Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dirtiest Election Ever? Check out the media

The pundits and the media (ironically) decry the dirtiness or our politics - attack ads flourish and seem to have a real impact - SuperPACs now proliferate in the "new" no-holds-barred election cycle. Big money, dirty tricks, pants-on-fire lies and fabrications, and every low-down trick we know seem to be on display. It's all new, right? We used to have more well-behaved elections, right? The founding fathers didn't intend us to be so undignified, so down-in-the-gutter, so...

Sorry to disappoint all those folks who have never gone beyond Washington chopping down the cherry tree in their study of our history. Modern-day politicians are pikers by the founders' standards! They may even be laughing at the few "rules" we have set up.

(In full disclosure, I want to make my position very clear: I hate negative campaigning, dirty tricks, big money in the mix, and all the rest. But as a student of history and psychology, I know it ain't gonna change.)

The dirtiest election in our history? 1800, Jefferson vs. Adams. Yes, the first few elections had gone smoothly and pretty much as expected. Washington, who could have been elected every time, stepped down after two terms, establishing a precedent that would stand until Roosevelt's four terms and the predictable backlash establishing two terms as the rule. John Adams, not always the most popular of the "fathers," had served as Vice President for Washington's terms and was elected president.

But by the time of Adams election in 1796, the die was already cast. By then we had two parties who were at war with one another; The Federalists, headed by Alexander Hamilton and including Adams and the Republicans,* headed by Thomas Jefferson. Just to make things interesting, Jefferson the Republican would serve as Federalist Adams VP.**

Over the election cycle I will be looking at the big controversies in our present day and demonstrating how they mirror that critical election of 1800.

To kick it off, let's look back at where it all started for our republic.

No sooner did Americans stop fighting the British than they started fighting one another. After newspapers ceased to report on military exploits and denunciations of the Crown they began to fill their columns with the cannonades of politics. Having briefly put aside their old ways of lying and dissembling, exaggerating and trivializing, distorting and abusing and insulting, journalists turned to them again with a new and even more pointed vehemence as they began to consider the most important question of the time, possibly the most important question Americans have ever had to ask themselves: Now that we have won the right to govern ourselves, how, precisely, do we go about it?1

How indeed...The media of the late 18th and early 19th century had no rules. Every newspaper and pamphlet (the blogs of the day) was proudly partisan, secretly funded by candidates, and out to destroy the opposition.

What are the lessons for today's leaders?
  • Demand better.  Whether as corporate sponsors or consumers, leaders need to demand better reporting, better information, and better coverage. Trying to find out what's happening in the world is a frustrating undertaking. The BBC is still one of the best sources for in-depth, relatively unbiased reporting. Watching CNN outside the US also means getting some thoughtful straight-up reporting. But back at home? We're back in the 18th century with "infotainment" ruling the day - lots of chatty folks, teasers for absurd stories, and the occasional headline buried in the dross. Leaders demand better results from their staffs constantly, so apply that to the media.
  • Dig deeper. Thought leaders must push themselves to dig deeper into the situation. What's under the surface? What else is going on? Behind the screaming headline or breathless "news" reader, what are all the facts? If you want to blog or report or tweet or speak about what's going on, do your homework. Today we drown in lots of stuff floating around the Internet with no fact checking, verifying sources, or taking on any of the other disciplines of "serious" journalism. Leaders demand as much information and as many facts as possible before making decisions. Do the same before arguing your case. Separate opinion from a fact-based explanation.
  • Decide ethically. Leaders are clear about their values and filter their decisions through those. At the same time, leaders don't need to trash the opposition to make a case. Whether supporting your favorite candidate or touting your product and services, tell the truth. There is really no need to run down the other guy or the other product to demonstrate the value in your point of view or product. Discuss the benefits. Leave the trash talk for the entertainers.
What's your idea: Can we overcome our human nature and our history? Post your responses on the blog.

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Next: God or No God, that is the question.

*Jefferson's Republicans morphed into the Democratic Republicans and then the Democratic Party. Hamilton's Federalists never held the presidency after Adams and faded from the scene in the early 19th century. Today's Republican Party formed in the 1850s and their first president was Lincoln.

**The Constitution initially required the top vote getter to become President and the second highest to become Vice President. Because of the disasters occurring in the 1800 election, it was changed to the present form of a "ticket" with the two people running together and no splitting of votes at this level.

1 Eric Burns, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, Public Affairs, New York, 2006
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©Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president, Advantage Leadership, Inc.
Want to know more about the tumultuous fights at the Constitutional Convention and the election of 1800? Check out Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers

I NEED YOUR HELP: I'm beginning research for my new book on the influence of leaders on their organizations (Washington's Shadow) and I'm interested in your experiences or ideas for case studies. Do you know a leader who has had a profound influence shaping the organization's culture and changing it for the better? (I'm not interested in negative stories which are much more common.) Drop me a note:

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