Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Looking to history for present-day political deception

Printed April 4, 2012.
"I am George B. McClellan, and I approve this message."

If the technology had been available in the run up to the 1864 U.S. presidential election, voters probably would have heard those words often as McClellan, the former commander of the Union army, campaigned to replace the man who fired him, President Abraham Lincoln.

But those words are included at the end of many recently made online mock ads available on the site operated by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. is not to be confused with — another site managed by the Annenberg center and an invaluable source for checking the veracity of claims made during the presidential primary and general election contests., however, is more of a teaching tool — one designed to train citizens to be able to view the deceptive practices at work in today's political advertising.

"We know that people are not good at recognizing deceptive techniques where their own candidates are concerned," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the public policy center, said in a phone interview Friday. "People are much better at recognizing the techniques used against their own candidate."

Jamieson said that, in past lectures, she found that any contemporary examples of deceptive political advertising tended to trigger a partisan defensiveness in the audience. So she started looking for a "cleaner environment" to work in.

"We wanted to show these techniques at work in a historic context where the alternative would have been catastrophic to the nation," Jamieson said.

Hence, she and others started making ads that the McClellan campaign — along with some fictional 19th-century Super PACs — might have used to stop Lincoln's reelection.

The Emancipation Proclamation gets reframed as, "Socialist Abraham Lincoln, with a stroke of his pen, commits the greatest redistribution of wealth this nation has ever seen."

Lincoln's lack of church membership gets described as, "Abraham Lincoln is unsure whether God is on our side. One thing's for sure: He isn't on God's!"

And the transcontinental railroad gets described as a "train to nowhere" — "Lincoln says that steam power is the future, but that's just hot air."

Jamieson said she and others made sure that everything in the ads is historically accurate.
And while she agrees that are many points on which critics can argue with Lincoln's record, the ads generally focus on Lincoln's decisions that have been borne out by history.

The main point Jamieson hopes people take from the fictional ads is how they serve as a distraction from the weakness of a candidate and how effectively they focus on trying to get people to vote against the other candidate. (And many of those techniques are used regularly by Democratic and Republican candidates alike.)

"It lets me raise questions about the criteria by which we should elect a president," Jamieson said. "By using examples from the past that are factually accurate, we can analyze whether those are relevant criteria for electing a president today."

Jamieson will be speaking about 21st-century politics and Lincoln's reelection at 7 p.m. today in 1505 Seamans Center on the University of Iowa campus. She will be unveilling some new McClellan ads during the presentation.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment