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STANFORD -- Negative political advertising may undermine democracy more than it harms its targets, says Jeremy Cohen, a Stanford University professor of communication.

In a study of the impact of negative advertising during the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign, Cohen found that most people believed that they were affected in the opposite way other people were affected.

Loss of faith in fellow voters - and thus democracy - may be the greatest influence of negative ads, he said. Like England's King George, he said, we may think other people are not as capable of governing as we are.

Cohen and graduate student Robert Davis tested reactions to two television advertisements - a Bush ad attacking Dukakis for Boston Harbor pollution, and a Dukakis ad attacking Bush's record on drug enforcement.

Individuals' viewpoints seemed to color their perceptions of others' reactions.

Dukakis supporters said the Boston Harbor ad didn't change their opinions, but would negatively affect the opinions of others. The drug enforcement ad, they said, reinforced their negative view of Bush but wouldn't influence other people as much.

Bush supporters mirrored those feelings - rejecting the attack on their candidate and believing the one on his opponent, but fearing others would be affected oppositely.

(In reality, the study found, undecided voters said they were negatively affected by both.)

"Possibly the greatest influence of negative advertising is the loss of legitimacy for the whole system," Cohen said. "Because we don't think others will react to the advertisements the way we do, the ads leave us thinking others aren't capable of self- governance.

"It isn't that the individual perceives himself as capable of running the country, but that others are not," he said.

There is reason, however, to have more confidence in the system and the ability of others to vote rationally, he said.

"Public opinion polls and election results taken together suggest that people pretty much vote their self-interest, and are able to figure that out, no matter what their educational background."

One lesson for partisans is not to worry so much about ads attacking their favorite.

"If you are vested in some candidate or idea, you are far more likely to think everybody else misunderstands that candidate or idea than is actually the case," he said. "You may have far more support than you think."

For voters in general, Cohen says, the study suggests it's more valuable to think about your own reactions to a campaign advertisement or article than to spend time figuring out how others will be affected.

Cynicism about others' ability to sort out ideas and behave rationally permeates much of the public debate today, Cohen said, including debates about the capabilities of local school boards to steer schools and "political correctness" on college campuses.

"I've had parents tell me they fear their children will be subjected to politically correct doctrine on campus," Cohen said. "The parents are assuming their children won't have the ability to reject arguments that they themselves have rejected."



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