Mudslinging - a legitimate political weapon?

Mon, 24 Mar 2008 Source: Amenyo, Kofi

There have recently been calls by some of the ‘heavyweight’ writers on this forum against the dirty politics of mudslinging that is currently rearing its head in the electioneering process in our country. It is timely but not strange. Electioneering has always involved mudslinging. This election is not, and need not, be different. It has become part of the democratic process even if our hearts ache over it.

Mudslinging uses negative information to discredit a candidate with the aim of making the candidate lose an election. It is also variously called negative or attack ads or political character assassination. The vital factor is that the information must be a negative one – the more negative the better. The information may or may not be true – it only has to be dirty. Where the information is factually correct, it has the democratic benefit of informing the electorate of vital aspects of the candidate’s character – something that can help the voter in making an informed decision especially where the race is close and there is not much to choose between the candidates. The opposite is true when the information is a vicious fabrication but who says the democratic market place is one perched on the moral high ground?

Political mudslinging has a long history. I will limit my examples to the US because it is the country after which our present political system has so much been fashioned right down to the coincidence of having an election in the same year. That country also has a long history of mudslinging. Nobody knows exactly when the first dirt was thrown at a candidate in a US election but it was long ago. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) was called a Godless non-believer and accused of having a slave mistress and Abraham Lincoln was insulted because of his physical appearance. When Edward Kennedy entered the race in 1972, Chappaquiddick hanged heavily on his shoulders. That may not be the thing that clinched the nomination in favour of Carter but it sure did its bit. (They say his opponents sang Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters to gently remind voters of the tragedy.) ‘Swift-boating’ has become a term in US electioneering since Bush supporters put up ads and media stories showing John Kerry did not deserve the Vietnam decorations he boasted of. The ads were false and misleading but they did untold damage. John Kerry, who could hardly have been a worse president than Bush, lost the elections. This year’s primaries have seen Obama being dressed in a Muslim outfit and Obama supporters holding pictures of Bill Clinton embracing Monica Lewinksy. The list is long and volumes of academic treatises have been written on the subject.

Ghana has also had its fair share of mudslinging. Those of us who are old enough still remember how the opponents of a certain presidential candidate transformed the candidate’s war song to one in which the candidate, who was old, was heading towards Osu Cemetery, rather than the Castle. It is all part of the game.

Our country is not advanced enough to use the most advanced media forms for political mudslinging. No youtube video will work in our case. Negative information about the major candidates has been limited to newspaper and internet writings, radio as well as the usual word-of-mouth transmission of information that is still important in our country. Despite this, we cannot underestimate the power and effects of ‘negative campaigning’ in our country.

A call on concentration on the issues is important but when have Ghanaians really voted for the issues? Past elections have shown that Ghanaians have mainly voted on tribal lines and for personalities. That the Central Region in the last elections turned its back on their own son is an exception. At any rate the race there was close. It is true that the Ghanaian electorate is becoming more and more sophisticated but the ordinary voter still does not understand the intricacies of macro-economic policies or the ideological underpinnings of alternative issues. He doesn’t really care about the effects of a credit crunch or sub-prime mortgage rates in the US on the Ghanaian economy and which policies (‘free-market’ or otherwise) can best deal with them and which of the parties will be in the best position to implement those policies. He is just interested in if life, generally, has become better or worse for him in terms of such things as food on the table, his ability to cloth his children and pay their school fees or good and affordable health care. He doesn’t really need a politician to tell him the differences in these essentials.

Even if one party today claims it is social democratic, another that it represents an Nkrumaist tradition and one is an arch conservative, the ideological differences between them are getting blurred. There is a new wind blowing through Africa with many countries trying hard to make renewed efforts at good governance and financial prudence. Many African economies have never grown as fast as they are doing now. Ghana’s seemingly good performance today is more part of this trend than the result of the specific policies of the present government. A new government (whatever its hue) will be hard put to it not continuing this trend or doing even better especially if the present government is displaying the incumbency evils of complacency, arrogance and corruption.

I wish to state categorically here that, God will havenothing to do with the outcome of the elections. I don’t believe God takes sidesin our petty partisan politics. God doesn’t anoint some candidates and wickedlyrefuse to anoint others. If God was really interfering in our politics, thegood people of Ghana would not now find themselves in the unsavoury situationof having to choose one candidate when it is so obvious that none of thecandidates now frantically begging us to give them our vote is really fit forthe job and we must choose one only because we cannot be without a president. Thiselection will be won and lost more by the terrestrial issues of the strategiesused by the contestants, the depths of their pockets or the possibility (ornot) of rigging than on the oils in God’s vials.

Political mudslinging, one of the earthly issues, will become important. Today, political character assassination has been perfected into an acknowledged art. The methods are now more sophisticated especially with the advent of new media forms. It is not necessarily the party that slings the greatest mud that will get the greatest advantage from the exercise (too much mud can easily backfire). It is the party that most skilfully and most brilliantly uses the information at its disposal which will benefit from it. The present feeble efforts of the opposition will not do the trick. They will have to get much better at their act. A highly sophisticated ad full of insinuations that no prosecutor can ever prove in court refers to the candidate, could do the trick much better than head on attacks on radio or poorly written newspapers articles.

Right now, the candidate can dismiss the opposition’s crude and amateurish efforts. But if they get more professional and more refined, and their campaign (of lies?!) begins to seriously hurt the candidate and will make him lose votes, he will not sit down and say he has more serious things to attend to. He will have to come out fighting and if he has a more brilliant team, can actually turn the tide in his favour by a positive rebuttal. In politics, just as it is in love, all methods can seem justifiable.

The Republican candidate, John McCain, was quoted as saying in one of his campaign speeches that presidential candidates are judged on “their character and the whole of their life experiences”. That is why a candidate’s past, present, or probable future health or whether or not a candidate has sniffed cocaine in his fiery youth or gotten off lightly in an accident in which someone was maimed for life 90 years ago and the tantalizing details of whatever other iniquities in their murky past they may be trying to hide from us even as they trumpet their own virtues will be very important and relevant for the Ghanaian voter too. Will that give us a better president? Only the future can tell.

Kofi Amenyo
email: amenyo.kofi@yahoo.com

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi