Why do people get so nasty in political campaigns?
“Because it works,” former gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett told a Morristown forum on Wednesday.
American politics is a blood sport invented by the Founding Fathers. “This country was founded on alternate facts,” said Daggett, CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
But he sees the U.S. veering into dangerous new territory, with a president who rails against a free press, a news industry that’s shrinking, and social media that spread vitriol at the speed of light.
“I’ve never been as worried, in many respects, about democracy in my lifetime as I am today,” he said before a few dozen people at the Thomas Jefferson School.
Panelist Gordon MacInnes, a former state legislator, shared Daggett’s concerns.
“I would say we’ve never experienced what we’re now experiencing,” MacInnes said, suggesting America’s polarization is more intense than it was for the anti-war-, civil rights- or gay rights movements.
He cited a torrent of bombshells from the fledgling Administration–such as President Trump hinting at ending daily press briefings–and the rise of grassroots groups such as NJ 11th for Change as signs that the times are a-changing faster than ever before.
MacInnes and Daggett were joined by former Chatham Township Committeewoman Katherine Abbott for CONFRONTATION….OR CONVERSATION: Restoring Civil Discourse to Politics, a talk hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Morristown Area and the Morristown alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
Abbott said a last-minute barrage of false charges by a political adversary led to her 13-vote re-election defeat in the 2014 Republican primary. She asked her fellow panelists if candidates should be required to swear an oath to remain truthful.
But truth can be subject to interpretation. “Facts are funny things,” Daggett said. And plenty of people place one hand on a Bible … only to get convicted of perjury, said MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective.
‘COMBAT, WITH A SMILE’
Sharp elbows can be a plus in politics, added MacInnes, who is 2-for-5 in state elections since 1973–not bad for a Democrat in Morris County.
“You have to be accurate, and you have to be relevant,” he said, recounting how he eked out a razor-thin victory for state Senate in 1993 by hammering his opponent’s billings as a municipal attorney.
“There was, I believe, a civil attack. But it did mean that the emphasis of the campaign, and on the reporting and in the tone of the campaign, was negative. And I did not lose one nanosecond of sleep over that fact,” MacInnes said.
Politics, he noted, “is a tough business. You shouldn’t get into it if you think it’s not. Particularly if you’re a Democrat in Morris County, you should probably enjoy a bit of combat, and you should be able to engage in it with a smile.”
The hurdles are especially high for Independents, according to Daggett. He mounted an Independent campaign against Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, and GOP challenger Chris Christie in 2009.
“The system is rigged by the two parties against anybody else,” right down to slogans on the ballot, Daggett said. Democrats and Republicans each get six words under their names; indies only get three words, he said.
When Daggett won a debate and snagged a Star-Ledger endorsement and respectable poll numbers, his opponents suddenly took notice. Christie countered with ads that “basically misrepresented everything” in his campaign, he said. It’s always tricky deciding when to lash back.
“Unfortunately, in this business, if you have enough money, you can define yourself as well as your opponents. And if you don’t have the money, you cannot define yourself, and will lose,” said Daggett, who served as deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican.
Later he became a regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
TONE IT DOWN
At the Dodge Foundation, a Morristown-based philanthropy, Daggett has become a crusader for journalism. (Disclosure: Morristown Green is a member of the Dodge-backed Local News Lab.)
Nearly 60 percent of journalism jobs across America have been lost, he said. “No one’s watching the store,” keeping officials honest, in towns nationwide. Twenty states have no congressional correspondent, and many congressional races go uncovered, he said.
“When people are not informed, they’re not engaged. Because they get cynical. They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t have access to the information. And suddenly, our democracy suffers enormously,” Daggett said.
An audience member expressed dismay at the spectacle of Gov. Christie hectoring people at public events, and at crowds disrespecting members of Congress at town hall meetings.
Politicians and the public both should tone things down, the panelists agreed.
Rudeness won’t help constituents sway officials, MacInnes said. Daggett praised Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.) for facing “incredibly angry” voters with grace at town hall gatherings.
“It starts with the elected official,” Daggett said. “If the elected official insists on civility, it will usually get to that point.”