Mudslinging: then, and now

October 29, 2012 — by Helen Wong

Can you imagine a presidential election in which the candidates don’t spew vitriol at each other, or run hate ads or just be nice to each other?

Can you imagine a presidential election in which the candidates don’t spew vitriol at each other, or run hate ads or just be nice to each other?

No, you can’t. It’s simply inconceivable. To run for president is to run the gauntlet lined by commentators like David Letterman and Rush Limbaugh, who wield scathing words equivalent, more or less, to bladed weapons.

As I easily found out by glancing through my history textbook and ever-useful Wikipedia presidential elections haven’t actually changed much since 1796.

The first two elections before that year don’t count, because Washington ran unopposed. 1796, when Jefferson and Adams ran against each other, marked where things started to get dirty. Americans were then introduced to the fine art of political mudslinging—whatever it took to win.

They really let go with the insults and general viciousness.

Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican, was slammed as an atheist and a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” John Adams, Federalist, was condemned as a monarchist, a tyrant and as an imperialist.

Adams won, but Jefferson became vice president. He then kept tabs on Adams 24/7, and when the time for elections came again, Jefferson hired a journalist to write false stories. The media became a weapon. Adams lost.

Now, in 2012, we’ve got Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The current presidential race is no less merciless than the 1796 election.

Of course, it is entertaining. The unsavory comments supporters of each candidate throw at each other can get very amusing.

Insults, thanks to the modern age, can now be anything from Internet memes to bumper stickers.

Some good examples from the anti-Romney side include the clever bumper stickers on Zazzle that have slogans like “Cool story, Romney. Now flip flop it again,” the bake sales that hawk cookies in a flavor called Republican Legitimate G(rape), and, of course, the “Dogs against Romney” T-shirts.

From the anti-Obama side, come billboards that have slogans like, “A taxpayer voting for Obama is like a chicken voting for McDonalds’ Chicken McNuggets.” And then, T-shirts aren’t just limited to the anti-Romney side, either. One directed at Obama says, “Obamageddon.”

The thing about running for president in America is that once candidates step into the spotlight, they’re never out of it. Every aspect of their personal life will be scrutinized with no mercy, and people will form very strong opinions about whether they support them or not.

Americans’ rights to freedom of expression legalizes almost any kind of insult, whether it’s moral or not. For the presidential candidates, this freedom is both a boon and a curse. They can slam their opponent all they want—but the other can always slam right back.

Ultimately, American presidential elections haven’t really changed all that much in the past 200 years or so. Republicans and Democrats have simply replaced the original Democratic-Republican Party and the Federalist Party. The political fighting is as intense as ever.

Despite all of the insults and general viciousness, citizens still participate. It’s a chance to get involved in their country’s politics. It’s their responsibility.

The main reason, though, is not obligation or duty—it’s fun.

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