The Rhetoric of “Rigged”

In a recent piece published in The Guardian, “experts” express their fears and concerns about Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the potential for a “rigged” election. According to these experts, Trump’s claim that election results may be illegitimate because of a system supposedly rife with voter fraud is alarming for a multitude of reasons. First, they posit that it is simply bad for democracy to consistently tell voters that their votes are meaningless and that they are actually powerless in the election process, particularly when there is a lack of evidence supporting any “rigging” at all. Second, they worry that such alarmist rhetoric may encourage illegal and harmful voter intimidation.

However, what is particularly interesting about this article is that it discusses the exact same type of rhetoric that campaign finance “reform” activists use on a daily basis. And ironically, some prominent “reformers” even take the opportunity to chime in on the toxic nature of this type of rhetoric. The campaign finance reform lobby relies on convincing voters that they are in fact powerless and that their votes are meaningless because elections are supposedly won and lost according to how much is spent by moneyed interests on the candidates of their choice. In fact, the same activist groups that consistently push this rhetoric also claim that their favored regulatory policies are necessary in order to restore public trust in government.

Aside from the fact that enacting more stringent campaign finance regulations has been shown to have no effect on public perceptions of corruption, it is worth considering that maybe people believe that the system is corrupt because dozens of nonprofits are spending millions of dollars every year to convince people of this symptom in order to gain popular support for their proposed restrictions on political speech.

One reform activist quoted in the article states that the type of rigging Trump is speaking about “is virtually nonexistent and is a myth that has been used to justify” certain legal restrictions that this activist apparently views as undemocratic and unconstitutional. Sounds familiar. Using myths to drum up discontent in order to justify restrictions on constitutional rights is the name of the game for the entire reform movement. The claim that “money buys elections” is, in fact, nothing more than a myth used to instill anger and discontent that can be transformed into support for more stringent restrictions on political speech. Money cannot buy elections. Money can only buy speech in an attempt to influence electoral outcomes. Elections are won and lost according to votes, and voters do in fact hold the power.

If these self-proclaimed “good government” groups really cared about empowering average voters, they would stop preaching to them ad nauseam that their voting decisions are nothing more than the result of how many times they see an ad supporting or opposing a particular candidate. The type of electoral “rigging” that reformers speak of has nothing to do with unlawful corruption or cheating of any kind. Their myth of a rigged system is based on the assumption that average voters are mindless sheep incapable of producing their own opinions on pertinent policy issues, and therefore vote according to the message that is shouted at them most frequently and loudly. It is odd that the groups claiming to save democracy seem to have very little faith in the legitimacy of democracy in the first place.

The stated fear of this type of rhetoric leading to intimidation and harassment has played out time and again as a result of the rhetoric of the reform lobby. Now that the reform movement has seemingly gained a critical mass of believers in their “money buys elections” and “our system is rigged” myths, politicians have taken notice and begun to publicly ridicule private citizens as a means of delegitimizing the candidate or cause that the donor has chosen to support. Take for instance Harry Reid’s obsession with the Koch brothers or the fact that one candidate has taken it upon herself to directly challenge donors instead of her actual opponent. Just like voter intimidation, donor intimidation is bad for democracy. It takes the focus away from the actual candidates and issues, and it chills speech.

The fact that so-called “reformers” have taken the time to criticize their own methods is refreshing. But sadly, it is clear that they fail to realize they are looking in the mirror. Reformers will continue to use this rhetoric, and the Center for Competitive Politics will continue to provide the facts.