By Steve Brawner
Want better government? Make candidates worse at politics.
Politics is about winning elections, and today’s big campaigns and special interest groups have turned it into a science. Using sophisticated data mining techniques, they know our buying and online habits and therefore how we’ll probably vote. If you’re a 55-year-old Southern white male who drives a Ford truck and visits conservative news websites, the campaigns know it, and because of that, they know you’re almost certainly inclined to vote Republican. If you drive a Volvo and regularly shop at Whole Foods Market, they know you’ll probably vote Democrat.
Using that data, campaigns can reach individual voters through a technique known as microtargeting. Turnout and fundraising, not persuasion, is the goal. If you’re likely a Republican, the Tom Cotton campaign will send you material meant to push your buttons so you’ll show up on Election Day and hopefully donate money. The Mark Pryor campaign, meanwhile, will not waste its resources on you. If you don’t believe this, keep a tally of the political ads you see online and in your mailbox. Chances are you’re mostly hearing from only one of the candidates.
So don’t worry that anyone is somehow looking at your ballot. It’s not necessary to commit election fraud and risk a scandal. They know how you’ll vote before you do.
But while candidates are getting better at politicking, elected officials are becoming worse at governing. This current Congress is on track to be the least productive in modern history in terms of bills passed through both houses. That’s good in many ways because no productivity is better than bad productivity. But it also means little of substance is being done about the national debt, immigration and other issues that demand action. Do you think Congress is doing a good job?
Furthermore, when Congress can’t get anything done, it cedes power to a president to use executive orders to do what he wants. An example is what’s happening with No Child Left Behind, the education law passed by Congress under President George W. Bush that greatly expanded the federal government’s role in education. The law expired seven years ago, but because Congress can’t agree on anything, its outdated and unworkable requirements haven’t been repealed. How can schools still educate children? Through waivers granted by the Obama administration that have expanded the federal government’s role in education even more.
It’s no coincidence that we’re getting worse at governing while we’re getting better at politicking. Americans are culturally divided anyway, but the political process is making the divisions worse. We’re bombarded by messages telling us our side is right and the other side is evil, so we tend to elect people who believe the same way, or at least pretend to believe it. Cooperative statesmanship becomes difficult when you’ve told your constituents that the other side wants to destroy America.
The political center – so vital to keeping the country on a forward path – has thus melted away. There are only 15 Democrats remaining in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. The declining number of Republican centrists have limited influence in their party. With so few in the center, Republicans and Democrats have completely different priorities and are working from different sets of facts. The primary organizing principle they all share, “How do I get re-elected?” is accomplished by a tactic they also have in common: Divide and conquer.
What can voters do? Make candidates worse at politicking by making it harder for them to categorize and manipulate us. If we say we’re independent, as a rising 42 percent of us told Gallup we are late last year, then we should act like it. Polls show that most of us who say we’re independent consistently lean one way or the other. So occasionally lean some other way – for example, by giving third party and independent candidates a chance. Research news websites that offer a different perspective than your own.
That will confuse the microtargeters. We also might learn something, or even change our minds on an issue. And in the process, we might get a better government.