No, David, Knowing Stuff Doesn’t Spoil Politics

It’s been a good long while since I’ve taken a shillelagh to one of those ripe David Brooks columns that seizes on a nice-sounding but dubious premise and rides it into incoherence. His latest entry complains about the use of data in politics. It’s spoiling everything, he says:

Data-driven politics is built on a philosophy you might call Impersonalism. This is the belief that what matters in politics is the reaction of populations and not the idiosyncratic judgment, moral character or creativity of individuals.

Huh? When’s the last time you saw a campaign driven by “the idiosyncratic judgment, moral character or creativity of individuals?” How would that work?

Data-driven politics assumes that demography is destiny, that the electorate is not best seen as a group of free-thinking citizens but as a collection of demographic slices. This method assumes that mobilization is more important than persuasion; that it is more important to target your likely supporters than to try to reframe debates or persuade the whole country.

According to this theory, we may not be all alike, or much of anything alike, and we may not think alike, but by God, our candidates will refuse to represent us other than as “the whole country.” Who’s actually done this, David?

Well, at one point we’re told about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jerry Brown, who were (and in Brown’s case, still is) presumably too quirky to microtarget anybody. But then later in Brooks’ essay it’s FDR and Ronald Reagan (note the false equivalence here), who could “reframe debates and envision coalitions that don’t exist,” which wouldn’t have happened if they’d had access to voter files.

Oh brother. Mystification aside, FDR and Ronald Reagan both took advantage of big realignments that would have happened with or without their particular “creativity.” Midwestern farmers and urban Catholics had been on the edge of flooding to the polls under the Democratic banner for a decade prior to 1932; the Great Depression unmoored them en masse. FDR understood this and took advantage of it; he didn’t create it. I feel quite certain he would have aggressively used today’s slicing and dicing techniques to great effect.

And I know we are supposed to believe the Sainted Reagan embodied America Itself at a crucial moment when our citizenry had lost faith blah blah blah blah. Truth is Reagan benefitted no less than did FDR from the “reaction of populations”–notably white southerners and midwestern Catholics and a bit later young people–to events and to the very well targeted dog-whistles at which Ronnie excelled.

What’s most astounding is that Brooks doesn’t seem to acknowledge that data-driven politics isn’t just a matter of doing a poll or two, choosing a swing demographic, and then running tens of million dollars of ads conveying “cookie cutter” messages. At its best, data enables campaigns to create a feedback loop with voters and shift an ever-greater percentage of campaign messaging to people communicating with each other–neighbors, family members, friends and colleagues–via the media they use for non-political interactions.

I’d say that’s more “creative” and a lot less dangerous than relying on the political system to produce Great Leaders who somehow understand the National Essence–the Volk is how the Germans used to express it long before Hitler–and refuse to meet us where we actually are.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.