You Can’t Afford To Help My Campaign

If progressives want something to fret about today–as an Ash Wednesday hairshirt or just a regular reminder of the obstacles they face–I wouldn’t mess with any of the Jebbie-fests that are so strangely abundant today. I’d read this piece from Cornell government professor Adam Seth Levine, and then maybe weep a bit:

It turns out that political messages that mention economic insecurity often have the opposite effect from what we might expect: Those who are most likely to benefit are the ones least likely to act.

For many people, even those who have longstanding concerns about an issue, the decision to spend scarce time or money on advocacy depends on the kind of information that jumps out at them from a specific appeal to action.

Reminding people of the financial constraints that they face or could face, from layoffs to threats to Medicare, reduces their perception that they can afford to contribute money. If they are in the labor force, it also undercuts their willingness to spend time.

It’s one of those research findings that immediately strike you as intuitively correct. And Levine finds that the negative impact of informing people about their own economic security is quite large–reducing (for those in the workforce) a willingness to donate time by an average of two-thirds.

There’s a silver lining, though: people who aren’t themselves economically insecure are positively motivated by information on the economic insecurity of others. And retirees are very willing to donate time when so motivated.

I suspect this finding, and the logic behind it, will make its way into the calculations of Democratic candidates this and next year.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.