Muckraking and Mudslinging…the American Way…


If you follow today’s mass media, you’d be lead to believe that today is the worst of everything.

The weather is worse.

All people are horrible.

Politics has never been murkier.

What makes it seem worse is we have so many more ways to be exposed to negativity today.

But as former Indiana University football coach Lee Corse used to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

We do not have the market cornered these days on “bad politics”.

Groucho Marx said, “Politics is the act of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedy”.

Muckraking and mudslinging are as American as Mom and apple pie.

It’s the way we roll.

Let’s set the record straight.

“Muckraking” is a noun defined as “the act of searching out and publicizing scandalous information about famous people in an underhanded way”.

(See the supermarket checkout line for the latest tabloids.)

“Mudslinging” is also a noun and it is “the use of insults and accusations, especially unjust ones, with the aim of damaging the reputation of an opponent.”

(Sounds like one of those TV paternity suit shows.)

Professor Kerwin Stint, who studies such things as “muckraking” and “mudslinging” claims the “golden age” of negative campaigning was 1864-1892 and 1988 through today .

Why do we sling mud and rake muck?

Major statistical studies reveal negative ads and stories seem no more effective than positive material in determining voter outcomes.

We might remember the negativity but it doesn’t affect our voting opinion.

I checked with the Mother Jones website to look into some of the more notorious examples of bad manners in politicking.

In the GOP Primary for the 2000 race, there were “robo-calls” made, asking voters if they would be “more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he fathered an illegitimate black child.”

No direct charges, mind you but some awfully strong inferences.

Now, prior to Professor Stint’s first “golden age” of negative campaigning, I found these gems.

For example, in 1800, the Federalists claimed GOP candidate Thomas Jefferson was dead.

(Remember, we didn’t have cell phones and Twitter accounts in those days.)

In 1828, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson were embroiled in some pretty nasty stuff.

Adams backers called Jackson “a slave-trading, gambling, brawling murderer.”

Fact was Jackson was shot several times in duels and bar fights.

Maybe not a slam after all.

So Jackson supporters charged Adams with having premarital relations with his wife and for being a pimp, since they claimed Adams arranged for an American “woman of the night” for Czar Alexander 1.

Adams backers attacked Jackson’s family, called his dead mother a “common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers”. They also referred to Jackson’s wife as a “convicted adulteress who was previously married and (by accident), not completely divorced prior to her 2nd marriage” to Jackson.

Maybe that’s what prompted Ronald Reagan to say, “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

In 1840, the Whigs said Martin Van Buren was “an effete snob who strutted in front of $2,400 mirrors like a peacock”.

His opponent, William Henry Harrison ran on a bogus platform of loving log cabins and hard cider.

The American voters bought that and elected Harrison.

In 1844, the Whigs “proved” James K. Polk was a slave trader, quoting extensively totally fake excerpts from a book.

You thought “fake news” was a 21st century issue only!

But those backing Polk played the dirty news angle when Democratic backers claimed Henry Clay “had sex with whores and broke all 10 of the Commandments”.

When pressed for evidence, they declared the details were “too disgusting to appear in public print”.

Nice way to dodge the issue!

In 1848, the Whigs referred to Presidential hopeful Lewis Cass as a “pot-bellied, mutton-head cucumber” when the Democrats said Zachary Taylor was a “crappy dresser”.

So I’m guessing “pot-bellied, mutton-head cucumbers” and “crappy dressers’ do not make good Presidents?

Remember, George Carlin said, “In America, anyone can become President. That’s the problem!”

In 1884, when tariffs were the big issue for voters, it got lost in a real juvenile name-calling effort.

The GOP charged Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock 10 years earlier.

Republicans chortled, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

Now Cleveland admitted to the affair and provided financial support when the woman came forth and made the “daddy” claim, even though there were questions about its’ validity.

But James G. Blaine got in hot water when, at a New York City rally, one of his supporters described Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion”.

The comment didn’t endear Blaine to the Irish Catholics he was hoping to vote for him.

Although Blaine didn’t actually say it, he didn’t say he disagreed with it.

Throughout American political history, candidates have never lets the facts stand in the way of a good zinger.

But if you think the political lip-flappings you’re hearing these days indicate the end times are near, you haven’t looked in your history books.

So what’s a voter to do?

Mark Twain offers no solution.

He said, “If you don’t read the newspapers, you and uninformed. If you do read the newspapers, you are misinformed”.

Looks like we’re back to flipping a coin.

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