Goodbye Politics!

Barack Obama had already given up his belief in political debate around 2008. The American president won his first campaign not necessarily because he was able to convince voters with better arguments, but because he understood voters better. His campaign team identified eligible Americans who do not normally vote, but would choose Obama if they did vote. The relevant data came from rewards cards, social networks and national registries.

Obama’s campaign team collated all of this data and specifically targeted voters who were on the fence. For larger voting blocks, this method doesn’t help at all, which is why the method is called “microtargeting.” Companies have been using it already for quite some time to address specific audiences in the most efficient way possible. This idea — to use big data and microtargeting to market not only products but also politicians — made the outsider Democrat Barack Obama president of the United States.

Angela Merkel has also been repeatedly accused of leading a campaign based more on the rules of marketing than on political debate. She avoided interviews with well-informed political journalists, preferring to speak with the magazines “Auto Bild” (an automobile magazine) and “Apothekenumschau” (a medicine and health magazine). She declined a televised debate with the opposition and instead spread around images that looked more like advertisements for wellness resorts and spas. With Angela Merkel, the German people were not just able to buy a good feeling, they could vote for it as well.

One Sees Only What One Wants To See

Obama and Merkel both won their campaigns because they did not let themselves get involved in any debates over concrete topics. And from a purely pragmatic perspective, the strategies were genius. An experiment by the American social psychologist Dan Kahan has shown that it doesn’t help much in politics to be factually correct.

The experiment went like this: Kahan presented a statistic to 1,000 different Americans that on first glance appeared to suggest that a certain skin cream helps against rashes. But on closer inspection, the numbers actually emphasized that the cream worsens a rash. The experiment concluded that the better a subject’s mathematical ability, the higher the odds they would notice the statistical swindle.

In the second part of the experiment, Kahan presented the participants with a politicized version of the same kind of statistic. This time it was about the link between stricter gun laws and rates of crime, a heavily debated topic in the United States. And suddenly, the mathematical ability of the subjects no longer mattered; if the statistic went against their political convictions, Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to discover the statistical error, regardless of their math skills. If the statistic tended to support their beliefs, the test subjects did not recognize the error. Both sides only saw what they wanted in the numbers.

Concepts Don’t Mean Much

As soon as they encountered a hotly debated topic, the ideological orientation of the subjects overruled their intellect. The test actually emphasized that the statistic was more often interpreted wrongly if the test subjects had a better mathematical ability. The American political journalist Ezra Klein boiled these results down to the formula, “The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.” In politics, what one believes depends less on the facts and more on what one thinks they already know about the facts.

Research by the German media scientist Werner Fruh has come to similar conclusions. In 1991, Fruh presented a newspaper article to 223 people and then quizzed them about the content of the article after different periods of time. The result: Just one week after reading the article, up to 41 percent of the information they referenced did not appear in the article at all, but instead came from conversations about the topic or other sources.

Dan Kahan has called the phenomenon “identity protective cognition.” In order to protect their self-identity, people have developed a selective perception that takes at face value whatever corresponds to their own worldviews. That’s a depressing find not only for scientists and journalists, but also for democratic debate. A political party doesn’t care whether it presents better, more credible concepts on concrete issues such as climate change, globalization or minimum wage. What’s important is the private context of voters. Nobody likes to argue with his or her friends, colleagues or parents. In our enlightened age, tribal thinking still dominates in the area of politics.

The Politician Becomes the Celebrity

For this reason, it made sense for Obama and Merkel to avoid concrete debates during their campaigns, and instead sell commonly held emotions that are relatable to all groups of people; with Obama, it was the desire for change; with Merkel it was the desire for security and stability. This removal of substantive debate from the public realm has been devastating for political culture. It promotes an expectation among the public that political debate could never even have had substance and meaning in the first place.

Depoliticized politics is the favorable soil from which figures like Donald Trump, in the U.S., and Frauke Petry, in Germany, have been able to grow. In a purely celebrity-oriented culture, it doesn’t matter how often the protagonists’ political concepts have been proven unconstitutional or undemocratic, or whether they infringe on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As long as the economic rules of commercialized spectacle apply, those who are willing to lower the bar will always have the advantage.

Permanently in the Center

Today, the successful formula of reality TV also seems to apply to political discourse: talking loudly, while lowering the standards of decency. And Donald Trump, the former star of the show “The Apprentice,” doubtlessly knows more about reality TV than his opponents. Every time he breaks a political taboo, offends someone, or flaunts his ignorance, the cycle begins again. Other candidates are no longer asked about their own plans; instead, they must respond to Trump’s attacks. He stands permanently in the center of focus, even when he’s not in the picture.

In Germany, the new right-wing has used similar instruments. The crazier their ideas, and the more infantile their accusations, the more publicity they gain for their name. And politically detached audiences confuse prominence with relevance. For politicians, the question is not necessarily whether their facts are correct, but rather, if their target audience is even interested in the facts.

The populist right-wing was only able to win over the public so effortlessly after there was nobody among the Democrats whom the public took seriously. Only now can it be seen how important it would have been to hold leader debates on substantial content, even if the actors knew that these debates were irrelevant psychologically, and that they were ultimately performing a piece of theater. For a democracy, this theater is essential. It reminds the public again and again what democracy is all about: a constant, dogged balancing of interests, competing conceptions of the success of a state, and the regulation of public affairs.

Three Elections Before the End

“I have a lot of faith in the American people. And I think they recognize that being president is a serious job,” Barack Obama said recently, directed toward Republicans. “It’s not hosting a talk show or a reality show.” Ironically, as a presidential candidate, he himself trusted big data over substantive debate. When even Democrats no longer believe in collectively negotiated, cooperative consensuses, why would their voters?

The American author Anne Applebaum recently sketched out the high price the West could pay for its removal of content from politics. In an essay she published in the American magazine Slate, she argued that the West is only three failed votes away from its end. These three votes are the presidential election in France, the presidential election in the United States, and the European Union referendum in the United Kingdom.

Neither Marine Le Pen nor Donald Trump would have any interest in NATO, writes Applebaum. On Europe, Trump has written, “their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually.” On the other hand, he would have a “great relationship” with Putin. In the same vein, Marine Le Pen has argued for leaving the EU, nationalizing industries, and a closer relationship with Russia, which has for its part helped finance the election campaigns of her party. And because of the United Kingdom’s potential exit from the EU, the continued rise of Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn — who harbors similar thinking — to the office of prime minister, is anything but ruled out.

“In an era when foreign policy debate has in most Western countries disappeared altogether, replaced by the reality TV of political entertainment, all of these things are much harder to explain and justify to a public that isn’t remotely interested,” writes Applebaum. The West has offered its member states stability and nuclear deterrence for about half a century, and because a common market has brought relatively constant prosperity and growth, “these are things that we all take for granted, until they are gone.”

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply