Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/Chapter 10: Politics and the Public Sphere


Politics and the public sphere are not synonymous, but because the United States has a representative democracy, wherein we elect politicians to represent ordinary citizens in debates about our rights and our path forward as a country, politics is an important component of the public sphere. As Al Gore emphasizes in The Assault on Reason, "We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes." [1]

2012 Presidential Campaign: Political Ads and the Public SphereEdit


Political Ads have nearly always played a part in presidential campaigns. Starting first with newspaper cartoons and then progressing to TV commercials in the 1950s, political ads have continuously entered the public sphere via new domains. In this age of the Internet, political ads are able to access more people more frequently than ever. However, their usage has also shifted. Decades ago political ads primarily promoted a particular candidate. Now, they are more regularly used as a means to slander one’s opponent. In Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, he discusses that our representative democracy relies on a “well-informed citizenry.” These political ads have grown to hurt such a citizenry. Their lack of reason reaches people through television and Internet and transforms the “marketplace of ideas” to a space in which “truths” no longer exist.[2] In the 2012 presidential campaign between President Barack Obama and Republican Senator Mitt Romney, both parties utilized political ads in order to use an opposing candidate’s words against him, to alter the truth, and to influence both the public sphere and the election.

“You didn’t build that.”Edit

President Barack Obama

During an election campaign stop in Roanoke, Virginia, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he addressed businesses. The President argued that businesses rely on both individual initiative and public infrastructure. To illustrate his point, he stated:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.”[3]

President Barack Obama was simply trying to stress the role that the government plays in promoting economic growth. His sentence, “If you've got a business—you didn't build that,” however, was used immediately by Obama opponents as a way to paint the President as an “out-of-touch, big-government liberal." Members of the GOP attacked the statement, assuring business owners that “Yes, you did build that."[4] Furthermore, the statement was used to fuel several conservative political ads. The phrase, “You didn’t build that” appeared in numerous commercials, was used to make memes in the blogosphere, and even became a hashtag on Twitter. Rather than highlighting the positive attributes of Mitt Romney, his campaign committee and fellow republicans chose to instead attack Barack Obama in their ads by taking advantage of this statement.

The President’s words were taken out of context and used against him. The majority of these anti-Obama ads featured his one sentence without including any other parts of the speech. They led Americans to believe that the President was someone who did not appreciate nor acknowledge private business owners and someone who thought the federal government was solely responsible for the success of these businesses. The “You didn’t build that” ads infiltrated the public sphere through television sets in the form of commercials, but also through computers. The phrase was used to make Internet memes, which were shared via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other blogs and social media sites. It was taken out of context by conservatives and employed to alter the truth about Obama’s feelings on small businesses. While it is unknown how many American citizens have actually read or watched the entire speech, it is clear that many have not. As Manjoo states in True Enough, many Americans have lost their desire to know the truth.[5] People believe what they want to believe, and the “You didn’t build that” political ads in the 2012 campaign are a perfect example. Numerous conservative citizens saw the ads as a way to confirm their prior biases against the President without ever researching the context in which his statement was spoken. The ads entered the public sphere in an attempt to sway public opinion on Barack Obama, and in many cases, succeeded.

The “47 percent”Edit

Mitt Romney by Gage Skidmore 6

2012 campaign ads were used to influence the public sphere by the democrats as well. In the case of the “47 percent” video, Senator Mitt Romney’s words were taken out of context and used to manipulate the truth.

During dinner at a private fundraiser, a member of the wait staff, Scott Prouty, secretly video taped a speech made by Mitt Romney. In the speech, Romney discusses the many American citizens who had already decided to vote for President Barack Obama “no matter what.” Romney stated that there was no use in trying to change these people’s minds because 47 percent of Americans are people who are:

“dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”[6]

Here, Senator Mitt Romney was attempting to stress the fact that many Americans hold previous biases in favor of the President, that there is no point in trying to win their votes because their minds are already made up. Scott Prouty, however, understood the senator to be claiming that he does not care about 47 percent of American citizens. Thus, Prouty released the tape stating that, “Everybody needed to hear that."[7] Like Prouty, the Obama campaign committee and fellow democrats seized the opportunity to present Romney as someone who does not care about the lower and middle classes, someone who is only concerned about the rich.

Rather than stating that Mitt Romney was not worried about gaining the votes of 47 percent of Americans, the political ads put out by the democrats took his words out of context. His line, “my job is not to worry about those people” was twisted around and presented in a way to make it appear as though the senator had stated that he did not care about 47 percent of the American population as people. Like, the “You didn’t build that” speech, Romney’s words entered the public sphere through television and were also made into memes which spread across the Internet. “47%” also became a hashtag on Twitter in which many people expressed that they were a part of the 47 percent of people that Romney was supposedly not worried about. Again, a politician’s words were taken out of context and presented to the American people in a way that hid the truth of his statements. Again, they were used to strengthen prior biases against him. And again, they influenced public opinion on Mitt Romney in a negative way.

Mitt Romney and Presidential Qualities Valued by AmericansEdit


The American Presidency: a job that has become the most powerful position in the world. It is not surprising that after just a few years on the job, the President’s hair turns significantly grayer. The President makes decisions that affect the people of the United States and countries around the world from today until well into the future. So it is clear that selecting the next President of the United States is a big task, and it is one that we cannot take lightly. We must make the right decision. Do Americans have a fixed set of evaluative criteria in which we hope our favorite candidates can fit? The trend through American history shows that nearly every President began his career as a lawyer. With the exception of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, nearly every previous president in recent history served as an attorney prior to his candidacy. Why do Americans see the qualities of these men as better “cut out” for the job? Why do these qualities prevail over the qualities of successful businessmen, for example? We Americans almost have an instinct from birth that we openly discuss every election year when selecting our next Commander In Chief. American Presidents qualify for the job by meeting the requirements set in stone through civic discourse, and some make the cut while others like Mitt Romney are unsuccessful.

Corporate AmericaEdit

Qualities of a BusinessmanEdit

American companies have been a symbol of successful and stable employment for decades. It can also be argued that the American dream is embodied by the small-business success story of entrepreneurs finding a niche in the market. But have we determined that the successful people of the business world simply do not have the same qualities necessary to serve the greater need of the American people as a whole? Business people fight for the fruits of capitalism and have a personality that helps them do so. A contributor to WikiAnswers lists a few important qualities of a businessman: power and determination to succeed, intelligence, alertness, leadership, straightforwardness, and firmness in dealing with others [8]. So what’s the problem with them being elected the President? These qualities seem to translate into any great leader, not only in business. But it is straightforwardness that may pose a problem in the President’s position. Oftentimes the President is required to sugarcoat certain matters where revealing the reality of a situation would cause a nationwide panic.


President Bush with New Orleans Mayor

Another quality of concern, and perhaps the most important, is the businessman’s profit-based motivation behind his success. From an early age, Mitt Romney was engaged in his father’s business and he even came from a wealthy family. To voters, this portrays the former Governor of Massachusetts as greedy and disconnected from the reality of society and the perils of those struggling to feed their families. This notion was solidified in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when, under the order of President George W. Bush, it took several days before the Federal Government and the National Guard got involved in saving the people of New Orleans. Bush, a former businessman in the Texas oil industry, faced immense scrutiny for not taking immediate action to use federal funds to bring food, water, and safety to New Orleans residents. This delayed action may have condemned President Bush’s breed as a qualified personality for the position.

Focus on the PeopleEdit

Mitt Romney’s race for the Presidency may have been doomed by President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina because it exposed the disconnected nature of the previous Republican president from the people. With the help of the media, Americans saw the face of the President concerned, but sitting in a cushy seat on Marine One surveying the devastation of New Orleans. In defense of Governor Romney, he used his vast financial resources for the ultimate benefit of millions. His savvy business background led his private equity management firm to save ailing businesses from nearly inevitable bankruptcies. His firm saved the 2002 Winter Olympics from the Games’ financial distress [9]. The unfortunate fate of the global unification of athletic ability known as the Olympics in 2002 may have become reality without Governor Romney’s support.

Conversation of DemocracyEdit

VP and 2000 Presidential Candidate Al Gore

Despite Romney’s efforts, Americans have lost trust in businessmen as leaders of government. Enron-era scandals during President Bush’s first term may have contributed to that even further. Vice President and 2000 Presidential candidate Al Gore agrees. In his book The Assault on Reason, Gore states his view that capitalism and democracy merely coexist in society. He believes that a mixing of the two creates separation and is a threat to the public sphere as a healthy “conversation of democracy” [10]. The business leaders of a capitalist society certainly have a niche within the economic processes of government, perhaps as advisors to the president, but maybe not within the realm of America’s Chief Executive.

Where Romney Went Wrong - Hard to Say, Easy to PinpointEdit

His StatureEdit

Governor Mitt Romney

With bipartisan agreement, Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that Mitt Romney screwed up. Al Gore presents the idea of “selective exposure” in his book The Assault on Reason to describe the phenomenon where citizens quite literally selectively expose themselves to reports that support their opinions. Whether people approve of the former Governor or not, by no means did the majority of people experience selective exposure. People listened to reports the media’s reports and Romney’s own words and decided he was not the right man for the job. Voters were not emotionally attached to him, because he simply did not allude to being a loveable figure. His aristocratic appearance made it difficult to picture him mingling with and comforting his constituents. As decided through civic discourse, Americans have come to value presidents with an aura of humility and genuine compassion. We want to see P.O.T.U.S. offering his sincere condolences at the funeral of a fallen war hero, or amidst the destruction following inevitable natural disasters. This strong quality was one that the American people agree is one of President Obama. It can be concluded that the People believe that all other Presidential requirements are contingent upon having this born-quality in our President. Unfortunately, Governor Romney’s almost inhuman and impermeable nature that the business world successfully molded him to be was not well-received by voters in neither 2008 nor 2012.

His PersonalityEdit

Americans seek a steady, honest, and consistent President to support. Much of Governor Romney’s scrutiny stemmed from his ability to become a different person between his days of Governor of Massachusetts and the Presidential campaign trail. During an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press with Tim Russert in 2007, Governor Romney flip-flopped between his stance on difference issues—even whether he flip-flops or not. Compared with his viewpoints during his gubernatorial term, Russert exposed that Romney had changed stances on issues like abortion, gun control, Iraq, gay rights, and even Ronald Reagan [11]. Governor Romney appeared quite transparent to voters in this interview, which perhaps lost him a bid for the Republican nomination in the 2008 election. During the months leading up to that election, Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney stated in response to Romney’s fumbling on Meet the Press, “No matter how hard he tries to convince them otherwise, voters already know that today’s Mitt Romney bears no resemblance to the one from a few years ago, and that neither can be trusted to provide the American people the honest leadership they need and deserve” [12]. Especially on huge issues of public debate such as these just listed, a candidate cannot unexpectedly change his opinion and anticipate being elected President. The People do not know who they are electing if the man they elect has changed his views within four years.

His Religion?Edit

Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, 1883

Another issue that is important to note, pre-conceived bias or stereotyping can change the course and outcome of an election. Most would agree that it is in the best interest of the People that the President has a relatively moderate political stance. Thus, when a candidate has a quality that sets him apart from the majority of voters, it is difficult to view him as moderate. As he is proud to publicly admit, Mitt Romney is a devout Mormon. Voters questioned whether his religion would affect his success as President. The reasoning behind this simply comes from the uncertainty of the Mormon sect of Christianity. Filmmaker Mitch Davis, a professed Mormon, began a study upon hearing the public’s uncertainty with Romney’s religion prior to the 2008 elections. The results of a recent L.A. Times/Bloomberg study were also strikingly conclusive. 37% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon [13]. Davis’s study sought to find out why exactly this number was so high. Davis asked 600 South Carolina registered voters what they knew about the foundations and values of Mormons. Most could not articulate the differences between Mormonism and protestant Christianity. The survey indicated that 50% of Americans believe that Mormons only follow the Book of Mormon, and not the Bible. Others believe Mormons still engage in polygamy, not knowing it was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890 [14].

Wrap UpEdit

We can see here that stereotyping from being uninformed can dramatically tilt the results of an election. We as Americans have traditionally believed that religion is a driving force in a president’s success, but as times and people change, the moderate candidate will appeal to the greatest number of Americans. President Obama is on-track with this route. Although the media projects to us that he attends church on Christian holidays, President Obama leaves religious matters out of his policy decisions. This effective approach appears to be valued by the majority of voters.

How We Have Come to Accept These Qualities as SovereignEdit

Media's ContributionEdit

There are a variety of reasons why the ideal qualities of a successful president can be agreed upon by the majority of Americans. Although candidates like Mitt Romney have strong backgrounds in specialized fields that the opponent lacks, such as business, a common set of characteristics qualify a candidate for the job. The news media is one outlet that facilitates the spread of these ideals. Media is a prime source for those in search of information, and outlets frequently praise candidates with the qualities they value. Effectively, this builds a strong base of support and popularity for candidates that fulfill those qualities that media sources hold to be ideal.

Family ValuesEdit

Family values are another huge contributor to instilling in young Americans what older Americans hold to be ideal Presidential qualities. From an early age, Americans commonly grow up adopting the political positions of our parents, and we keep those throughout our lives. Older generations typically value a strong religious affiliation in a candidate. However, the United States is seeing a trend in the opposite direction as the older generations die off and religious affiliation loses prominence in modern society.

Public Sphere's RoleEdit

Lastly and most importantly, it is the public sphere, as conceptualized by German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas that facilitates the spread of Presidential ideals. As discussed above, the media lays the groundwork for discussion that Americans bring home to discuss in personal settings with friends and family. The diverse background of every American provides a compelling and valuable input towards the “conversation of democracy.” And it is through the public sphere as a forum in which political participation is enacted through discussion that we form public opinion of ideal presidential qualities. Since George Washington was elected in 1789, our ideal presidential figure has changed considerably. It is through the public sphere that ideas flowed over generations and the ideal president evolved. From the early days of our Republic when the founding fathers empowered citizens to openly engage politically in all realms of life, Americans have been energized by the discussion of political issues. It is through this public sphere that we have come to adopt the ideals of American presidents.


Without the effectiveness of a strong public sphere by a “well-connected citizenry,” the American Presidency would cease to exist as the operational one-third of our governing body (Gore 2007). It is made possible through public involvement and interest in the politics that preside over the free world. Without informed and open discussion of political matters that affect the American public, we are unable to pool our intelligence and elect candidates that will lead our country in the best direction for our present and future needs. By electing the right candidate for the job, we can be confident that, whether we approve or disapprove of the present administration’s policies, our president acts for the greater benefit of the United States—for what he believes is right and just.

Responses to National TragediesEdit


United States’ history is dotted with its fair share of national tragedies, from assassinations to natural disasters to terrorist attacks. Each time, the nation is rocked, and the public sphere shifts dramatically. One of the most notable examples, the September 11 attacks, brought together and mobilized the country, as many national crises do. A more recent example, however, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, divided the nation and shook up American politics. Primarily due to the role of smaller special interest groups in the wake of the events at Sandy Hook, the shooting had a nearly opposite effect on the American public sphere and political conversation from the September 11 attacks; in fact, responses to the Sandy Hook shooting even undermined the very ideals of this nation’s democracy.

September 11 and the Public SphereEdit

Unification of the American PublicEdit

According to the Pew Research Center’s report six months after the fateful day of September 11, “The events of September 11 have affected public opinion more dramatically than any event since World War II. Clearly the attacks brought unparalleled national unity, and patriotism”[15]. All those who remember the attacks remember seeing American flags on nearly every house, car, and commercial building, a symbol of the changed American psyche. Ten years later, President Obama commented on this phenomenon in an op-ed piece published in USA Today regarding the anniversary of the tragedy. He recounts, “Americans came together in candlelight vigils, in our houses of worship and on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Volunteers lined up to give blood and drove across the country to lend a hand. Schoolchildren donated their savings. Communities, faith groups and businesses collected food and clothing. We were united, as Americans”[16].

The changes in the American mentality were also highly apparent in public opinion polls in the months following September 11. Americans’ heightened senses of nationalism and patriotism translated into a higher trust in the federal government and the future of the nation as a whole. A December 2001 Gallup poll reported that President Bush had the highest approval rating ever recorded at 86%[17], and a Pew Research study the following March reported 82% approval for the federal government overall[15]. What’s more, the same Pew study yielded that Americans exhibited the highest levels of optimism following September 11 since 1959[15]. The collective American mentality of trust and patriotism allowed politicians to pass a wide variety of legislation with relative ease to address the aftermath of the tragedy.


Following September 11, some 48 terrorism-related bills were signed into law. One such bill, the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, which allocated $40 billion for “emergency expenses to respond to the terrorist attacks,” was passed in only four days[18]. Other legislation included the well-known Patriot Act, which passed almost unanimously, as well as laws restricting entry into the United States, heightening airport security, and providing health benefits for soldiers and those working at Ground Zero[19]. Because nearly the entire nation had the same mindset in light of the tragedy, the government faced little opposition and was able to pass these and more acts in an attempt to protect the American people.

Sandy Hook Shooting and the Public SphereEdit

Much more recently, in December of 2012, the nation faced another great tragedy. This time, twenty elementary school children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Because the victims were so young and so many, this event evoked strong emotions from American citizens and lawmakers. However, it did not unify the country like the attacks of September 11 did. Rather, it split the country in two. On one side were those who supported stricter gun legislation, led by the families of Sandy Hook victims, and on the other were the National Rifle Association, who had clearly stated that they “would not budge an inch toward discussion of gun control”[20] and all those in agreement. The struggle between the two groups has not only divided the country, but it has also demonstrated the power of money to override the desires of the public sphere.

Citizen ActivismEdit

Leading the public sphere, the Sandy Hook families give voice to the majority of Americans, creating a grassroots campaign to advocate for national legislation restricting the purchase of guns. Before taking it to the national level, the families were successful in achieving the strictest gun laws in the country in their home state of Connecticut. The law expanded the state’s ban on assault weapons, limited magazine capacity, and required background checks for private gun sales[21]. The state victory was not all that the Sandy Hook families strived for, however.

Barack Obama with relatives of Emilie Parker, a child killed in the Sandy Hook shooting

In early April, the parents marched through Washington for a week, speaking with lawmakers and sharing their stories in hopes of catalyzing national gun control legislation. They utilized their emotional appeal to combat the economic power of the National Rifle Association, pulling at the heartstrings of legislators and the president himself. Obama broke his reputation of long deliberation over emotional attachment, expressing strong support for the cause of the Sandy Hook families. Democratic senator Joe Manchin, who had been working toward a bi-partisan gun control agreement, spoke highly of the parents’ campaign as well. He recounted, “They said to me, ‘We know our babies couldn’t have been spared by this legislation.’ ...Their concern was, maybe you can spare one family what we’ve gone through. That’s the most unselfish presentation I’ve ever heard in my life. It just brought me to my knees”[22]. To end the week of campaigning, Obama invited Francine Wheeler, the mother of a six-year-old boy who died int he shooting, to deliver his weekly Saturday address for him, presenting one last emotional appeal [22].

NRA LobbyingEdit

N.R.A. Executive Vice President spoke out publicly against increased regulation on weapons.

The efforts of the families of the Sandy Hook victims paled in comparison to the power wielded by the National Rifle Association, however. All gun control bills, including those proposed to ban military-style assault rifles, limit magazine sizes, and expand background checks, were defeated in the Senate. Not only did the Senate ignore the pleas of the parents whose children had died in the Sandy Hook tragedy, they also “ignored the will of the American people,” said Gabrielle Giffords, a former representative who had been a victim of gun violence herself[23]. In fact, over 90% of Americans supported increased background checks and 56% supported a ban on assault weapons [23]. The national lawmakers, elected to represent the majority of the population's opinion, had done just the opposite. In making sense of the situation, it is necessary to note that the NRA donated $716,596 to candidates in the 2012 election, with Republicans receiving $634,146 [20]. In this instance, the public sphere rose up to combat an issue, but the wealth and power of a small group not only divided the nation; it also undermined the core of democracy.

Money's Impact on DemocracyEdit

Al Gore addresses the heart of the issue in his book The Assault on Reason, shedding light on the politics of wealth. According to Gore, “The derivation of just power from the consent of the governed depends upon the integrity of the reasoning process through which that consent is given. If the reasoning process is corrupted by money and deception, then the consent of the governed is based on false premises, and any power thus derived is inherently counterfeit and unjust”[24]. After the September 11 attacks, the country had a unified agenda. Very few spoke out against the mainstream because very few reported possessing beliefs against the mainstream. With relative ease, the government passed numerous laws addressing the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Conversely, the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting yielded a divide in the public. The majority of Americans, not to mention grieving families and communities, had their desires ignored. Meanwhile, those who could pay hundreds of thousands of dollars had their ideas represented, reflecting the exact phenomenon of which Gore cautions, and reflecting the exact opposite of the intended function of democracy. “Their opinions [became] more important than the opinions of others. The nation’s priorities change[d]” [24].

The Detrimental Effects of Mudslinging on the 2012 ElectionEdit

As technology rapidly improves, we are quickly learning the power and effectiveness that it holds. Technology is prevalent in most of our daily activities now more than ever. One realm that it holds the most power in is presidential elections. Using technology to reach voters is a great thing when it is used properly. Recently, the amount of negative advertising is blinding voters from choosing a candidate solely based on their opinions of their policies. Mudslinging is the attempt to discredit one’s competitor, opponent, etc., by malicious or scandalous acts [1] , and this act has become one of the most important aspects of winning an election. This past election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was one of the fiercest elections of all time. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83262.htmlThrough October 21st, Romney’s total percentage of negative ads on broadcast and cable television was 79.2%, and Obama’s percentage was 85.5%. These percentages are much higher than both the 2008 and 2004 election. In 2008, Obama had a negative ad percentage of 62.9% and John McCain’s percentage was 75.9%. In the 2004 election, Democratic nominee John Kerry had 44.3% negative ads, and former president George Bush had 72.4% negative ads. These numbers prove that the amount of mudslinging is increasing during every election and has no signs of slowing down. The negativity of presidential elections is increasing, and without a doubt it is changing the public sphere for the worse.

The Beginning of MudslingingEdit

In the 1964 presidential election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, the first substantial case of mudslinging occurred and forever changed campaign tactics. The advertisement made by Johnson’s campaign, known as “Daisy Girl, began with an adorable little girl standing in a field, taking petals off a daisy while attempting to count the petals she had removed. As she is doing this, a frightening and ominous voice begins counting down from ten. When the voice says “zero”, they show a massive nuclear explosion, and conclude the commercial with these words, “These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die”. The screen cuts from the explosion, and the words “Vote for President Johnson on November 3” appear on the screen. A voice comes in as this pops up on the screen and says, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home”. http://michiganjournal.org/2012/10/30/presidential-mudslinging-in-the-past/ This ad frightened its viewers. During the 1960’s, nuclear warfare was becoming more of a threat. A few years earlier was the Cuban missile crisis, and in Goldwater’s campaign he had mentioned an idea of using nuclear weapons against Vietnam. With the threat of nuclear warfare looming in the minds of American citizens, this ad was an effective scare tactic towards voters. Professor Robert Mann, who wrote a book about this commercial titled Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics, was quoted saying “His numbers never really went down. What went up though, in the polls, were American fears that if Goldwater were elected he would get us into a nuclear war”. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/24/revisiting-the-daisy-ad-revolution/ If an ad such as this were to be aired today, the effects would not be as detrimental. American people have become accustomed to seeing negative ads, and today’s viewers would look at one such as this at as ridiculous and far-fetched. Nevertheless, this ad was detrimental to Goldwater’s campaign, and changed the outcome of this election.

The First DebateEdit

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

Fast-forward to the 2012 election. When in competition, showing any sign of weakness can be detrimental to a campaign. This was evident in the first debate on October 3, 2012 between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The questions that were asked by the moderator were related to fixing the economy. This was a huge opportunity for Romney to take a lead in the polls because his campaign revolved around improving the middle class and turning around the financial state of this country. As this debate went on, it became a fierce battle between the two candidates, often going over their allotted time for their statements and rebuttals. According to Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenburg, writers for the New York Times, “For much of the debate, the candidates commandeered the stage, taking control away from the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, as they kept trying to rebut one other. At times, the moderator seemed as if he had walked off the stage, a result of new rules that were intended to allow for a deeper and more freewheeling discussion”. [25]

The Importance of DebatesEdit

Things were very tense at times, and each candidate debated to the best of their ability. These kind of intense debates are great for elections because it is a one on one battle between the incumbent and the challenger. Negative campaigning strategies such as mudslinging advertisements have no importance in the debating arena. This is where they can show their confidence in their policies, and their intellectual fortitude by being able to think on their feet. Even after such a thrilling debate, each campaign still found it necessary to construct damaging advertisements against their opponent.

Reasons for Increased NegativityEdit

A large reason for the increased negativity of the 2012 election was the grounds that each candidate was running on. The incumbent, Obama, could not promote a new economic plan because in his previous four years in office, the economy was not in a good place. According to an article written by Donovan Slack in “Politico”, “Obama couldn’t run on an economic rebound, and some of his biggest accomplishments, such as his health care law, are unpopular in the polls”. Slack goes on to say, “Romney has tried to persuade the American people to fire the incumbent – but has been light on details of his own”. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83262.html

Damaging EffectsEdit

With this being said, the two candidates felt the need to turn to negative advertisement, and they did so in historic fashion. These actions do not just damage the integrity of the presidential campaign, but the American citizens, as a whole, are starting to lose faith in the whole process. According to an article written by CNN writer Bob Greene, “In 2008, potential voters were asked if both candidates would make good presidents, 25% said yes. This year, (2012) asked the same question, only 12% said yes”. http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/02/opinion/greene-campaign-mud-slinging Greene also goes on to compare current presidential elections to warfare. He says that in war, if both sides know they could each destroy their opponent, the necessary steps are taken to push for a peaceful resolution. In politics, both sides refuse to back down; they are always pushing for the upper hand. Greene says, “A willingness to use any means to win an election will inevitably, in the end, produce a president. But then the president will have to lead a nation that has turned darkly cynical about the entire process”. Since the United States gained its independence, it is known that trust between the American people and its leader is instrumental in building a strong, united nation. In Greene’s article he quotes John Adams, one of our founding fathers, saying, “There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank or we are undone. In popular government, this is our only way”. http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/02/opinion/greene-campaign-mud-slinging This quote directly applies to the situation we are in now. There need to be drastic changes made to presidential campaigning.

Lasting Effects on the Public SphereEdit

The public sphere is a place of conversation, and fully embodies the American culture. Jurgen Habermas, the man who coined the phrase “public sphere”, describes it as a conversation space where public opinions are formed. In today’s world, the public sphere has, in many ways, been negatively affected by technology. Presidential elections are revolved around who has better campaign ads, and who spends more money. As I previously mentioned, well over half of the campaign ads are degrading in some way. As a result, American citizens are losing faith in who they elect as president. Manipulating voters is not a strategy that our founding fathers advocated. If this trend continues, our country will no longer be unified; it will turn into an “us versus them” mentality and we will be divided. Are the presidential candidates solely to blame for this trend of negativity? Absolutely not. News stations and social media play a huge role in this downfall. For example, a staunchly Republican group called “Bold Republic” released a viral YouTube video interviewing uneducated inner city citizens. They asked simple questions such as, “What kind of benefits are you getting?” One man answered this question saying, “Let’s see, whatever the hell they got to offer. Like, I don’t even know, it ain’t even like they got a checklist”. This video is an extreme example of the propaganda that is used against presidential candidates without the candidate’s approval. This is the kind of social media that is distorting our views of presidential candidates. As these problems continue, it is evident to me that the public sphere is developing a distorted view of what makes a good presidential candidate.


  1. Gore, Al. The Assault on Reason. New York: Penguin, 2007. 2.
  2. Gore, Al. The Assault on Reason. New York: Penguin, 2007. 5-11.
  3. CNN, Wire Staff. "'You Didn't Build That': A Theme Out of Context." 01 Sep 2012. Web. 25 Apr 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/31/politics/fact-check-built-this>.
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