The State of the Union and the end of persuasion

With his State of the Union address, President Obama combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics – big speeches and big data – to spur political action. Are we witnessing a reinvention of representative democracy?  

Children grow up learning that politics is the “art of persuasion.” Ideas, arguments and facts can clash through debate and lead to policy choices. Although Barack Obama’s prodigious oratorical skills recall politicians of centuries past, the purpose of his rhetoric is different. His goal is not to change minds but to identify all the people who already agree with him and painstakingly craft a governing majority out of their atomized preferences.

With his State of the Union address, President Obama combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics – big speeches and big data – to recreate spur political action.

President Bill Clinton’s aides once talked about a “permanent campaign,” but that seems laconic compared to Obama’s fusion of campaigning and governing. Organizing for America held  a conference call with Obama’s supporters after the speech, and Obama set  off on a three-city tour to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois – all states that voted for Obama but have Republican congressmen. The point of this flanking campaign is not to change minds but to mobilize voters.

This tactic, which seems to be the preferred one for his second term, is to frame the policy choices in a way that allows him to build a governing coalition. Each of his carefully chosen priorities – minimum wage, climate change, immigration, infrastructure, women’s rights, education and gun control – is designed not just to satisfy diverse interest groups but also to create a unified interest group out of the isolated individuals who make up modern America.

Armed with the latest thinking on behavioral psychology, political marketing and analytics, Obama’s campaign has moved toward a new era of micro-targeting. As Sasha Issenberg brilliantly shows in his book The Victory Lab, Obama’s team knows not only where its supporters live, shop and worship but even on which bus routes they travel, which video games their kids play and which TV personalities they respect.

After his first election in 2008, the Obamaniacs were demobilized and the databases were handed to the Democratic National Committee, which shifted focus to the midterm elections. This time, Obama has tapped the organizing genius Jon Carson, former director of the Office of Public Engagement in the White House, to create a permanent mobilization under the banner of “Organizing for Action.”

The intellectual roots of this new type of politics lie in part in the work of Obama’s former colleague at the University of Chicago, Cass Sunstein, who worked in the White House until last year. Together with Richard Thaler, he wrote the influential book Nudge, which sets out an alternative for encouraging particular behaviors in citizens and consumers. Their key idea is that it is easier to change people’s behavior than it is to change their minds. They argue that the “architecture of choice” matters as much as the deliberate preferences of individuals. In other words, decisions are influenced as much by how choices are presented as they are by data for or against each option. A simple example of the “nudges” they discuss is placing healthy foods in a school cafeteria at eye level, while putting less healthy foods above or below the eyeline. Children can still eat what they want, but the choice has been framed in a way that nudges them toward healthy food.

Obama’s team seems to be applying these ideas not just to the political process. It has tested many ways of delivering messages and of using peer pressure to get people out to vote. But it seems to be heading toward framing arguments on policy to appeal to existing biases rather than changing minds. In this world, the purpose of a big speech like last night was to use jobs and pay, women’s rights and other kinds of identity politics to frame the architecture of choice.

Ivan Krastev, one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, has analyzed what this phenomenon could do to democratic politics in his brilliant e-book In Mistrust We Trust. Krastev argues that in these new conditions, political combat is no longer about content but about engineering the architecture of choice. He argues that this new kind of politics has “expelled ideas and visions from politics and reduced electoral campaigns to the processing of big data and the application of distraction, customer targeting and simulating real political change while ultimately retaining the status-quo.” The net result, according to Krastev, is the paradox that the citizen has been simultaneously empowered (because her views are being listened to) and marginalized (because she can exist only as an atomized individual to be manipulated rather than as a potential agent of collective action).

Many commentators have bemoaned the lack of bipartisanship in Obama’s rhetoric, citing his speech as further evidence of America’s broken politics. But it is not politics that is broken, it is society. The big shapers of our everyday lives – the market economy and communications technologies – are destroying the old cohesive communities and replacing them with increasingly individualistic consumers. But to promote a progressive politics – where people are willing to pay for one another’s healthcare, education and security – Obama must try to counter the centrifugal forces at work in society. With his big speeches backed by “big data,” he has emerged as a master and a shaper of a new political environment. The data he uses allows him to knit together atomized individuals behind a collectivist agenda. It is about trying to engineer a sort of virtual community to replace the dying communities that used to emerge in factories or neighborhoods. As society shrinks, the data engineers are the only people capable of identifying interested parties. And it is the new role of the elite to stitch them together into patchwork coalitions on every issue.

As Obama set out his legislative agenda in perfectly formed stanzas last night, building up to a crescendo with his invocation of the victims of Newtown, he was doing more than appealing to his base. He was creating it.

Watching the State of the Union address – a European in Washington – I could not help thinking that I was witnessing a reinvention of representative democracy. The behavioral scientists have given us the theory, the analysts have created a technological basis for the new politics and Obama’s rhetorical brilliance covers the messy seams and lends beauty and elegance to this mechanical process.

The article first appeared on Reuters.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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