On the radio a morning or so ago NPR played some excerpts from a California gubernatorial debate. Whoever else was running, the stage was reserved for former Governor Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, and EBay magnate Meg Whitman, the Republican. Their contest must have been tough for Californians to watch until then, for the crowd rose in stormy applause when the moderator challenged both candidates to dispense with "negativity" for the duration of the campaign. When Brown argued that negativity was "in the eye of the beholder," he was booed loudly. When Whitman insisted on her obligation to call attention to aspects of Brown's record, she was booed, too.
Both candidates must have considered both the question and the booing unfair, without necessarily understanding why they may have felt that way. But on some level, both Brown and Whitman must have understood that without negativity, they had nothing to say to voters. They are the approved contestants of the California Bipolarchy, and under bipolarchy conditions candidates always feel a strong temptation to go negative. It's easier, almost instinctively so, to tell voters that your opponent is bad than to prove that you are good. When there are only two "real" choices, you're tempted to portray your opponent as the worst case scenario and an inevitable disaster to your constituents. Bipolarchy depends on there always being a "worst" candidate, one whose election can be portrayed as intolerable, so that voters feel compelled to choose either the next-strongest or the already-stronger candidate as a matter of moral (if not mortal) necessity. Bipolarchy depends on reactionary voting, on people voting against someone even while voting for someone else. Brown depends on Californians voting against Whitman, while she thinks vice versa. It makes one wonder why we don't tell voters to choose the candidate they fear the most and give elections to whoever earns the least negative votes. We don't do that, of course, because we expect citizens to vote affirmatively for the individuals they deem best qualified for office. But under bipolarchy condition the affirmative vote usually is negative in spirit. If more voters would take a wider range of candidates and parties seriously the temptation to go negative would abate, since one party's attack ads would not be guaranteed to benefit that party alone. Voters everywhere need to overcome fear -- not only the manufactured fear of the alleged worst candidate but the naive fear of entrusting power to those who don't have it already. If the voters of California despise negative campaigning so much, they should prove it by repudiating both major parties whenever the opportunity presents itself. Not until they have real rivals to deal with will Republicans and Democrats eliminate the negativity and accentuate their positives -- whatever those may be.