“Name Calling” in Politics — Rewards and Risks

This morning via Twitter Elie Mystal asked:

@ElieNYC Why don’t liberals call Santorum a “theocrat”? Is name calling now a strictly Republican thing?

My immediate response was that a lot of ink spilled on the pros and cons of “negative campaigning,” but not on the specific subset of name calling. Name-calling is more direct, more personal. If it sticks, it is much more damaging than a traditional negative ad because it creates a bias against the very person. It can be very effective at destroying a candidate and building hardcore followers, but it carries with it huge risks.

And for this reason it can be effective. For example:

a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensiblity of a woman.

That attack was leveled by the Thomas Jefferson campaign against John Adams. It worked, I suppose. Name calling can be effective because it creates a strong bond among adherents to the bias. The “Obama is a Muslim” and “Birther” name-calling episodes are the most radical examples, because the basis of the “names” was verifiably false. When name calling, expect that a certain segment of the population will join in and become radicalized, but anyone unwilling to accept the name bias is going to backlash and become nearly as aggressively committed against the name caller. This is why, while the right-wing frothed at the mouth about Obama being a foreign-born Muslim, John McCain was quick to distance himself.

But few attacks resemble the Anti-Obama “Birthers” or the Anti-Adams “Hermaproditers” where the accusation is so patently false. The more common attacks use names like “war criminal” or “anti-American.” These carry with them the same radicalizing power among those who accept the moniker and the same risk of backlash against the name-callers among others. DailyKos wrote about the Johnson campaign’s decision to withhold its KKK ad against Barry Goldwater both because the daylight between calling Goldwater a “racist” and reality could undermine the ad and because the ad risked marginalizing the Johnson administration in the South, compromising the ongoing civil rights agenda.

But these relatively mild name-calling episodes also bring the risk of creating sympathy. In the 2008 North Carolina Senate race, Elizabeth Dole threw the name “Godless American” toward challenger Kay Hagan. Hagan was not a “Godless American” but unlike the Birther claim, a simple document examination couldn’t disprove the claim, and certainly a number of Hagan’s Democratic policy choices could characterized as antithetical to the Evangelical beliefs of many in North Carolina. But a funny thing happened to Dole because Hagan wheeled on the attack and went on to victory.

So returning to the original issue, Santorum certainly believes that a number of his religious beliefs should be codified, which is something he shares with theocrats. But using the term theocrat would subconsciously connect Santorum to the Taliban or Iranian government, the most cited theocratic governments, and that is a comparison that Santorum could credibly call unfair and exploit for sympathy. And he would because as we learned today, his campaign is committed to generating sympathy — see his new “Rombo” ad.

2 comments for ““Name Calling” in Politics — Rewards and Risks

  1. Kathryn
    February 15, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    But isn’t that the “beauty” of the SuperPAC? The name calling gets done by a party that isn’t the candidate, and if the name sticks great. If there is backlash the candidate can disavow the way McCain did to the birthers or (more successfully) GWBush did to the swift boaters

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