06/13/2012 03:07 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

Study: Message-Sending Out of Control

A Rand Corporation study released today finds that claiming someone has, should or will send a message has reached near-epidemic levels.

Among the examples cited in the study are comments by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and President Obama following Walker's victory in the state's recent recall election. Though they disagreed sharply on what the voters said, they were in absolute agreement that they had said it in a message, with Walker characterizing it as "the most powerful message" and Obama, with characteristic reserve, terming it a "strong message."

Rand says that sometimes those who specialize in ferreting out messages find more than one message in a single event. Thus, when a slate of candidates that was endorsed for election to the state senate by South Dakota's Governor was defeated, incumbent senator Tim Begalka said:

"I think the people sent a message that said leave us alone we're smart enough to make our own decisions... It's voters sending a message that we don't like the politics in Pierre and we want to send somebody fresh out there, that was at least part of the message in some of the districts."

Begalka promised reporters that he would get back to them if he found any other messages.

Rand also discovered a breed of message-sending whose existence scientists had theorized but never before observed: the sending of a message for the purpose of eliciting a message about whether a message has been sent.

The phenomenon manifested itself in connection with an edition of the NBC News program, "Rock Center," during which host Brian Williams reported that a father had fired a shot at the laptop computer of his daughter upon learning that she had complained on Facebook about the chores she was forced to perform at home.

Shortly after Williams' report, a message to viewers was posted on the CNBC website asking them to send a message that expressed their view of the father's conduct. One of the messages they were invited to endorse was, "YES, it was the right decision and sent a message about his daughter's behavior."

A Rand Fellow has been assigned to conduct further research.

The study identifies some in the public arena who lack the basic skills necessary to determine whether a message has been sent, much less what it contains. These individuals, says Rand, also tend to assume that every other person on the planet suffers from the same affliction. As a result, they often resort to directing potential message-senders to send a message and, as well, what the content of the message ought to be.

One example of this syndrome is found in the person of former Senator Rick Santorum, who, in his protracted quest for the Republican presidential nomination, displayed a unique inability to appreciate that America had sent him the message that it didn't want him to be president. Santorum, believing that America simply didn't know how to send a message or to say the right thing in the message, turned his campaign into a seminar on message-sending.

He directed Iowa primary voters to vote for him and "Send a message to the Man," "Send a message about what the heartland of America wants," and "Send a message to the world about family and faith." He told a group in Spokane, Washington to send a message to the "good old boys" of the Republican Party. And he instructed 275 people at a Holiday Inn in Marquette Michigan to "send a very clear and loud message from up here in the U.P. (Upper Peninsula), good conservative country."

Rand researchers found that Santorum scored an impressive 100 percent in telling voters to send a message. His record on specifying the message they should send fell in the 70-80 percent range. But he tripped up badly on the third and most important element: identifying the street addresses and zip codes of "the Man," "the world," the "good old boys" and whoever else he wanted voters to send a message to. This may explain why one of his last messages was a plea for $10 to help retire his campaign debt.

The practice of drawing the inference that a message has been sent because someone has done something that is not, in and of itself, the sending of a message, is not unique to this country. In Canada, for example, where messages are typically delivered by a reindeer wearing muck lucks, the president of the British Columbia Teacher's Union, reacting to an overwhelming vote of her membership against a government-sponsored bill eliminating after-school programs, declared in the strongest words available in her country without a prescription, "The vote sends a powerful message to government that they must rethink Bill 22... "

Greece is a different story. Message-sending has been a part of that democracy's DNA since 490 B.C., when the courier Philippides ran 24.85 miles from Marathon to Athens, uttered the word "Victory," then keeled over and died. It was generally agreed among those who witnessed the event that whoever told Philippides to run 24.85 miles had definitely been sending a message.

Over the centuries, the Greeks have perfected their ability to read the entrails of human conduct. A case in point arose in connection with the recent Greek parliamentary election, which produced no clear governing mandate for any party. Peering through the fog of fact, The National Herald, a Greek-American newspaper, defined with certainty what to make of the results: "The Greek Voters Sent a Message Loud and Clear: 'We Are Not Your Useful Idiots.'"

The Rand study goes beyond raising a red flag that democracy faces an existential threat. Rather than deferring to politicians and pundits to stop or impede out-of-control message-sending, they have proposed their own elegant solution.

The ballot, they say, is ground zero of the problem, and therefore any solution must focus on that seminal item in the democratic process. What they propose is a small but powerful addition to the ballot, one they are confident will eradicate the scourge forever. It reads:

"By casting this vote I affirm that I am just voting, not sending a goddamn message."