Friday, August 31, 2012

Is Micro-targeting Destroying Our Politics?

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with Mitt Romney's speech last night at the RNC - it was pretty standard Republican fare. For my tastes, there was too much cheesiness about Romney the family man and barely any policy - but I can see where others would disagree.

What disturbed me most, however, and it is true to a great extent about the Obama campaign to date as well, is that there was absolutely no effort to lay out a genuine vision about where the candidate wanted to take the country if elected president.  Nothing about what the role of government ought to be in the 21st century.  After all, the president runs the government, not the economy.  Is it too much to ask that a candidate tell us what he thinks the government should do?  What the government should stay out of?  Should we build more roads?  Should we send a man to Mars?  Should we provide health care coverage?  To whom?  Just wounded veterans?  Or the old?  Or the poor?  Why?  What is the federal government's role in education?  I understand that Republican's want less government -- but I would like to know a bit more about what functions of government they want to trim or eliminate.  Is that too much to ask? Democrats have their chance to answer these questions next week - we'll see if we get any better answers.  But so far in the campaign, all I've heard is that different constituencies will get what they want, or at least that Obama will protect them from getting less than they are getting now.

I wonder if advancements in micro-targeting are at least partially to blame for the  belief that there is no need to have an overarching theme that drives the message and pulls the disparate parts of a campaign together into a coherent whole.  The campaign consultants know the exact demographic slices with which they need to improve their standing -- women 18-23, Latinos in the West, young college educated men, and so on.  Not only that, they know, or at least think they know, the messages that these micro-targets will respond to.  So the campaign becomes a series of mini-messages to slivers of the electorate, rather than a contest between two visions of governance for the times we live in.

So these expensive, all encompassing elections come down to which candidate can string together the right set of initiatives, rhetoric, attacks and campaign commercials to move a sufficient number of micro-targets to get to 50% + 1 voter.  And when it is all said and done, the public is no more educated than it was before about the challenges that are facing the nation and the possible options for addressing them.  The winning candidate does not have a genuine mandate from the voters for a coherent program for governing the nation. And the losing party has no reason to re-think the details of their vision for governing because it was never really presented to the voters.  They can write off the election loss as a failure of marketing  -- next time we need to find a way to do better with married suburbanites who subscribe to Reader's Digest...

America is desperately in need of an election that decides something ... but I fear we are not getting it.

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