Monday, June 30, 2008

"Swift Boating" - A Plea for Conceptual Clarity

I've been listed as a contributor to PolySigh for quite a while now, but I have yet to publish a single post. I was hoping to use my maiden post to offer a profound theoretical insight on some aspect of American politics, but instead I'll use it to make a plea for conceptual clarity.

One of the most widely used phrases this campaign season has been some variation on "swift boating." The term is generally used, as was mentioned in this morning's New York Times, to refer to a particularly vicious attack by a political opponent. But that usage misunderstands the significance of the attacks on John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

Those attacks were not unique in their nastiness and anyone who studies campaign advertising can think of plenty of examples of ads that are far uglier. At the top of most lists would be the "Willie Horton" ad from 1988. Thus, the term "swift boat" is not especially descriptive if it is used as a verb to mean "harshly attacking a political opponent."

How might it be used more fruitfully? It could be argued that the term should apply to attacks that are factually inaccurate, because the first (and best known) Swift Boat ad was easily contradicted by eye witnesses and Navy records. But the Swift Boat attacks weren't any more unique in their distortion of the truth than they were in their negativity.

What was unique about the the Swift Boat attacks in 2004, however, is that they targeted an aspect of Kerry's life story that he most wanted to emphasize and that was perceived to be his strength. Indeed, the Swift Boat ads were bold - if nasty and less than true - and virtually unprecedented because they attacked Kerry's strong suit, namely his war record. Prior to the Swift Boat ads, that record seemed unimpeachable and untouchable.

So my plea is this: the term "swift boat" should be reserved for instances when a candidate is attacked on grounds that threaten the primary justification of his or her candidacy. "Swift boating" is going for the jugular. It will be harsh, of course, and it may be untrue; but if it doesn't attack the very foundation of the campaign, it isn't a "swift boat" attack.

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