Is There a “Negativity Rule” in Politics?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek, Ph.D

In our new book, Splitting America, Don Saposnek and I mention an interesting relationship rule that marriage researchers have discovered. Namely, that healthy and happy marriages have a ratio of positive to negative communications of approximately 5-to-1. According to studies done by marriage experts John and Julie Gottman, it doesn’t matter whether couples bicker a lot or are fairly quiet with each other. They consistently found that there was this same ratio of positive to negative. In other words, if you have a lot of positives in the bank in your relationship, you can manage some negativity without it harming your overall relationship. Much more negativity than that, and you may be heading for divorce. (Gottman, J. & J., Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, 1994.)

Politics: 5-to1 Rule? We wonder whether this 5-to-1 “negativity rule” is also true in our nation’s political communication. In the past few years, we are seeing the heavy influx of Super PAC money and the negative ads that they buy. We are also seeing the over-exposure of the nation to negative news reports about the candidates on a 24/7 basis. If either candidate makes a negative remark – even off-handed and not intended to start a fight – the news reports it over and over and over again. This seems to be what gets attention in today’s competitive news environment as well as politics – go negative or you get ignored and go out of business.

Many people (politicians, commentators, conflict resolution professionals and voters) are noting that the current political discourse is more polarized than ever before. We believe that it may be that the 5-to-1 “negativity rule” has been exceeded between our political parties and politicians, and that we are headed toward a national political divorce. We wonder how our nation will heal after the elections in November – not just Presidential, but state and local elections, many of which are extremely polarized as well for the same reason of violating the negativity rule.

Will voters stay hopelessly polarized beyond repair, as alienated children often are in high-conflict divorce, where the 5-1 ratio becomes almost 100% negative? Will the candidates be able to make peace, after inundating each other with highly-personal, negative remarks on a 24/7 basis? Will the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties be able to talk to each other and address the nation’s problems productively? Or will the losing parties simply begin focusing on the “winning big” in the next election? All indicators, as we describe in our book, are that the nation will remain hopelessly “split” – unable to return to the 5-1 “negativity rule,” once it has been this severely broken.

What do we recommend? One suggestion is for politicians to restrain themselves and make a public commitment to run no more than one out of six ads as “negative ads.” If they can’t restrain themselves, then we need to vote them out and seek new laws to restrain them for our own sake.

Are either of the current candidates for President staying within this 5-1 “negativity rule?” The New York Times states that negative ads are generally defined as those that “mention the other candidate’s name.” They report that from April to July, Barack Obama ran 118,775 negative commercials to 56,128 positive ones. During the same time period, Mitt Romney ran 51,973 negative ads to 11,921 positive. (Zeleny, J. “Obama’s Team Taking Gamble Going Negative,” The New York Times, published July 29, 2012.) This over-emphasis on the negative may help explain general public frustration with today’s political discourse. According to the relationship negativity rule, both candidates are way out of bounds.

Super PACs Self-Restraint Of course, we suggest that Super PACs also operate under the same self-restraint – or its time to reinstate election regulations if they won’t. While technically Super PACs are independent and not allowed to “cooperate” with each party’s campaign of the candidate they support, this is a cynical restriction. Everyone knows that these Super PACs are operated by those who have previously worked on the same party’s campaigns, if not the same candidate’s campaign.

For example, the New York Times reported in July that the political director of Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2008 will guide over $400 million in spending to defeat Barack Obama, on behalf of the American Crossroads Super PAC. (Confessore, N. “Ex-Romney Aide Steers Vast Machine of G.O.P. Money,” The New York Times, published July 22, 2012.) Judging from this article and others, Super PACs will fund more than the candidates’ own campaigns in trying to defeat the other candidate – almost all of it by going negative.

As we explain in our book, we know from working with high-conflict divorcing families that the children and other bystanders remain hopelessly split from an over-emphasis of negativity from one or both parents – ten and even twenty years later in many cases. If we’re going to survive as the “United” States, we must join together in stopping this negativity and its harmful long-term effects.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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