The Australian

By Shanto Iyengar

FROM Tony Abbott condemning Julia Gillard as a hypocrite to Barack Obama's chief re-election strategist branding Republican contender Mitt Romney a "political cyborg", politicians everywhere attack their opponents rather than promote themselves. The underlying logic is that attacks gain far more media attention than statements about one's own platform, good character or qualifications.

Yet the predominance of negative campaigning has more to with the dictates of modern journalism than anything else. Controversy and fireworks sell far better than harmony and goodwill.

Modern negative campaigning started in the US with Republican campaign strategists Roger Ailes (now head of Fox News) and Ed Rollins in the early 1980s.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign overcame a lag in the polls by relentlessly attacking Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. Controversial television ads linked Dukakis with any number of social problems from high crime to environmental degradation. The Dukakis campaign took the high road, ignored the attacks and ultimately lost the election.

The takeaway was that the only effective defence against attacks is counter-attacks. When Bush tried to replicate his attack strategy in 1992, the Clinton campaign promptly responded in kind. This trend has increased in intensity in the past two decades.

As voters repeatedly encounter the spiral of negativity, they come to believe that politicians and political parties hate each other, probably for good reason.

The effects on US democracy include greater polarisation of the party faithful and dampening of voter interest and turnout among the uncommitted.

Thus, as Steve Ansolabehere and I pointed out in our 1995 book Going Negative, negative campaigns both polarise and shrink the electorate.

Within the genre of negative campaigning, however, it is important to distinguish between attacks based on policy or ideological differences and those that address the personal attributes of candidates. Based on my recent visit to Australia as a guest of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australian political discourse appears relatively elevated, at least by American standards. For all the heat generated by the carbon tax legislation and the aborted migration bill, the on-air discussions I took part in, such as The Drum panel show on ABC News 24, were more about the substance of the Labor and Liberal parties rather than the personality, patriotism or basic decency of individual leaders.

By contrast, public debate and political campaigns in the US are typically about personality rather than policy. At the outset of the 2008 presidential campaign, the fiery sermons of Jeremiah Wright - pastor of Obama's church in Chicago - elicited a storm of media attention, led by Fox News, about Obama's religious suitability for the top job.

Most recently, conservative Republicans have tried to focus attention on former Massachusetts governor Romney's religion by labelling Mormonism a cult.

The rise of digital media has been hailed as a game-changer for democratic politics worldwide, yet its true impact on the quality of political debate remains ambiguous. On the one hand the internet provides a degree of what I call "freedom from the press" because politicians can communicate directly with voters en masse.

Online town halls are the rage in the US. These follow the format of the age-old town hall meetings where voters ask questions directly of a candidate or sitting member.

The main difference is that the questions come from a web audience and thus geographic limitations are abolished. A farmer in Kentucky and a single working parent in Seattle can each ask questions of a president or member of congress.

New media is no saviour from negative politics, or at least not yet. In the meantime our political leaders will continue to thrive and campaign for re-election on a diet of blame, anger and one-upmanship. It may be cold comfort, but Australians should know that things could be worse you could be in America.

Shanto Iyengar is Chandler chair in communication at Stanford University in the US and was recently in Australia as a visitor of the US Studies Centre.