Obama Surfs the Demographic Wave, But Through Target Marketing (the Use of Big Data), Not Reason

Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Center Holds, on President Obama and the 2012 election, was recently reviewed in The New York Times, and there are some revelations in it:

[Alter] thinks the United States “dodged a bullet in 2012,” and that in re-electing Barack Obama and rejecting the Republicans’ “extremist” views, America reaffirmed its identity as an essentially “centrist nation.”

Toward the end of this volume, Mr. Alter quotes Mr. Obama telling an aide that if he lost, his presidency would be “a footnote” and that “all of the progress we made in the first four years would be reversed”; if he won, his first-term achievements would be cemented for a generation and he could move ahead on promises sidetracked by the recession.

And how does the President mean to advance his agenda, both near-term and long-term? By big data and the Chicago machine turned into a permanent fixture of American politics:

[B]ig data helped the campaign figure out what worked and what didn’t (for a while, e-mails with yellow backgrounds “generated 10 to 20 percent” more responses than those with white backgrounds) and assess the ever-shifting metrics of the contest. Some 4,000 to 9,000 phone calls a night were placed to voters in battleground states, Mr. Alter says, providing “the campaign high command” with “a 360-degree view of the state of the race.” Facebook was used for “supporter mobilization” and cable television data was employed to help micro-target ad buys. A mobile app, “Quick Donate,” Mr. Alter reports, “raised an extra $75 million by letting supporters give money with one click instead of filling out a form.”

This state-of-the-art campaign machine would help insure that Mr. Obama won a second term. After the election, Mr. Alter says, the Obama for America campaign was reincarnated as a group called Organizing for Action. With more than 20 million e-mail addresses in its database, Organizing for Action “would try to make the 2012 Chicago machine a permanent force in American politics, applying money, analytics, door-knocking, and the rest of the magic formula to advancing the president’s agenda.”

In other words, Obama has set in place the apparatus for Democrats to, by systematic trial-and-error, ride the demographic wave that is emerging in their favor. Whatever else happens going forward, President Obama, our first African-American president, has a legacy. And the Republicans were not able stop him. To this extent, it’s great.

But there’s a problem. The progressive elements of Obama’s legacy are being secured by a very low vision of the rationality of the electorate–a vision focused on the use of big data for micro-targeting people with subconsciously manipulative messages (both in style and content). Look at the below sentence in the NYT article again. It’s troubling:

[B]ig data helped the [Obama] campaign figure out what worked and what didn’t (for a while, e-mails with yellow backgrounds “generated 10 to 20 percent” more responses than those with white backgrounds) and assess the ever-shifting metrics of the contest.

You can be sure that this “Chicago machine” model of big data usage will be replicated by the Republicans in future elections. What Chomsky and others have thus called “the manufacture of consent”–the elite manipulation of the masses in a democracy through marketing and propaganda (are they really different?)–has gotten quite the ramp up with the 2012 election, and so will also be part of Obama’s legacy.

And this should make us all uncomfortable. Yes, like The Road Runner with Coyote, Obama has outmaneuvered his right-wing opponents, and those of us who love Obama (like me) have plenty of reasons to cheer. But at what cost? Is The Road Runner now big data used by elites to manipulate the electorate ever more efficiently, and are those of us who want a more rational and Enlightenment oriented democracy the hapless Coyote chasing after an ideal that, for the foreseeable future, must elude us?

And can we, in part, thank Obama for this?

Perhaps the masses will always be asses, and elite contempt for them is justified. Perhaps the political goal of free will, critical thinking, serious debate, and vulnerable dialogue combined with democracy has always been a utopian delusion born of religious assumptions that are not grounded in reality. Perhaps we don’t have free will, and strict determinism is true. Perhaps people behave the way they do almost exclusively because they are perversely irrational, and are, in any case, largely immune to arguments that might counter their prejudices. Perhaps most attention spans are nominal and will always be so. Perhaps, therefore, serious debate and dialogue must necessarily give way in major elections to micro-targeted marketing and entertainment (style over substance). If so, what fools so many of us have been.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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