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Blame Google for America's dysfunctional democracy
Tech could make government more responsive — so why isn't that happening?
 
Voter information that's easily accessible to campaigns online has been revolutionary.
Voter information that's easily accessible to campaigns online has been revolutionary. (Frank Polich/Getty Images)

New technologies, which have the potential to make our government more inclusive and responsive, are instead being adopted and applied in ways that challenge the very functioning of our democratic system.

How? Start with your Google account, if you have one. In Google's Ad Settings page. you'll find a list of "interest categories," assigned to you based on the websites you visit.

Political campaigns make use of this kind of rich profile every time they purchase advertising from Google or from its competitors. It allows campaigns to buy advertising targeting (for example) 25-34 year old women in Iowa interested in "Babies and Toddlers" prior to the Iowa caucuses.

Additionally, campaigns have rich profiles of their own. These are built by combining the voter-registration and voter-history information — which campaigns have relied on for years — with information bought wholesale from data brokers as well as mailing list and donor information from campaigns, PACs, and parties.

The availability of these rich profiles — whether owned by the campaign or accessible through service providers — has changed campaign strategy and tactics.

Changing campaigns

Imagine you live in a small town and one day a woman stops you on the street. After she introduces herself, she tells you that she is running for mayor. She then tells you about her background, what qualifies her to be mayor, and what her three top priorities would be if she were elected.

She could infer a few things about you from your appearance — your age, your gender, something about your ethnicity — but only superficial things. She couldn't tailor her message to you except in overbroad ways because she couldn't know what statements would persuade you as an individual to vote for her.

Now suppose the candidate knew, because of some constellation of points in a rich profile of you, that you would disagree strongly with her top two priorities, but her third priority would win you over. In that case, she would change her message to you to focus on that one issue.

Message targeting happens today — online, in direct mailings and robocalls, and through canvassers — and for campaigns, it is a revolution. Whether they are using Rovian "anger points" or simply identifying long-tail issues, it increases the share of voters that a campaign can win at the polls.

The net effect of this kind of targeting is to detach politics from the central challenge of governing: setting priorities.

Promises without priorities

Priorities create winners and losers, and for a politician the only thing more dangerous than articulating priorities is actually accomplishing them. If a politician accomplishes all of her priorities, at best, those voters who don't agree with all of them won't turn out for her again. At worst, they'll work to unseat her.

This is why Members of Congress view votes on spending bills as so perilous; they are distilled expressions of priorities.

So, if political messages are broadcast, priorities are implicit: Just consider what the candidate is talking about, and what the candidate is not talking about. But if political messages are narrowcast, priorities are obscured: The candidate is only talking to you about the issue that will get you to vote for her.

In other words, instead of building a single platform to attract a large number of voters, message targeting allows campaigns to attract voters one by one. The former is a challenge of leadership and compromise, the latter is a challenge of technology — one that the parties are taking very seriously.

But a politician should be doomed if her electoral victory were built on countless irreconcilable promises. How could she possibly not disappoint her supporters — they all want different things! Next election cycle, they'd boot her out of office.

That is, unless she can shift her supporters' disappointment off of her and onto something else, such as institutional dysfunction.

Desirable dysfunction

The decline of priority setting and the rise of institutional dysfunction are mutually reinforcing: Dysfunction becomes desirable because it removes checks on political campaigns' messaging.

The less electoral victories are predicated on coherent priorities, the less direction and authority the politician has to act, and the more dysfunctional the system becomes. The more dysfunctional the system becomes, the less blame voters can rationally place on individual politicians, and the more aggressively campaigns can divide their messaging.

This problem is compounded when you consider that every political campaign competes not just for votes, but for money as well. Message targeting allows campaigns to divide messaging to voters and obscure priorities. With obscured priorities, politicians are able to treat voters and donors as two different classes for governing — which they certainly do today.

Conclusion

When James Madison argued in Federalist 10 that the United States should be a republic of elected representatives, not a direct democracy, he assumed that a direct democracy must be limited to a "small number of citizens" because they would have to "assemble and administer the government in person."

And at the time of the United States' founding, that assumption was valid. But today, it is not valid in fact or principle. Modern states have referendums, and the lengthy "talk" pages on Wikipedia, where editors duel about the substance and style of articles, demonstrate that deliberation and decision-making among large groups of people is not only possible, but pedestrian.

Even China, which lacks democratic institutions, is using technology to make its government more responsive. As David M. Lampton reported in Foreign Affairs this month, around 51,000 polling firms operate in China, many with government contracts, and that Beijing has begun using survey data to assess whether government officials deserve promotion. According to one Chinese pollster, "in the United States, polling is used for elections, but in China a major use is to monitor government performance. "

The new technologies that allow China to engage in such large-scale polling, that breaks Madison's assumption, and allow inclusive policymaking and responsive government, are fundamentally the same ones as those that allow campaigns to target messages to voters. It is large-scale communication and computation.

Yet in the U.S., new technologies are most eagerly being adopted in ways that challenge the functioning of our democratic institutions. Here, new technologies are not used to reveal and execute the will of the people, only to whisper in their ears.

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