August 22, 2016

An accusatory adjective for a purportedly stacked-deck process that plays into the populism flourishing across the political spectrum.

“Rigged” may be the dominant word of this election. Donald Trump uses it often to refer to what he warns might be the outcome in November, in addition to the earlier GOP primary process, the economic system and the Justice Department investigation that failed to indict Hillary Clinton.

Clinton has invoked it, too. “The economy is rigged in favor of those at top,” she declared earlier this year. And it was a byword of Bernie Sanders and his supporters about the primaries that eventually gave Clinton the nomination, though Sanders later backed off in favor of another blunt word: “dumb.” 

“The word ‘rigged’ graces every noun in sight,” MTV News’ Jaime Fuller observed several months ago. “It's the ‘salted caramel’ of the 2016 presidential primary — it might have made sense to flavor things with it in the beginning, until you see Salted Caramel Pringles on the shelf and wonder what the word even means anymore.”

The repeated accusation that so many state officials could collude to rig an election, President Obama and those who study such processes have emphasized, not only is unthinkable but has dangerous implications.

“I do not know if American democracy will survive this bizarre election year, but if it does not make it, I can predict the cause of death,” said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Kansas’ Emporia State University. “The smoking gun will be the growing, highly toxic, self-serving and baseless belief that whenever one’s favored candidate, party or issue loses an election, it must be because ‘the system’ was ‘rigged’ by the winning side.”

How did it get this way? In a word, populism – the belief among ordinary citizens that an establishment dominated by “elites” is controlling things to the citizens’ detriment.

“This campaign has turned into the Year of the Populist — or, at least, candidates who want to sound like populists,” the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus said.

Populism has been around for centuries and has taken hold, in different forms, on both the right and left. What distinguishes it these days, experts say, is how politicians such as Trump and Sanders have amplified some of its older traditions – particularly instilling a sense of “it’s us against them” in followers -- through Twitter, Facebook and other social media. At the same time, those politicians’ fiery, no-holds-barred rhetoric has drawn nonstop coverage from click- and viewer-hungry traditional news outlets.

“Media can no longer be treated as a side issue when it comes to understanding contemporary populism,” said Benjamin Moffitt, a research fellow in political science at Sweden’s University of Stockholm, in his new book The Global Rise of Populism.

Moffitt said the media play a role in one of populism’s distinguishing features – perpetuating a sense of crisis. He said populists, or those using such rhetoric, achieve this through a series of steps:

  • Identifying a failure.
  • Elevating that failure to the level of a crisis.
  • Framing the debate in a way that pits “the people” against those seen as responsible for the crisis.
  • Using the media to make their case.
  • Demanding “simple solutions and strong leadership.”

Saying that an institution or system is rigged is invoking a crisis. It’s a powerful word that “conjures up invisible actors pulling strings behind the scenes,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California-Berkeley and author of numerous books on American language.

“Of course, every system has its built-in biases, so that losers may feel that the system is rigged against them,” Nunberg said. “But the claims usually sound more plausible when the losers are the little guys — retail investors, third-party candidates — than powerful players like insurance companies or the candidates of major parties. Coming from them, ‘rigged’ sounds like an admission of incompetence.”

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