, hard with a disparaging campaign. Corruption scandals involving government officials and politicians had plagued the country in the years following the Civil War. Cleveland ran on a “responsible government” platform, courting the public trust and fledgling professional community. Not long after the convention — in Chicago, no less — where Cleveland took the nomination, Rev. George H. Ball of the Hudson Street Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York wrote an article for the local paper accusing the candidate of fathering an illegitimate child. Republicans pounced on the issue. A taunting refrain entitled “Ma, Ma Where’s My Pa?” became a popular anthem. Aghast, one of the Democratic leaders, Charles Goodyear, contacted Cleveland for advice on how to respond. The candidate telegraphed back: “WHATEVER YOU DO, TELL THE TRUTH.” Cleveland’s campaign did not deny the charges. Instead, it acknowledged that he had taken financial responsibility for the mother and boy, while eschewing an ill-fitting marriage. Apparently, the voting public was pacified by Cleveland’s monetary support and honest response. The Republicans made other attacks, but the public elected Cleveland anyway. What they wanted then was honesty — if not virtue — and the one thing the Republicans could not tar Cleveland with was dishonesty.
That snippet goes to show that sometimes negative campaigns backfire. There are many other examples where such tactics succeed, though, so the practice remains. My favorite negative ad comes from the 1930 election for Sheriff in Grady County, Oklahoma. That year, the last recorded lynching in Oklahoma occurred — in the town of Chickasha (pronounced chick-uh-shay) in Grady County. A local black man, Henry Argo, was accused of rape. Relying on sketchy evidence, county officers arrested Argo and put him in the Grady County jail. As too often happened in that day, a white mob descended on the jail with the aim of enacting “popular justice.” The National Guard mobilized, but the mob ultimately reached Argo. He was brutally murdered in the early morning. Two months later, Sheriff Matt Sankey (Democrat) faced re-election to the job he’d held for ten years. He lost by 2,000 votes — and, notably, there weren’t even 2,000 black residents in Chickasha at the time and only about 500 of the black citizens there were voters. Sankey’s opponents urged citizens to “Remember Henry Argo” when they voted. A local activist, a mixed-race woman named Martha Sipuel, went further. As part of her personal campaign against the incumbent, she hung a sign on the family car that read “To Hell With Matt Sankey.”