Smear ads have always been part of democracy

A look at elections past

How civility changes, remains the same, in politics


This is the second in a series delving into the complexities of elections to provide a better understanding of one of Americans’ most precious privileges, the right to vote.

While most people are taught in schools across the country that American politics have always been conducted with respect and dignity, in the annals of American political history, the campaign trail has often been fraught with mudslinging, deception, and outright falsehoods.
From the early days of the republic to the digital age of today, candidates have engaged in tactics aimed at discrediting their opponents and swaying public opinion, often at the expense of truth and integrity.

As the recent special election for New York’s 3rd Congressional District between Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip showed, the electoral tradition of name-calling and truth-twisting are alive and well. Both candidates took umbrage with ads ran by their opponent or their opponent’s supporters, with Suozzi bristling at the nickname “the Godfather of the border crisis” and Pilip repudiating claims that she was anti-abortion and anti-environment.

Chuck Lavine, a New York state assemblyman, noted that these sorts of political attacks were nothing new to American politics, and added that they dated back to the earliest days of American democracy. A particularly provocative example occurred during the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, when a newspaper editor and political ally of Adams accused the then-President of being a hermaphrodite.

“There have always been instances of dirty campaigns,” Lavine said. “I thought it was a good sign that many people in that Suozzi-Pilip race utterly disregarded inflammatory commercials that were on television, on radio and on the internet.”

Not everyone agrees with Lavine, however. Joseph Saladino, supervisor for the Town of Oyster Bay, claimed that civility had always been a key aspect in elections, and pointed to his election wins as a key example.

“Civility is important in politics as residents want representatives that will enact positive solutions to enhance our community,” Saladino wrote in a statement. “In the Town of Oyster Bay we’ve demonstrated that running a civil campaign is possible by speaking about our long record of achievements in turning this town around. That illustrates a sharp and successful contrast, and thus a successful campaign outcome.”

Political ads have often been an opportunity for candidates and their supporters to attack their opponent indirectly, fostering doubt about anything a candidate may stand for or be. In the Suozzi-Pilip race, both sides accused the other of being on the extreme side of the political spectrum, to the left for Suozzi and the right for Pilip, despite both having largely similar views on several issues including Israel, the SALT tax reduction, and crime.

An ad against Suozzi by Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC accused the Glen Cove native of being responsible for the border crisis, despite the fact that the border crisis has been an ongoing issue since before Suozzi even entered political life. Meanwhile, the Jewish Democratic Council of America ran an ad claiming Pilip believes overturning Roe vs. Wade was the right decision, despite the fact that she never said that.

This tradition of using ads to misrepresent a candidate’s political stances is not a new one. During the 1860 presidential campaign, racist opponents of Abraham Lincoln published numerous drawings which depicted white Americans treating Black people equally, even though Lincoln, at that point, had never publicly supported the anti-slavery movement.

The election dynamics of the Suozzi-Pilip race mirrored these historical trends, with both candidates subjected to misleading attacks and smear campaigns. Lavine recalled witnessing commercials labeling Suozzi as an “ultra-leftist radical,” a portrayal he deemed patently false.

That does not mean that modern political campaigns stoop to every low, however. A more traditional style of ad that did not come up during the Suozzi-Pilip race was the use of political cartoons or caricatures to emphasize or lampoon negative aspects of their opponents. In the 1830’s, numerous cartoons of Andrew Jackson dressed as a king highlighted his authoritarian nature and claimed he did not respect democracy or its institutions.

Furthermore, while modern campaign ads can often seem aggressive and even at times offensive and vulgar, compared to some historical political attacks, these appear relatively tame. In the 1836 presidential election, folk hero Davy Crockett accused Martin Van Buren of crossdressing, and in the 1977 New York mayoral election placards were placed reading “vote for Cuomo, not the homo” in reference to Ed Koch, according to nonpartisan public policy organization the Brookings Institution.

Despite this, the modern era has its own unique set of problematic systems which further enable campaigns to put out numerous misleading messages and ads. Lavine highlighted the impact of the Citizens United case, which unleashed unprecedented amounts of money into political campaigns, funding advertisements that can truly mislead voters.

“While some of that money contributes to advertising that’s honest and constructive, too much of it underwrites advertisements that are base and demeaning and untrue,” Lavine said. “I think we just have to strengthen ourselves to the realization that we are going to be subject to a tremendous and disgusting level of commercialization in the political process.”

Moreover, the proliferation of social media has exacerbated the spread of misinformation. The distinction between negative campaigning and dirty tricks becomes blurred in the digital age, where fabricated stories can permeate public discourse with alarming speed and intensity.

Despite these modern problems, Andy Person, chief of strategy and advancement at Long Island University where he runs the Museum of Democracy, argues that the goal remains the same and in reach; protecting democracy. Person acknowledged that while the digital age poses unique challenges, Americans throughout the centuries have dealt with issues that, while less technologically advanced, were equally as divisive for voters.

“The only people who could vote when our country was founded were white, male land-owners. That doesn’t seem to be much of a democracy compared to today’s standards, but that’s what we had to start with,” Person said. “Did we have it right back then? No. Were we slow? Very slow. But are we done yet? Not at all.”

As America grapples with the enduring legacy of divisive and deceptive political campaigns, calls for civic education and media literacy have grown louder. Lavine emphasized the importance of teaching civics and media literacy in schools, to equip future generations with the critical thinking skills necessary to discern truth from falsehood in an age of rampant disinformation.