Political campaigns have learned how to tailor their message to appeal to specific individuals yet once the votes are counted we all get the same government. This is a recipe for disappointment unless we as voters are realistic about this process.
The American political consultant Rick Riddler has an interesting article for Real Clear Politics. Essentially, he is worried about the ability of political campaigns to ‘micro-target’. This is essentially the application of techniques from the world of commercial marketing to politics such that:
by matching a voter’s Internet cookies to an enriched voter file, a campaign professional can easily direct a specific online message about GMOs in baby food to a female who is 45 and sometimes—but not always—buys organic foods, has a household income over $70,000 a year, recently bought baby clothes, and lives in a specific area. This message is delivered as a pop-up or banner advertisement on only her computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Riddler worries that this may be fueling disenchantment with politics. He suggests campaigns may have moved from offering “a chicken in every pot” to “a chicken in your pot” to “a chicken in your pot – seasoned just the way you like.” Riddler suggests this creates a dangerous rift between campaigning and governing:
As campaigns now appeal to each voter’s specific issues, fears, wants, and desires through highly targeted messaging, they perpetuate the myth that, once in office, the candidate will do exactly what the individual voter wants. Yet there is no way that any candidate or party can deliver on such precise expectations once the election is over.
Unlike the commercial world, big data allows customized communication for the voter but not by the voter. It is precisely this distinction that causes a dissonance in voter expectations. On the one hand, they are able to customize their phone, their car, and their wardrobe, and—they are led to believe—their political candidates. But this last impression is a myth. Although they courted voters during election season on this basis, once in office elected officials in our binary political system have a far less expansive menu of options.
Do I follow the party leadership on this bill or not? Is this legislation good for my district or not? Should I vote yea on the president’s budget (and nominees) or nay?
These have always been the choices faced by politicians. The difference today is that elected officials have conditioned their constituents to expect differently. It is no surprise, then, that Americans are increasingly distrustful and disdainful of political candidates and parties—even the ones they voted for. Once the election is over, they no longer have the illusion that politics caters to their individual needs. Lacking control, many grow disenchanted and disengaged, sometimes asserting their individualism by voting for unlikely-to-win third party candidates. More often, they stay home, which was one unsung part of the 2014 midterm narrative.
Amplifying this disenchantment and creating a trap for voter expectations is the recent hyping of the political communications business itself. In tactics that have made a prophet of Marshall McLuhan, the tools of political communication have determined the message voters receive. Since 2008, campaign operatives have subordinated the substance of their candidates’ messaging to their means of communication—to the micro-targeting, Twitter feeds, Internet advertising buys, the size and the enhancements of campaign databases, and even the number of volunteer “boots on the ground” they put in the field. These practices leave voters confused: Are they voting for a slick campaign operation or a candidate with policy goals and values?
In other nations, where multiple political parties thrive under parliamentary systems (and strict laws prohibit personal data collection), there has been a rise of new political parties that may come closer to exactly reflecting an individual’s policy and ideological preferences. Given the limited ability for third parties to thrive in the American political system, such a development is unlikely to occur in the United States. Even if it did, we’d need as many political parties as there are smartphone apps to mollify the voters whom the Republicans and Democrats have so assiduously spoiled.
Europeans and others who live in countries with multi-party systems might think these points apply less to them. And indeed, having more parties will potentially give voters a party that is closer in views to their own. But there are limits to this process. As Riddler highlighted in his final paragraph an almost infinite number of parties would be necessary before we could all have a party which perfectly aligned with our views. And more importantly the fundamental point about government remains unchanged: you can have more parties but there will still only be one government. And in a multi-party system forming and running that single government is almost certainly going to demand agreement between parties. Creating more parties does not eliminate the need for compromise: it just means that those compromises are made between rather than within parties.
And if that sounds to you a lot like a defence of Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and the principle of going into coalition then that’s as it should be: