Count me as someone not particularly troubled by the ad, for reasons well covered by Yglesias, Zagloff, and Theda Skocpol (!). Should I dare to turn on my teevee here in Ohio, I’m treated to about 72 political ads per hour, many of which traffic in xenophobia in various ways I find far more offensive.
One conflict that comes up in the comment threads here is the dueling “Democrats suck because” arguments. In defense of the ad, Democrats suck because they won’t fight dirty, and lose their nerve when one of their own does, etc etc etc. On the other side, the Democrats suck because either a) they’re betraying core principles in the ad, or b) because you can’t outslime the Republicans, because you have to win some other way.
I’d resist responding to this ad in either of these ways. First of all, this strikes me as a prime example of the local nature of politics. What Jack Conway does or does not do in a Kentucky Senate campaign in a highly unusual year against a highly unusual candidate doesn’t really tell us much about the priorities, strategy or politics of the Democratic party at the national level. As for the ad at a political strategy, I’ll just simply defer to people who know more than I do about what it takes to win state-wide office in Kentucky, and Jack Conway is surely one of those people.
There’s also the debate about whether this is evidence that Conway’s a jerk, or that he’s playing a jerk because that’s what Kentuckians want. Again, I’m not convinced we have access to the information necessary to make this determination, and I don’t really care anyway (all that really matters to me is that he’ll likely be a less awful Senator than Paul).
On the larger issue of how to respond to ads, I’ll suggest a three relevant questions. 1. Is it truthful? 2. What implications does the ad have beyond the particular race in question?, and 3. Is it relevant to salient political issues?
Taking them one at a time: on #1, I of course don’t know if it’s entirely accurate, but Paul’s non-denial denials suggest it might be. If it turns out to be a fabrication, I’ll view the ad in a considerably less favorable light.
Skipping ahead to #3, the relevance criteria: It’s clearly not particularly relevant, although the non-offending part of the ad does highlight one way in which Paul’s libertarian ideology is probably at odds with the political preferences of Kentuckians. But the vast majority of ads on my TV are not relevant either. Simply being irrelevent isn’t a big deal in the context of 2010 American politics.
So that leaves us with #2. Generally speaking, I’m troubled and offended by ads that either traffic in falsehoods (see #1) or send a broader message that, if effective, will have deleterious effects on American politics and society. Examples might include: “Muslims are trying to kill us any my opponent won’t stop them” or “Gays want to convert your children and my opponent will let them,” or “Policies that give jobs to unqualified African-Americans are to blame for you being out of work.” These sorts of ads reinforce the existing prejudices, and are worthy of condemnation on those grounds. Some have tried to suggest that Conway’s ad is comparable in its treatment of non-Christians, an interpretation which I find tendentious. I doubt I’ll convnce those people that it’s not tendentious, however, so I’ll just approach this from a slightly different angle. There’s another way of thinking about the larger effects of an ad like this. Scott’s post last week was yet another example of a fairly widespread phenomenon: many people who attend also college join profoundly misogynistic, homophobic, and generally assholish societies and organizations, which not infrequently participate in a host of offensive activities, sometimes involving violence against women directly and sometimes just generally demeaning women. The vast, vast majority of these people, for reasons of gender and class privilege, never suffer any negative consequences, legal or reputational, for these actitivies. Indeed, the consequences of membership in these organizations is frequently quite positive, as they provide access to networks of privilege later in life.
If you care about living in a decent, non-misogynist society, this state of affairs must be viewed as pretty unfortunate. While I’m under no illusions that this ad will, on its own, change the status quo in a meaningful way, it’s a start. Ads that tend to work against the social standing of Muslims, gays, foreigners, etc are reprehensible because of the potential effects of that message. The promotion of the notion that we ought to take a more negative view of those who join creepy, offensive, misogynistic social organizations, and perhaps they might even face consequences for that choice, seems to me to be pretty clearly a net positive.