The State of the Union and the end of persuasion

February 13, 2013

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 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. The group 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 have Republican governors. 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.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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“…this new kind of politics has “expelled ideas and visions from politics and reduced electoral campaigns to…distraction…and simulating real political change while ultimately retaining the status-quo.” “The net result…is…that the citizen has been…listened to…and..manipulated…”.

OK, so no more “ideas whose time has come”. Please. Watch not what they say, but what they do (or don’t do). Only one problem.

“We, the people” were given a choice of bad” or “worse” politicians, a majority of whom are proving to be traitors to the “American way of life” solely responsible for the relative plenty of our lives today. These jokers won’t enforce our laws and deport the 11+ million (and growing) illegal fence jumpers that stand ready, together with their legions of children to BURY US as the Soviet Union threatened but was unable to do.

If what they DO results in the ultimate failure of an economy that is increasingly a “nation” of TAKERS instead of productive workers, America is a lost cause. The “messy seams” of such process is more like Frankstein’s assembly, utterly lacking in “beauty” or “elegance” however mechanical.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Awesome opinion piece!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Working in the high tech industry, I can see that “Big Data” has a long way to grow yet too. Its power is far beyond what people are being lead to believe. As it is still in its infancy, it has yet to be noticed by authority or government. I think that’s why president Obama and other small groups have been able to use it effectively. You see, global corporations were the first to really understand the power of Big Data and how to use it. Political entities will have a much harder time getting the benefits of it as industry has a slightly different view on how it should be used, and is truly in control of it.
Information is power and influence. The scale of that statement jumped exponentially in the last fifty years. It is also poised to jump exponentially again well within the next fifty.
The power of Big data is already being leveraged to mature itself even faster. Though just a blip in time, I think it will be a sad day when surveillance devices are put directly into the average home. This is pretty much already complete with personnel devices, but the data is fragmented, to limited to “public” time. So it is not fully effective yet. That is being remedied quickly though as we can see by the announcements from Intel. Soon, virtually all electronic device will be contributors to the Big Data analysis buckets.
It will be interesting to see how the data is used in the global political arena.
A colleague of mine and I we discussing that the field of phycology has been hijacked. Psychological testing is now done by industry marketing, with almost immediate results. We can now run “what-if” scenarios with subsets of real market segments and gain actual immediate results. Major marketing campaigns are commonly adjusted as they are rolled out now. Much better “ROI”.
I hope the Chinese use this power in better ways than letting unfettered capitalism have it.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Obama is not a leader, he is a manager. A true leader would be able to take the country in a coherent direction, not attempt to manipulate the public. I consider this President to be divisive instead of cohesive, which may win an election or two, but will eventually catch up to the person. Obama may be termed out of office by then, but the cost to the country will be felt for many years.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

You have the assumption backwards.

As Ghandi apparently said, politics is NOT about convincing people to change their minds, but rather it is to get them to act on what they ALREADY know to be right.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Awesome article

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Well Mark, it’s 8pm Friday, some TWO DAYS since this piece went up.

I guess YOU don’t “welcome comments” quite as much as most on Reuters, considering your opinion remains without acknowledged comments or challenge. In my opinion, that effectively eliminates the usual interplay between respondents that “advances the story”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

they’ve been raising the minimum wage periodically for the last 50 years, if it were up to this guy, everyone would be making a dollar an hour and we’d be mexico. he goes on to use a bunch of big words and flowery language to make his point without backing it up with any numbers or studies. just another internet economist who’s wrong 99 percent of the time

Posted by jwws9999 | Report as abusive

The purpose of an electoral system is to be responsive to the people who vote. It is not to be quasi-religious, to listen to some “prophet” who has been communing with divinity via some channel like a “burning bush”. The world has been overrun by “visionaries” leading forced “conversions” to “true belief”, masquerading as “persuasion”. While principles are important and impressive, I much, much prefer a politician who is responsive to the voters.

This planet has had enough “Holy Wars”. If you want one, please stay away from me and get your hands out of my pockets. And keep your foot off my neck!

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive