Illusion of Democracy


The structure and substance of the e-mails concerning political voting are almost identical. The e-mails start with a request for information about the recipient’s opinions, wrapped with a compliment—your opinion is SO important. As no payment is made or perhaps even if payment is made the notices continue.

The continuous notices include continuous shrieking of a disaster. Thus, the messages include: (i) disaster (ii) compliments to the recipient on his or her importance and (3) request for money which can be also attractive—a few cents—like the old song: “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime.”

The questionnaire presumably makes the recipient feel important. See how important I am? I am asked for my opinion! My opinion counts! To be sure, the purpose could also be to take a census to ascertain the name of the followers and heed their preferences.

However, no message ends with a request for an opinion. Or: “we are nose to nose with the opponent.” Usually the numbers do not show a lost case: 80 to 20. The number shows a very small difference: 49.8 to 50.2. We are almost there; but not quite.

Request for Money

This shrieking is followed by a request for money! The request is quite interesting as well. The amounts are not left to the donor but are given numbers. The numbers range from s very small amount: 50 cents, to hundreds and thousands.

The message does not contain any word about the substance of the disagreement among the different candidates. The names are all that is needed, or that seem to matter. Besides, the assumption is that the recipient of the message has already made his or her decision and choice. That was the purpose of the initial request for the recipient’s opinion. The amounts are not necessarily the most important items. What seems to be important is getting the recipient into the habit of payment.

At the end of this e-mail or shortly thereafter comes another e-mail that shrieks: a DISASTER! Nothing could be more awful. “The opponents got or will get more votes.” Why is this conclusion almost inevitable? First, the messages continue to come, regardless of payment or non-payment. This persistence is also understandable: sending a thousand such messages by e-mail does not involve the cost of mailing messages or telephoning the recipients. So pouring the e-mails can be relatively costless and continuous.

A change in the words emphasizing the warning of a close disaster and other similar shrieking is not very costly either. If the amounts donated are small, the chances are that the recipient of the messages would have either forgotten the payment or is moved to add to it. That is why dribbling 50 cents may sometimes bring more, specially if you get continuous shrieks wrapped in dollar requests.

In sum: a political campaign, like advertising for any product, is costly. To be sure, as in the past, the candidate traveled to meet people in person. Advertising by e-mail may be a less costly addition, but not necessarily a substitution to meeting the people. E-mails and appearances on television are new additions. Of course, opponents could do the same, and the balance may remain more equal. But the view of voting for the rulers as similar to payment is.

This note does not purport to judge in any way, the financial costs of publicizing one’s ideas and convincing large populations to follow one’s political views. However, it may well be that the form of political advertising by e-mails has been following the form of selling products, ideas, or information, to either inform or convince the recipients to buy or follow.

Distinguish the Messages

In that case, we should be careful to distinguish the messages of buying things and ideas from buying our rulers. We can throw out a pair of uncomfortable shoes. We could change our minds regarding theories and proposed practice. Throwing out uncomfortable and unusable rulers may be far more costly and dangerous to our way of life. Let us distinguish the way political proponents advertise, and be wary of how we respond to their advertising.

Tamar Frankel
Professor of Law Emerita
Boston University School of Law

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