Politics Is Downstream From Culture

In order to really understand Cambridge Analytica, you have to get beyond the outrage of how they tapped into the Facebook data of millions of Americans. This video of Christopher Wylie, former employee and now whistleblower, is helpful in understanding exactly what the company was all about.

One of the phrases that is often used to describe the role of Cambridge Analytica in elections is “micro-targeting,” which actually began back in the 1960s when campaigns targeted their issue advertising to specific voters. As Wylie explains in the video above, CA went way beyond micro-targeting and attempted to target voters as personalities. Here’s how McKenzie Funk described their process of collecting Facebook data for those purposes:

Do you panic easily? Do you often feel blue? Do you have a sharp tongue? Do you get chores done right away? Do you believe in the importance of art?

If ever you’ve answered questions like these on one of the free personality quizzes floating around Facebook, you’ll have learned what’s known as your Ocean score: How you rate according to the big five psychological traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. You may also be responsible the next time America is shocked by an election upset.

In the video above, Wylie describes Steve Bannon’s interest in all of this at about the 3:40 mark. He says that Bannon follows what has become known as the Andew Breitbart doctrine: “Politics is downstream from culture.” The point is that, if you want to change politics, you have to first change the culture. You might remember that we recently heard the same thing from Dana Loesch (former Breitbart writer) in her speech at CPAC. Here is how Peter Beinart summarized her speech.

In 15 minutes, she barely mentioned the legislative process. Instead, she mostly discussed the ways in which journalists and corporations defame and persecute the supporters of gun rights…Finally, near the end of the speech, as if to explain its focus, Loesch declared, “Always remember, always … politics is downstream from culture. It’s going to happen in culture first before it happens in politics.”

Dan McLaughlin summed the idea up this way:

1. People’s political opinions are mostly not thought-out or analytical so much as an expression of what they think is valuable, cool, scary, smart, stupid, impressive to their friends.

2. People generally put more of their hearts and free time into cultural pursuits – from mass media and video game consumption to churches, schools, museums, gun clubs, bowling leagues, etc. – than political ones, so the attitudes that pervade the the larger spaces of their lives affect the smaller ones, not just in what they believe but who they know and trust.

3. Young people in particular are much more into getting their values and their “facts” from cultural rather than explicitly political sources.

In discussing how to change the culture, Lawrence Meyers wrote this at Breitbart back in 2011:

Our lives — indeed, our very species — has storytelling wound into our DNA. From the earliest cave drawings, man has expressed himself in terms of story. Ancient civilizations understood that stories are vital to understanding our place in the world, so much so that they codified storytelling and found base rules that form it. Oral histories are a part of every culture across the globe.

Stories instill moral and ethical values. They place joy and tragedy in context. They preserve cultures. At their best, they deliver the secrets and meanings of life…

Thus we come to politics. Given the influence that story has on our everyday lives, and that popular culture is barraging us with story on a regular basis, we must remain ever vigilant as to the messaging in those stories.

What I find fascinating is that this is the same thing community organizer Marshall Ganz has been saying for years now. President Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau picked up the theme as the 2016 presidential election was getting underway.

Every election is a competition between two stories about America. And Trump already knows his by heart: He is a celebrity strongman who will single-handedly save the country from an establishment that is too weak, stupid, corrupt, and politically correct to let us blame the real source of our problems—Muslims and Mexicans and Black Lives Matter protesters; the media, business, and political elites from both parties.

Trump’s eventual opponent will need to tell a story about America that offers a powerful rebuke to the demagogue’s dark vision for the future.

One thing liberals should take from all of this is that, whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of a culture war. Back in March 2016, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopolous wrote about the brand of conservatism being peddled in that battle.

The conservative instinct…includes a preference for homogeneity over diversity, for stability over change, and for hierarchy and order over radical egalitarianism. Their instinctive wariness of the foreign and the unfamiliar is an instinct that we all share – an evolutionary safeguard against excessive, potentially perilous curiosity – but natural conservatives feel it with more intensity. They instinctively prefer familiar societies, familiar norms, and familiar institutions.

An establishment Republican, with their overriding belief in the glory of the free market, might be moved to tear down a cathedral and replace it with a strip mall if it made economic sense. Such an act would horrify a natural conservative. Immigration policy follows a similar pattern: by the numbers, cheap foreign workers on H1B visas make perfect economic sense. But natural conservatives have other concerns: chiefly, the preservation of their own tribe and its culture.

For natural conservatives, culture, not economic efficiency, is the paramount value.

The job of Cambridge Analytica was to identify what these writers call “natural conservatives” and target them with information that would appeal to those instincts. That is why it went way beyond what we have traditionally thought of as micro-targeting and instead became what Wylie refers to as a cultural weapon in a full-service propaganda machine.

In response, liberals must recognize that a singular focus on policies will ultimately fail. In order to be successful, they must get upstream of politics and engage in, as Favreau said, telling their story of America. As an example, here is how Barack Obama did that during his now-famous speech at the 2004 Democratic convention:

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

Contrary to the “natural conservative” instincts, that story taps into our equally important instincts for compassion, fairness and belonging. While it is important to curb the abuses of social media as much as possible, it is also important to challenge the message that has been weaponized to divide us with a culture war.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.