Damaging dialogue

Democrats’ latest drama is dividing friends, colleagues and party leaders.

People I love and admire argue the presidential primary process was “rigged,” while individuals for whom I have just as much affection and admiration respond that it’s nonsense.

I’m going to tick them all off by taking no position on the underlying controversy, except to note that the person whose book restarted it all maintains steadfastly that she “found no evidence, none whatsoever,” of a rigged process.

But rather than dive into that divisive debate, I want to do something I regard as more important — explore its potential electoral consequences.

Proponents of the view that the primary was rigged would no doubt argue that dealing forthrightly with such issues will pay dividends as voters come to see Democrats as honest, transparent and anxious for real participation.

But recent research warns us that such discussions may well have negative consequences.

Some may feel the debate is worth the price. Others may differ.

But every participant in the discussion should understand that their words appear to have consequences.

Adam Seth Levine of Cornell and Robyn Stiles of LSU demonstrate that talking about inequalities of political power, and specifically about a “rigged system,” makes people less likely to engage in the political process and may actually reduce registration and turnout.

The researchers created a series of experiments using Google AdWords. Those searching for information on voter registration were served either an ad based on the strongest message the researchers’ partner organization had used, or one focused on political inequality.

The effectiveness of the original message, noting that registration is “Quick, easy and free,” was compared to messages offering free voter registration and claiming the “Wealthy [are] buying elections” or that “The system is rigged.”

Telling potential registrants that the wealthy are buying elections reduced clicks on the ad encouraging registration by 47 percent compared to those served the “quick, easy and free” message. “The system is rigged” reduced clicks by 44 percent.

Telling prospective registrants that the system is rigged in general, or specifically by the wealthy, decreased the number who moved forward in the registration process.

The investigators also conducted a survey experiment utilizing the same messages, asking how likely respondents would be to seek information about registration from ads containing each message.

The pattern of results was consistent with the online experiments — participants were less likely to be enticed into soliciting more information if the message communicated that the system was rigged.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that telling people the system is rigged diminishes their sense of political efficacy, their perception that what they say and do counts in some meaningful way, and reduces their trust in government.

Indeed, if the process is corrupt, or the rich are buying elections, why bother to vote? It won’t make any difference.

Such sentiments were expressed by participants in focus groups we conducted among unregistered progressives before last year’s election. Believing the fix was in, participants wondered aloud why voting was even worth their time. If it’s “fixed,” there really is no reason.

Viewing the system as corrupt, they also wanted to avoid registering so as to prevent themselves from being polluted by the process.

And why trust a corrupt government to do important things?

Critics on the left, like Ralph Nader, as well as those on the right, have long trafficked in disdain for government. After reading their missives, why would anyone support government programs?

Conservatives are happy with those results. Their interests are served when voters don’t trust their government to deal with important problems and when fewer people vote.

As Democrats continue to debate last year’s election, it’s worth recognizing that the dialogue can impact the future results.

No Democrat seeks to reduce turnout or make it harder for government to solve problems, but that can be the unintended consequences of their words.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years and as President of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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