As tensions rise leading up to the second most important election of the year, citizen discernment and polarization play a crucial role.
It’s a late summer evening and I’m standing by the entrance of a restaurant, waiting to pick up my takeout order. Something flashes in my peripheral and I turn to look, where I see a television in the corner. On the screen, there are images of this post-apocalyptic scene straight out of The Purge, with blazing fires, dilapidated buildings, and heavily armed military soldiers. There is even a 911 audio to match these scenes that explains that “due to the defunding of the police department, no one is here to take your call…” I look around in complete shock when I realize that this scene is a part of a campaign ad, but no one else in the restaurant has even batted an eyelash. It’s possible that as I am both a recent Georgia transplant and a freshly minted member of the politically aware that I am overly sensitive to this kind of overtly partisan messaging. Still, I can’t help feeling that there should be some sort of safeguard against blatant fearmongering on national television. My order is ready, so I collect my food and exit the restaurant, but that campaign commercial stays on my mind long after my takeout is devoured.
As I settled into my life in the Peach State during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was flooded with all kinds of political messaging as the 2020 presidential and senate elections approached. The majority of these advertisements were focused on local elections rather than the national election, and each of them had a particularly ruthless tone to them. Rather than promoting themselves and explaining the benefits citizens would receive by voting for them, the purpose of this programming was to denounce the opposition and instill fear and paranoia within their own party. The use of this rhetoric in smear campaigns is not a recent development, but in recent years it has become extremely popular, and there has been a growing trend of increased hostility in these advertisements. I think this trend was so prominent in Georgia because politicians knew that the races there were going to be especially contentious, so all sides were out for blood from the onset. The sheer number of political messages that air on local television make it so that viewers cannot get through an entire commercial break without seeing at least two political advertisements. Whether it was on television or in my mail, there was always a candidate pushing their agenda. Even though I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, they were signs all along that the Georgia races were going to be pivotal.
With 16 electoral votes, the state of Georgia has been and continues to be a key state among national politics. In the heart of the Deep South, Georgia tends to lean towards the conservative end of the spectrum and has consistently been a red state since the early 1990s. Looking at the timeline, the evidence for flipping Georgia blue begins with the campaign of left-leaning Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 Midterm elections for the governor’s seat. Although Abrams ultimately lost her race by a 1.4% margin, her work with grassroots organizations contributed greatly to Georgia’s increased voter turnout. Coming off of such a heavily disputed race, both parties sensed a need to invest more time, effort, and most importantly money into future Georgia elections. Now with the runoff just weeks away, expenditure is at an all-time high with the two Senate elections on track to becoming the most expensive Senate elections in U.S history. The majority of this influx of funding is spent on advertising with three main objectives: getting the word out about the runoffs and important voter registration deadlines, promoting their respective platforms, and making sure that their supporters know the “horrors” that will befall them if their opponents win. These three objectives can be achieved in a minute-long smear advert, played during every commercial break, that villainizes the opposition and urges voters to turn out on election day to prevent the other side from carrying out their disastrous plans.
Inundating voters with massive amounts of smear advertising leads to contempt and fearmongering among people of different political beliefs. With many people living in their own socio-ideological bubbles, the same rhetoric gleaned from the subversive smear campaigns gets repeated and reinforced. Many citizens are content to believe what is said by those who are a part of their ingroup, and even those who are interested in hearing objective narratives have to sift through such an influx of information just to sort out fact from fiction. Citizen discernment, the individuals’ ability to ascertain more credible sources from less credible sources, is a vital skill to sharpen in such an environment. As written by Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro and Matthew S. Winters in their article, information availability is not necessarily synonymous with information credibility. Credible information is defined as when “the source does not have an incentive to lie about the information it disseminates.” While credible information should not always be assumed to be the most accurate, it is true that the most credible information is often the most accurate. The key to becoming a well-informed voter is to be able to cut through the noise and pinpoint which voices are the most accurate and credible for the information that one seeks. Smear campaigns actively impede this process by spreading misinformation from dubious sources, and as it becomes more difficult for citizens to discern, they rely on those who they trust the most, members of their own ingroup. The silencing of outside voices in favor of familiar voices, regardless of credibility, is where citizen discernment and polarization intersect.
The current political climate is already highly polarized; specifically, polarization in the political context is defined as “a process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension, cross-cutting differences become instead reinforcing, and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of “Us” versus “Them.” At extreme levels, polarization leads people to identify with their own party to the extent that they can no longer empathize nor understand those that they view as against their party. To a certain degree, polarization can be beneficial by “mobilizing political participation, simplifying political choice for voters, and strengthening political parties.” But it is safe to say that we have passed the threshold where polarization can still be viewed in a positive light. With polarization in the US “stronger today than ever before”, even in the aftermath of the presidential election, the negative impacts of polarization, or “the partisan affect” as Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin categorize the psychological symptom of polarization, are being felt nationally. In the extreme case, hyper-polarization leads to democratic erosion as the ruling group becomes increasingly tolerant of violations of democratic principles in order to reduce dissent from the opposition. We have yet to reach this point, but as McCoy astutely points out, “once the forces of polarization are set in motion, they take on a life of their own.” Ramping up the tensions between the two factions with antagonistic and often misleading portrayals of the other only brings us closer to this frightening possibility.
Placing this in the context of
Georgia and its position as the tiebreaker for party control in the Senate,
both citizen discernment and polarization will play a crucial role in whether
Democrats or Republicans will finally prevail. With the main instrument of
persuasion being smear campaigns, the eventual winner will have to be
successful in convincing their own party, and those who remain undecided, not to vote for their adversaries. Runoff
voters will have to decide for themselves who seeks to tell them the
“objective” truth and who seeks to advance their own agenda. Undoubtedly, an
election won through the disapproval of the opposing party will lead to higher
levels of polarization. But where exactly does that leave Georgians on January
5th once the race is over? We’ll have to wait until then to fully assess the
 Weitz-Shapiro, Rebecca and Matthew Winters. 2016.“Can Citizens Discern? Information Credibility, Political Sophistication, and the Punishment of Corruption in Brazil.”Journal of Politics79(1): pp. 60-74.
 McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman and Murat Somer. 2018.“Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.”American Behavioral Scientist62(1): pp. 16-42.
 Iyengar, Shanto and Masha Krupenkin. 2018.“The Strengthening of Partisan Affect.”Political Psychology39(S1): pp. 201-218.
Hi Boihitta! This was such a great article! I really enjoyed how thoroughly you covered this pivotal political race in Georgia, and I especially like your take out story in the beginning! I work at a bar myself, and I am subjected to dozens of smear campaign commercials every single shift.
As you stated, this entire election season and especially this senate race in Georgia have been extremely important for the government and political standings in the U.S. And the media’s misinformation is truly leading towards a more polarized society. This makes me wonder how media campaigns like this can smear candidates like this, and if it will ever be an issue of first amendment and free speech rights?
Facts and transparency were the main pillars of focus when the First Amendment was created, but has that sentiment of “freedom of speech, or of the press” allowed media to simply spread misinformation with no repercussions?
In 2012 in United States v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court protected an individual’s intentional lies, as long as those lies do not cause serious harm. The Court upheld this ruling by citing that not allowing a person to lie is a serious offense against their freedom of speech.
It seems that with the growing rate of misinformation and smear campaigns in the media, freedom of speech is harming our democracy just as much as it is allowing it to flourish. Like you mentioned, this is due to the strong polarization of the two political parties in the U.S. and that polarization is one of the biggest threats to our democracy.
So how do we fix it? I’m not sure that there is a clear way to fix this issue with the media currently, short of regulating the media and what they advertise, but that infringes on the First Amendment’s right of freedom of the press. It is interesting to think about what might happen in the future, and if this extreme polarization continues because of the media’s influence of smear campaigns, I wonder if regulations will be put on the media sometime in the future?
All in all, great article!
I really enjoyed this piece. Despite living in the Northeast, I’ve also seen similar ads that show a lawless America during the presidential race. I had a similar reaction to yours, and wondered if COVID was part of the laundry list of reasons for increased mudslinging and polarization. At least to me, the limited face to face interaction and natural debates that people get has gone down dramatically, leading to social media and advertisements being a large source for political information. This is definitely a nightmare scenario, as a critical part of democracy is citizen engagement and debate.
Additionally, the whole idea of voting against vs voting for someone I think is also a part of the two party system we built up in America. Because the two parties do not consider much of the political spectrum, I think it necessitates some of the “vote against” nature that you describe. While I don’t think there is a considerable chance for a third party candidate to win a presidential race, I wonder if third party candidates in more local races like congressional ones can break polarization. The flipside is that they would most likely be swamped out in important and vital races such as the Georgia senate runoff due to the majorities needed in the house and senate. Overall, this was a great piece!
I also love how you used your personal experience of these smear campaigns as a way to begin this post!
I have seen that specific ad before, and I have to think it’s pretty funny that Trump says “You won’t be safe in Biden’s America,” while playing clips of protests happening under his own presidency.
These smear campaigns are kind of a perfect example of the increasing lack of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s idea of mutual toleration that comes with increasing political polarization in this country. Not only do folks disagree about policy, they see the other side as existentially threatening.
Seeing as mutual toleration is an important guardrail to democracy, I think it could be beneficial if somehow smear campaigns were reigned in. Political leaders should be required to release ads based upon their campaign promises, in juxtaposition with their opponents even. Major news sources and media companies should refuse to air such ads as the one you linked above.
We discussed a bit in our class about disinformation and the difficulty of regulating it on media platforms, especially social media, without impeding free speech. However, folks in power should not have the opportunity to use their platforms to fear monger or mislead everyday people.
As a Georgia resident myself, I empathize completely with your lede about the experience of having to endure campaign ad after campaign ad every time there’s a commercial break. I think that you’re right about Georgia’s ads being particularly nasty, especially between Loeffler and Perdue; the Loeffler Attila the Hun ad condemning ‘scribes’ was the attack ad taken to the extreme. And as you also point out, this is not a brand new phenomenon especially in Georgia and with the successful election of Brian Kemp off the heels of his ‘Jake’ and ‘Yep, I just said that’ ads in 2018.
I think you make a really valid point, which is that election campaigning is becoming primarily about why you shouldn’t vote for their adversary rather than why you should vote for them. I think this leads to a lot of voters tuning out politics entirely, or wringing their hands because they have to vote for the lesser of two evils. Great work on this post, I definitely learned a lot.