Spring is in the air.  Brunswick, Maine is finally melting. Ivies is right around the corner.  This morning, I heard birds chirping outside my window, and I suspect that the first buds will appear on the Quad’s trees any day now.

And, because it’s an election year, there are absolutely hilarious ads from primary candidates surfacing, either viciously targeting incumbents or sprinting ahead in a race to the ideological bottom.  

In today’s environment of political polarization and competitive primaries, candidates bring out the rhetorical big guns in primary races, attacking their opponents for being too conciliatory or not ideologically pure enough.  In order to cater to the ideological elements that make up a significant percentage of primary voters, candidates swing far to the extremes of their party. 
The impractically ideological rhetoric in primary campaigns can have dangerous implications for policy when weird candidates advance through the election system and eventually become elected officials.

“When The Moment is Right” is a new ad released in opposition to John Boehner by J.D. Winteregg, a primary challenger. The ad prescribes Winteregg as a remedy for “electile dysfunction,” or rather the condition of having a Boehner for 23 years.  Winteregg childishly reduces Boehner’s name to its phonetic pronunciation and condemns the Speaker of the House for activities such as playing golf with the president,  which is supposedly indicative of Boehner being too comfortable in Washington and not being able “to get the job done.”

Another gem, this one from Montana, depicts a Republican Candidate for the House of Representatives shooting down a drone allegedly belonging to the US government.  Entitled “Rifle Shot,” the ad demonstrates to viewers exactly what Matt Rosendale thinks about government surveillance. 

Not only does the ad focus on an issue that does not exist—the government does not routinely deploy drones to spy on American citizens—but it also advocates violent remedies to the make-believe problem.  To Rosendale, any influence by Washington is a huge problem, and he literally opens fire on the problems he perceives.

Sensational campaign ads are hardly anything new. “Daisy,” perhaps the most famous campaign ad ever (it’s universally known among people who study that sort of thing), appears to promise nuclear Armageddon if Barry Goldwater rather than Lyndon Johnson is elected president.  That ad was aired during  the halcyon days affectionately referred to as the “golden age” of American politics—days when polarization was at a minimum.  

Ads fire up the electorate and may not be completely representative of the political situation; they appeal to base emotions such as fear, hate, or frustration and often do so quite crudely.
Campaign ads are designed to educate the public about candidates, sway undecided voters, and pump up a candidate’s core electorate.  As public opinion, especially that of voters who participate in primary elections, becomes increasingly polarized, rhetoric in those races gets fierier and candidates’ positions and promises get more extreme.  

This is especially true in primary elections. Those who vote in primaries tend to be party elites and those at ideological extremes. Joe Six-Pack does not generally vote in the primaries. The more candidates rely on rhetoric and base emotions to sell their positions, the more present such rhetoric and emotion becomes in everyday political discourse.

I don’t want to argue for civility as a virtue.  Obviously, the defining feature of these ads is vitriolic and often rude rhetoric, but a lack of civility is a symptom, not a problem in and of itself. It’s a symptom that feeds back into and perpetuates the original problem of polarization, but politeness is not inherently a virtue in politics, a realm where remaining silent can result in disastrous consequences.  

While ads such as Rosendale’s and Winteregg’s may just be pure political calculation to win votes, they legitimize an environment in which lawmakers can hate each other, engage in ad hominem attacks, and imply violent action against things with which they disagree.
Shooting drones while seated on a four-wheeler with grain silos in the background may win votes from a vocal minority, but bringing such imagery to an already gridlocked and dysfunctional legislative environment does little to improve America’s outlook.