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Democracy Is Not a Psychology Experiment

12:05 PM, Sep 21, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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So if you're politically attuned and on Twitter, you've probably seen these disturbing photos of Obama supporters pledging allegiance to the president of the United States. Supporters write on their hands some value or thought that is allegedly embodied by the Obama campaign. It's the kind of thing that used to be very punk rock back when people used sharpies to adorn themselves with antiestablishment messages rather than suck up to the leader of the free world.

Here's Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, getting into the act:

Now, in case you had any doubt, this is an officially astroturfed campaign tactic -- not a spontaneous showing of support from Obama voters. So why are they doing this?

There's a new book out that's being talked about a lot in political circles, The Victory Lab: The Science of Winning campaigns by Sasha Issenberg. I'm in the process of reading it myself, and it's very enjoyable and enlightening so far. The book is all about the "cutting edge persuasion experiments, innovative ways to mobilize voters, and statistical models predicting the behavior of every voter in the country."

But the main reason I recommend reading The Victory Lab is because I believe voters should be forewarned about how campaigns are going to try and manipulate them. While some of these cutting-edge campaign techniques are benign, I find the grand experiments in behavioral manipulation insidious and just plain creepy. (In this respect, the reaction to the Messina photo may be more hurtful than helpful to the Obama campaign.)

And that's exactly what this pledge to Obama nonsense is. The campaign is running a psychological experiment on its supporters to forge some sort of emotional commitment to the president, and to create an artificial sense of obligation to vote for him. 

Peer pressure is also an exceedingly useful thing to force people to conform to a preordained conclusion, which is why the Obama campaign has an app that allows you to see which of your neighbors are Democrats. Nothing disturbing about that at all, no siree.

Of course, it's not just Obama. Many high level campaigns in both parties are trying to employ behavioral psychology--in particular, they're sending a lot of seemingly odd and manipulative messages via direct mail these days.

But the Obama campaign has been far more brazen about this than most, and aside from creeping me out, I find it actually disdainful of the autonomy and dignity that every American is supposed to feel when entering the voting booth. Democracy is important. It should not be viewed as an experiment in psychological manipulation, and it's certainly not one that you as a voter should feel obligated to participate in.

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