Skewing the perspective in Colorado.

Latest Political Dirty Trick: Duping the Expert

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Over at the Washington Post's Monkey Cage, political scientist Seth Masket tells how he wound up in a campaign film in Colorado. Someone asked him for an interview, he checked, and the project seemed legitimate. It turned out it was a propaganda effort by Citizens United, the right-wing group famous for attack videos on Democrats and liberals as well as for the Supreme Court case on campaign finance.

Seth's neutral, relatively boring comment about how Latino voters were increasing in number in Colorado was put in a context that seemed to lend his professorial authority to contentious claims about Democratic plots to increase illegal immigration.

His experience shows how irresponsible activism can damage the political process for everyone. Seth isn't likely to say yes to the next perfectly legitimate interview request from someone without well-established credentials; neither are a lot of political scientists who read Seth's story. That's bad news for up-and-coming freelancers, readers and almost everyone but the establishment press.

And for what? Whenever I see these things, my first instinct is to think they are more about raising money than about influencing voters. Meaning they are basically political scams intended to part gullible partisan rubes from their hard-earned dollars. It's unlikely an extended "campaign" film will persuade the persuadable or even mobilize marginal supporters to get to the polls; the main goal, it seems, is to mobilize donations.

Not much can be done about this kind of sleazy tactic. It isn't the government's job to police campaign speech to preserve the public arena for "real" electioneering, or to protect Seth Masket's reputation from having his words used in a context he wouldn't have liked.

There is one injured group here which could try to do something: the Republican Party. Republicans have an interest in maintaining the party's reputation with academics and with the "neutral" press. The party is harmed whenever Republican donors are diverted from more productive uses -- as it is, in my view, whenever a demagogic pitch crowds out principled conservative arguments or whatever message candidates want to run on (and, yes, there are plenty of sincere politicians in both parties).

Alas, we know the drill: Few in the Republican Party are willing to take on this kind of duplicity, either because they believe that demagogic tactics help the party (which I think is a mistaken view) or because they fear reprisals (correctly).

At any rate, it stinks.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net