When people show you who they are
We’ve all grown accustomed to conventional commercials of candidates strolling arm-in-arm with their spouses, as they walk through bucolic landscapes. The camera often lingers on what are meant to be particularly moving images of Americana, especially smiling children and people hard at work.
These heartwarming ads highlight why the candidates’ honesty, integrity and values make them worthy of your vote, and they invariably end with the candidates saying their names and approving the messages.
And then there are ads like the one I saw recently. If you live anywhere in Wisconsin’s 25th Senate District, you’ve likely seen it, too. This one starts by asking whether Madison has changed Sen. Janet Bewley and accuses her of voting against a tax credit that would make jobs disappear — not warm and fuzzy, but not unusual.
But then the real purpose of the ad becomes apparent: A scene shows a swarm of people scaling what looks to be the U.S.-Mexico border fence as a voiceover accuses Bewley of “supporting keeping easier access for taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants” and making it easier to allow “illegal aliens” to vote.
This latter claim is levied as an image of three heavily tattooed, shirtless men, presumably meant to look like members of MS-13, menacingly stare into the camera. Then the voiceover instructs the viewer to call Sen. Bewley’s office and “tell her to support jobs for the Northland, not taxpayer benefits for illegals.”
Utilizing fear of crime and race to scare people into voting a particular way is as old as television. Just two weeks ago, I taught students in my “Undoing Racism” course about the timeline of these sorts of campaign tactics: They started with Richard Nixon’s focus on “law and order;” found purchase in Regan’s “welfare queen;” were infamously captured by George H. W. Bush’s “Willie Horton;” and were recast as the drug dealing rapists of Trump’s “illegals.” Unfortunately, history has too often shown that scaring voters is more effective than having good ideas, and even more so if you can convince people that “the other guy” (or in this case, gal), is somehow to blame.
What makes the anti-Bewley ad particularly pernicious is its introduction into a state-level Wisconsin senate race where undocumented immigration is a manufactured issue, and where the claims about Bewley’s record are wild misrepresentations that have no connection to reality.
But calling out political rhetoric for being untrue seems quaint these days; truth isn’t the point of this ad. It’s exceedingly clear that its one objective is to scare viewers into imagining that Janet Bewley will not protect you from hordes of “illegals” who are coming after your tax dollars, your vote, your community, you.
Teaching and researching how effective racialized fear is in motivating people to do things they might otherwise not should leave me hardened to these kinds of things.
But, on a day in which I’ve read stories of the people, many of them elderly, who were killed in a synagogue by a man who professed that he “wanted all Jews to die,” watching this ad leaves me feeling a mixture of disgust, anger and sadness. Disgust that someone would create such a manipulative representation; anger that they would think it acceptable to run the spot; and sadness that they would consider the money put into this ad as an investment worth making.
Will this strategy payoff in this campaign? I sure hope not. Because in its cynical attempt to latch onto the anxieties people have about society’s latest boogeymen, this ad is stating clearly that politics isn’t about good ideas, and it’s not even about representing the concerns of your constituents.
No, this kind of politics is about winning at all costs, no matter what you must do to beat your opponent. Sure, James Bolen’s voice doesn’t appear at the end stating that he approved the message, but voters should keep in mind that politicians reveal who they are not only in how they describe themselves, but also in how they portray their opponents and in how willing they are to contribute to a culture of fear, antagonisms and deception. Their honesty, integrity and values are on display when they officially approve an ad and when they consent to one being aired in their name.
The most important message this political season: When people show you who they are, believe them. Don’t believe the overt message, of course, but look at what ideas they are trying to sell you, how they are trying to manipulate your fears, and, then, if their tactics are based on fear and distortions of the truth, please, for the sake of our communities, our better selves and who we really are as a nation, don’t let it work.Angela Stroud is a professor at Northland College in Ashland.