Opinion

How Big Data sucked the soul out of Democratic politics

Being micro-targeted and emailed to death is no fun. Perhaps politicians should try a more old-fashioned strategy.

In discussing Sen. Mark Udall's depressing defeat with friends and family back in Colorado, one observation has stood out above all others: this campaign was without precedent in its awfulness.

Not in the sense of the candidates being mean to each other — it is a swing state, after all. But in the sheer unpleasantness of the election process, how everything related to the election was screechy and obnoxious and dispiriting.

After a five-day bike trip, some friends came back to 13 apocalyptic messages on their answering machine, all pre-recorded messages urging them to vote for this candidate or the other, on account of their opponent being an evil lizard person.

And then, as Democrats, they were hounded incessantly by the infamous Democratic email machine, which piteously howled for money lest liberals, minorities, and the poor be fed immediately into the wood chipper. Almost none of these emails highlighted the positive things that could be accomplished with a vote.

These strategies are all supported by quantitative analysis, of course. Apparently they really get the cash flowing! But they also manifestly failed to turn out Democratic voters; indeed, the 2014 election may well have had the lowest turnout in recent American history. With the rump electorate disproportionately old, rich, and white, a smashing Republican victory was the inevitable result.

Surely there are many factors at work here, a vast suite of voter suppression measures first among them. But Democrats also seem to be missing the forest for the trees. Consider an analogy: suppose that you're a manager of a retail store, and you commission an analysis about your customers' buying habits. The results indicate a slew of strategies you could use to juice sales. As Squarely Rooted explains:

When a customer touches an item, they are 27.4 percent more likely to purchase it, so employees are incentivized to hand items to customers. When a customer tries an item on, they are 17.1 percent more likely to purchase it, so employees are incentivized to encourage customers into the dressing rooms... When clerks recommend signing up for the store credit card, customers are 21.9 percent more likely to sign up for a card; when they ask again after an initial refusal, this time stressing the discounts, they are still 9.3 percent more likely to sign up for it. Cashiers are duly incentivized.

This is going to be great!, you think. But there is one thing you didn’t realize: everyone else is doing this too. And not just that, but each of these were measured in isolation, not in tandem. So what you and every other brick’n’mortar clothing retailer is collectively make shopping a miserable, pressure-filled, harrowing experience. [Squarely Rooted]

The application to politics is obvious. Leaping off a bunch of data-supported techniques that surely work well in isolation, the party hacks have made politics — as well as the party and its candidates — deeply irritating.

Furthermore, the ideological mindset of Big Data as applied to politics seems frankly undemocratic. Voters are seen as little more than subjects for scientific experimentation, with our data puppet-masters seeking the correct mix of nudges, focus-grouped slogans, and micro-targeted pitches to get voters to do what they want.

Here's a suggestion for Democratic candidates: why not offer a straightforward explanation of why your favored policies are actually good? It's true, as somebody always points out around election time, that average voters are astoundingly ignorant about basic political facts. But even ignorant people are pretty good at figuring out if someone is trying to pull one over on them. We all deserve the dignity of an honest political argument.

For Democrats preparing to run for office in 2016 and beyond, here's my advice: don't forget to explain why your policies are worth supporting. Data politics is perhaps a necessary evil, but booting up all the computers money can buy didn't do much for Democrats in the last two midterm elections. It's time for a change.

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