Politics in the Age of Big Data

Poll-assisted pandering has not made us any better off.
– Jonah Godberg, in Politics in the Age of Big Data

Am I the only one thinks it’s bizarre that we spend so much time fretting over how much government agencies can know about us, but we don’t seem to care a bit about how much the politicians who run those agencies know about us?

Big Data is in its infancy, but focus groups, polling, and other kinds of market research have been staple tools of political consultants for decades. Pop quiz: Have these techniques yielded better, more responsive, or more representative politicians and public policies?

Maybe we’re doing it wrong? The dirty secret behind gridlock is that all of these seemingly constipated politicians are doing exactly what the market research tells them their customers — i.e., the voters — want them to do.

What if politicians didn’t have access to focus groups and ZIP-code analysis? What if we had no exit polls telling us what the chief concern of married Asian-American males in Portland is?

What if politicians were expected to make decisions based on what they think is right, informed by their principles, their analysis of the issues, and from actually talking to constituents — and not from an analysis of what a dozen people say in a dimly lit room in a shopping mall with men in suits taking notes behind a two-way mirror?

The Founding Fathers didn’t take a poll. Nor did Abraham Lincoln. Modern — though still rudimentary — polling began in the 1930s. Have our politics really gotten better as a result of ever more sophisticated poll-assisted pandering?

People say the only poll that matters is on Election Day, but it’s not true anymore. Maybe it should be again.

He also says this about the president’s comment that he heard the 2/3 of the country that was silent this time:

In a sense, this is the last piece of the puzzle to click into place for the president’s Nixonian transformation.

Spy on reporters? Check. Bomb a country (or two) without authorization from Congress? Check. Issue dubious claims of executive privilege to conceal embarrassments or prevent scandals? Check. Withdraw from — and lose — an unpopular war he didn’t start? Check. Corrupt IRS? Check. Imperial presidency? Check.

One of the last things on the list was to insist that the silent majority of Americans is really on his side. Of course, Nixon’s “silent majority” actually voted. Obama’s, not so much. Nixon’s silent majority was also actually on his side. Obama’s silent majority isn’t, at least according to polls. If the majority of Americans agreed with him, a majority of Americans wouldn’t disapprove of him.

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