Sunday, November 11, 2012


My first definitive encounter with America was 9/11. Before then I had, of course, known of it, read about it and heard about it. But after 9/11, as shockwaves were felt all across the globe, I was suddenly made very aware of this huge, unavoidable nation and its impressive (and equally irritating) sense of importance and destiny in the history of the world. I was still in primary school then, but I recall we discussed the events endlessly in school. It was impossible to forget America from that moment onwards: it proceeded to start two wars and re-elect Bush. It is easy for Americans to forget this, but Obama's election in 2008 dramatically changed how many outside America viewed it. No longer did we follow America simply to be appalled, irritated and grimly amused. For once, there seemed to be a positive reason to follow American news. 

The election coincided with my International Baccalaureate exams. I had been following the career of the young senator from Illinois quite a while before that. Reading about the election was pure political crack, and I was a junkie. Fours years on, my hopeless addiction to (political) news coming of the States is uncured. One cannot deny that American politics has a grandness of tenor, vision and narrative that is unmatched in the world. It is this relentless generation of narrative, however, that might obscure a few, more subtle lessons from the election.

Big data, we are told, won the election. It's all a numbers game. Obama's formidable voter-targeting machine turned out enough voters to withstand the inevitable swing against him. Obama built a coalition, a majority, whatever you might call it, of 50+x% to triumph. Not only politics, but punditry is meant to be revolutionised by this election. Nate Silver's impressive prognostications, built on solid statistics and mathematics, at FiveThirtyEight (at the New York Times) will put an end to pointless, blind punditry. The lessons for the Republicans are supposedly numerical too: they need to broaden their platform to get numbers on their side, to appeal to Latinos/Asians/Women/the Young.

But demographics are not destiny. Obama's coalition is fragile, and the Democrats should not bank on particularly high turnout among minorities for the next election. There's no guarantee that pivoting on immigration will win Republicans the next election. Simply targeting and turning voters out is not what democracy is about. Neither is pandering to specific groups of voters in order to squeak past one's opponent. Some have observed that facts were a terrible casualty of the campaign. But the other largely unmourned loss was policy, and it seems to me the focus on numbers is simply the other side of the coin.  There was no sense that these were two parties treating the election as a referendum on policies. Isn't democracy about bringing forth policies for public consideration? This misguided belief in numbers, along with the unprecedented flow of money and negative campaigning, threatens to reduce politics to an elevated game of advertising and marketing. It is certainly not a model to be recommended for other democracies.


Addendum: Sorry if this seems long-winded, and I haven't really got to the point. To summarise: the narrative generated by post-election commentators of the election seems to be that numbers, data and demographics will dominate the democratic process. That's partly because commentators need to generate 'lessons' learnt in the campaign every election cycle. But it's also because the narrative has a seductive appeal with a simple message: politics is becoming more scientific, with better polling, better demographic targeting, better data, better 'operation', better 'machinery'. To me, that's an insidious sidelining of what democracy is about: the presentation of ideas to the public. To put far too simplistically, it's a clash of the two cultures, and how one conceives of democracy: as a science, or as an art. 

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