MadMen 2.0: The anthropology of the political

Gillian Tett, who is now the US Editor of the Financial Times, was trained as an anthropologist (which may be one reason why she spotted the fishy world of Collateral Debt Obligations and other dodgy derivatives before specialists who covered the banking sector). She had some interesting reflections in last weekend’s FT about data-driven campaigning in the 2016 Presidential election.

These were based on visits she had paid to the data-mavens of the Trump and Clinton campaigns during the election, and came away with some revealing insights into how they had taken completely different views on what constituted ‘politics’.

“Until now”, she writes,

”whenever pollsters have been asked to do research on politics, they have generally focussed on the things that modern western society labels ‘political’ — such as voter registration, policy surveys, party affiliation, voting records, and so on”. Broadly speaking, this is the way Clinton’s data team viewed the electorate. They had a vast database based on past voting patterns, voter registration and affiliations that was much more comprehensive than anything the Trump crowd had. “But”, says Tett, “this database was backwards-looking and limited to ‘politics’”. And Clinton’s data scientists thought that politics began and ended with ‘politics’.

The Trump crowd (which seems mainly to have been Cambridge Analytica, a strange outfit that is part hype-machine and part applied-psychometrics), took a completely different approach. As one of their executives told Tett,

”Enabling somebody and encouraging somebody to go out and vote on a wet Wednesday morning is no different in my mind to persuading and encouraging somebody to move from one toothpaste brand to another.” The task was, he said, “about understanding what message is relevant to that person at that time when they are in that particular mindset”.

This goes to the heart of what happened, in a way. It turned out that a sophisticated machine built for targeting finely-calibrated commercial messages to particular consumers was also suitable for delivering calibrated political messages to targeted voters. And I suppose that shouldn’t have come as such a shock. After all, when TV first appeared, all of the expertise and resources of Madison Avenue’s “hidden persuaders” was brought to bear on political campaigning. So what we’re seeing now is just Mad Men 2.0.

The equation that determines how Brexit will pan out

Growth = productivity + demographics

The UK’s productivity has been stagnant for a long time. And the Brexiteers propose to reduce immigration — which, when combined with an ageing population, means a declining workforce.

So the options are:

  • Find a way to dramatically boost productivity (difficult)
  • Rethink immigration policy (politically infeasible)
  • Ban contraception. (Jacob Rees-Mogg’s preferred policy.)

How to be smart and clueless at the same time

Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘defence’ of Facebook’s role in the election of Trump provides a vivid demonstration of how someone can have a very high IQ and yet be completely clueless — as Zeynep Tufecki points out in a splendid NYT OpEd piece:

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.

Trump, authenticity and the Tory succession

I forget who it was who said that “if you can fake authenticity, then you’ve got it made”, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since reading Dave Eggars’s thoughtful report from Phoenix in the aftermath of Trump’s speech there. I blogged about it a few days ago. The nub of his report was an account of a conversation he had in the evening with a pair of Trump supporters.

Outside in the cooling night, it occurred to me that these bright young men … were drawn to Trump not for what he was saying, but how he said it. It did not matter so much what he said. Or if he lied. Or if he inflamed animosities or bullied opponents. What mattered was that his unstudied, unrehearsed way of expressing himself was itself evidence of honesty. They equate unfiltered expression with truth.

Thus a politician who speaks carefully, who measures his or her words — or worse, who reads from a prepared speech — is being a politician, i.e., someone who does not tell the truth. Conversely, someone who speaks off the cuff, who has no script, who tweets without any consultation from staff, is inherently more honest.

This is one of the most insightful observations about our current politics that I’ve come across. And I can understand only too well why people might think like this. I listen to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 most mornings, for example, and sometimes wind up shouting at the radio when a seasoned member of the political elite has avoided — for the fifth time — giving a straight answer to what seems like a straight question.

Calming down, I remember that there are two possible reasons for this evasive behaviour, one bad, one good. The bad reason is that it’s all about ‘staying on message’ — in other words it’s about the requirements of political spin. The good reason is that questions about public policy are usually genuinely hard to answer simply, never mind in a sound-bite; indeed often there is no simple answer to even apparently straightforward questions.

Our wider political problem therefore comes from the fact that many (most?) citizens have come to perceive plain speaking — even when it’s clearly mendacious or untruthful — as a proxy for ‘authenticity’. Which — as we now see — means that charlatans like Trump (in the US) or Nigel Farage (in the UK) have been having a field day.

Which brings me to the question of the Tory succession, as Theresa May limps towards Brexit. For over a year, one of the likely contenders was Boris Johnson, a charlatan who got a lot of mileage out of faking authenticity — as the chap who always blurted out what he was thinking, or couldn’t resist an opportunity for a cheap joke. Just like the guy who is the life and soul of the saloon bar.

My hunch is that Johnson’s shelf-life has expired. The spectacle of him making a fool of himself as Foreign Secretary is just too embarrassing even for people who want to screw the entire system.

A more interesting case is that of Jacob Rees-Mogg — “the Hon Member for the 18th Century” — who was briefly touted by some lunatics as a possible successor to Theresa May during the silly season of August. He is, says George Parker, the Financial Times Political Editor,

“the man at the centre of Britain’s most unlikely political cult”. Young Conservatives, writes Parker, “celebrated his rugged Euroscepticism, confident backing of Brexit and rejection of the centrist policies offered by Theresa May. Meanwhile, his views on women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage prompted liberal outrage as it became clear that his genteel and self-deprecating persona was the overlay for an entrenched social conservative whose views sometimes sound more in tune with the right of the Republican Party than the 21st-century Tory party”.

Parker took Rees-Mogg to lunch in an upmarket country eatery in his constituency, and produced an interesting and perceptive profile (in this weekend’s edition of the paper, sadly behind a paywall). Mogg comes over as a toff with impeccable manners who takes being a Parliamentarian seriously — the kind of MP who might one day become Speaker of the Commons. But what’s really interesting about the interview is that he seems all of a piece. His fogeyism is not an act, in other words, even though it’s so preposterous sometimes that that’s hard to believe. (He’s just named his sixth child ‘Sixtus’). So he’s authentic all right, but that will never make him a populist hero — because he’s not faking it.

The Technical is Political

This morning’s Observer column:

In his wonderful book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt traces the origins of the Renaissance back to the rediscovery of a 2,000-year-old poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). The book is a riveting explanation of how a huge cultural shift can ultimately spring from faint stirrings in the undergrowth.

Professor Greenblatt is probably not interested in the giant corporations that now dominate our world, but I am, and in the spirit of The Swerve I’ve been looking for signs that big changes might be on the way. You don’t have to dig very deep to find them…

Read on

Telling it like it is

I love Dave Eggars’s writing. He was the guy who convinced me in the summer of 2016 that Trump might win. The key persuasive text was a report he wrote of a Trump rally which he attended out of interest. It was the most perceptive thing I read in the entire year and it led to me spending four days of my holiday in Provence trying to write something about the possibility and implications of a Trump victory. But then I made the mistake of reading Nate Silver and was soothed by his polling predictions. So I abandoned the essay.

Now Eggars has written another lovely essay based on spending time in Arizona around the time of Trump’s speech there. I was particularly struck by this passage:

We ate while standing in the restaurant, near the front door, and I talked to the two young men, who were unfailingly polite and eager to debate the merits of Trump and what the country needed and deserved. I told them how incongruous I found it, that they could be so good-mannered and open to debate, when the man they were supporting — and this they admitted readily — was rude, unkind, erratic, and disunifying.

“But at least he’s honest,” one of the young men said.

He indeed said this. I didn’t know where to start.

We talked for about 10 minutes more, and finally we all shook hands, told each other to be safe out there, and went on our respective ways. Outside in the cooling night, it occurred to me that these bright young men, like James, were drawn to Trump not for what he was saying, but how he said it. It did not matter so much what he said. Or if he lied. Or if he inflamed animosities or bullied opponents. What mattered was that his unstudied, unrehearsed way of expressing himself was itself evidence of honesty. They equate unfiltered expression with truth.

Thus a politician who speaks carefully, who measures his or her words — or worse, who reads from a prepared speech — is being a politician, i.e., someone who does not tell the truth. Conversely, someone who speaks off the cuff, who has no script, who tweets without any consultation from staff, is inherently more honest.

These young men, and millions of other Trump supporters, do not care so much about what is or is not the truth. They care only that their elected leaders speak to them candidly, even when they’re lying…

My reading of this is that Trump will go the distance, and that Trump 2020 isn’t a fantasy either.

Facebook, Russia and Trump

From Jack Shafer’s swamp diary:

Facebook became an unindicted co-conspirator in the Trump Tower scandal as it turned over more than 3,000 political ads purchased for $150,000 through more than 470 Russian accounts during campaign 2016. “Facebook is in a bind,” media scholar Darcey Morris tweeted. “Either they admit the ads had an effect or they admit their ad system is bogus.” The president was having no part of the Facebook story, tweeting, “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?” Next up in the investigative crosshairs will be Twitter, which has agreed to talk to the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the election. The company hasn’t specified whether the discussion will be open or closed to observers, Wired reported.

How much longer can Trump insist that Russian interference is all a big hoax? The Department of Homeland Security, hardly a flat-Earth proponent, told election officials in 21 states this week that Russian government hackers had targeted them in the 2016 campaign, although vote tallies were untouched. According to a McClatchy report, congressional investigators and the Justice Department think the Trump campaign’s digital operation, captained by son-in-law Jared Kushner, might have helped the Russians target voters with fake news in 2016. “There appears to have been significant cooperation between Russia’s online propaganda machine and individuals in the United States who were knowledgeable about where to target the disinformation,” said Mike Carpenter, who worked on Russia matters at the Pentagon until recently. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., believes the Russians targeted women and African-Americans in Wisconsin and Michigan.