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OP-ED: Where Will Targeted Politics Take Us?

What happens when big data and artificial intelligence tools dominate humanity? Will a super-rational world be the result when resourceful leaders use these tools? We are in the midst of finding out.

Count me as a skeptic. The early stage of the experiment started years ago in politics. I had a front row seat and believe the results are not encouraging.

In the 1970s and ’80s, I worked with some very gifted political pollsters, strategists, and tacticians who were pushing the boundaries of targeted politics. My collaborations included helping friends in Missouri campaign for the U.S Senate and later Governor.

My closest relationship was with Bob Teeter, founder of Market Opinion Research. Bob’s experience primed him to lead the campaigns for both Presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush. Peripherally, I got to know George Gallup Jr and was fortunate to spend time with him talking about the predictive power of polling.

Political science had been my major and I had the pleasure of going beyond academics into the practical application of data science in winning elections. However, I’m worried to think of where the tools of today and tomorrow will take us.

The essence of political targeting is mostly exploitative. Passions are discovered and fed — moderation is left out. And when I use the term moderation, I mean the moderate voice.

Some years ago, Lay’s Potato Chips issued a tongue in cheek challenge: “Bet you can’t eat just one!” There is a political corollary. Once discovered, emotional positions are mined over and over.

In the 1970s, I was campaign manager for John C. Danforth, then Missouri’s Attorney General who was running for the U. S. Senate. Danforth was pro-life, but refused to use inflammatory fetus imagery to share his beliefs. Fundraising specialist, Richard Viguerie, believed Danforth would have limited success because of his refusal. He was right.

In today’s world, this story seems antique. Our current President specialized in inflammation and he won.

At the risk of brevity, The Philosophical Dictionary notes, that “According to Plato, a person who has the virtue of moderation subordinates the desire for pleasure to the dictates of reason. For Aristotle, all virtues are to be understood as the mean between vicious extremes.”

Today the word moderation is used by the politically immoderate to mean unprincipled. Striking a balance is somehow heretical. In a diverse nation of 325 million people, the politics of division weakens politics and society.

Abortion, unfunded public employee benefits, school choice, immigration and guns are atop the hit parade of political combat. The center, often a voice of realism, is shouted down on nearly all issues.

Two generations ago political research firms mainly used demographic patterns to predict responsive political groups. It was thought Catholics were likely to be pro-life while urbanites more anti-gun. Today targeted political research is done at the granular level. The public is trolled and then sold. This is the reason candidates are tightly scripted.

Political debates have devolved into a war of scripts and the loser of the debate is usually the victim of a “gotcha” moment. Debaters often have to be able to take the side the judges assign. I believe a terrific presidential debate question would be to ask each candidate to make the best case for the other side’s position.

Regardless of how the campaign rules and their funding evolves, we need to understand that our appetites, not reason, are the first line of persuasion. We will be told what the other candidate is for and against. We can guarantee the language used will not be moderate. This all too successful tactic eliminates the fondest dream of all democrats — governable consent by a well-informed electorate.

In closing, I leave the final word to Irish born philosopher, Edmund Burke.

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

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