Campaign Ads, Mudslinging, and Dirty Hands for Political Candidates


As the 2012 United States presidential campaign begins to heat up, the infamous barrage of campaign advertisements – on everywhere from the television to the radio to billboards to the sides of buses – also begins to take form. In the months leading up to every major election in the U.S., candidates for office do whatever they can to get their name and their message in view of the public eye. They spend millions of dollars and countless hours advertising with the hope that voters will recognize them at the polls and elect them to office. Without a doubt, campaigning (especially for the presidency) has become an advertising war. In the 2008 presidential race, the candidates spent a combined $1.7 billion on their campaigns!

With this flood of campaign advertisements comes a great deal of negative campaigning, or mudslinging, as well. Candidates will stop at almost nothing to make themselves appear as the most intelligent, most respected, most experienced, and most competent for whatever office they are striving for. This means that candidates not only promote positive aspects of themselves in their ads, but they also expose any “dirt” on their contenders. They often attack their competitors’ political stance, previous record, and even their personality, race, and religion.  It seems that as election time draws near, there is far more mudslinging than there is positive advertising. Frankly, it becomes sickening to watch. Many people, myself included, get tired of seeing candidates berate each other. I want to hear what each candidate has to offer, not what his or her opponents are lacking or flawed in.

Sometimes, mudslinging becomes so intense that political candidates overstep their boundaries and find themselves in public relations nightmares. This is where the idea of dirty hands in politics comes in. Candidates do want what is best for their constituents, and they believe that their political stance is representative of that of the American public. The candidates want to achieve an end that is beneficial to the country. However, the means of reaching this end are often questionable. One prominent example of mudslinging from the 2008 presidential election was Sarah Palin’s comment regarding Barack Obama’s opinion on foreign policy: “Our opponent,” Palin said to Republican supporters, “is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country” (referring to Obama’s past encounters with Bill Ayers).  Another example was Obama’s web documentary illustrating John McCain’s role in the Keating Five scandal in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Now, the political theorist Martin Hollis defines dirty hands in politics as doing something that is known to be wrong in order to achieve something that is good or beneficial for oneself and for the people as a whole. It is choosing a temporary evil in order to have a more permanent good for all. Hollis writes in the British Journal of Political Science:

“So even the good man in politics has no fast guide to the best but must settle for the good by practicing the art of permissible violence…Confronted with this plurality of aims and of values and of languages, he can only plead that the best is the enemy of the good. If he tries for the best, as defined by some one criterion, he will fail to deliver the good. Indeed, even the good requires a measure of dishonesty.”

So, are candidates for public office guilty of dirty hands when they use negative advertising to bolster their chances of election? Or is mudslinging just part of their attempt to reach a common good for the country. Will American politics ever be free from negative advertising and scathing remarks in debates, or is mudslinging “as American as the Mississippi mud,” as some say?

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About guysnick

University of Michigan Student

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One Comment on “Campaign Ads, Mudslinging, and Dirty Hands for Political Candidates”

  1. Obada Ghabra Says:

    I think that campaigning could be seen as a Dirty Hands problem. However, in order to consider these a Dirty Hands problem, one would have to assume that candidates are motivated by public good and not just self-interest. The candidates would have to be engaging in mudslinging and other bad forms of campaigning because they actually believe that they will benefit the American people the most.

    A more cynical person might not see this as a Dirty Hands problem. He might believe that candidates campaign and enter office for their own self-interest. If the candidates are trying to gain government positions for personal gain (whether it be prestige, money, or other opportunities) then they are not confronted with the Dirty Hands problem since they are only benefiting themselves.

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