The Effort to Destroy Trust in Public Institutions

James O’Keefe is apparently continuing to work hard to convince Americans that their voting systems are insecure. His newest effort follows hot on the heels of his “success” in New Hampshire and his well-publicized efforts to discredit the DHHS system in Maine. (As it turns out, by looking at front-line DHHS caseworkers in Maine he chose the wrong target. He should have been secretly recording DHHS’s political appointees. That might have gotten us some interesting footage.)

It is quite evident from thorough studies of the subject that voting fraud — particularly in-person voting fraud — is not a problem we currently face. There is strong evidence that the only reason that the US has seen an unprecedented wave of bills to require additional forms of identification from voters at the polls is because this approach was suggested by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). O’Keefe’s flamboyant stings don’t fundamentally change the reality that voter fraud is not actually a problem. So what effect do these videos have?

I’m not worried about the deeply conservative voters (and organizations) who both agree with and fund his efforts. To some extent O’Keefe is contributing some bizarro-world confirmation of their perception of an inherently fraudulent voting system, since they have been trained away from trusting the mainstream media as a legitimate source of information. However, since this group’s underlying trust of the government is similarly weak-to-actively-negative, O’Keefe’s efforts don’t truly alter those opinions.

The biggest problem lies with people who are not active consumers of political information. This group is likely to fall more in the middle in terms of their degree of trust in government. Now, currently, people express a lot more trust in their state and local governments than they do in the federal government. Particularly when thinking about elections, which are put on by state and local governments, people are likely to draw on that trust to have confidence that the system they engage in is fair. However, this trust is not based on a lot of personal knowledge and experience. It’s what political scientist Robert Putnam calls “thin trust,” the idea that although you may not have a lot of personal experience with a group of people or an institution, you’re willing to believe that they’re basically honest. Though it seems insubstantial, this thin or weak trust is actually tremendously powerful stuff. It dramatically reduces transaction costs, since it requires substantially fewer resources to operate within the norm of reciprocal honesty than it does to verify every interaction.

Unfortunately, it is also relatively easy to destroy this trust. Providing salient counter-examples, like O’Keefe is attenpting to do, is basically a sledgehammer knocking away at that thin trust in state and local government. Even if he never actually demonstrates that there’s a real problem, where people hear about his video but not the effective state response or the lack of real-life fraud cases, he has eroded that trust. In addition, people are much more strongly influenced by anecdotes than they are by statistics, so the visual and narrative nature of what he’s doing is likely to be particularly effective with the casual consumer of political information.

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