Death by Data

Politicians are micro-targeting their messages at their own peril.
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Data driven campaigns also create wedge issues, defines the candidate and once elected makes it much harder for the elected official to make compromises. I believe that is one of the reason for the dysfunction we see in the US Congress.
President Obama won last time with an excellent data driven campaign, but today the face of the democratic party is not Obama. Without a question it is Bill Clinton -- a real life person, with a passion for politics, willing to express his views, have major flaws and also has an uncanny ability to connect with people. In my mind he is the leader of the democratic party. We need more leaders like him both on the right and left to debate ideas, make compromises and get things done.

1 2018-08-09 04:43:12 - Rajat Sen

Look, he persuaded a Democrat-dominated Congress to radically alter the tax code, and brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

You may not personally agree with Reagan's policies, but what he managed to accomplish was very substantial.

1 2018-04-20 18:22:38 - Jonathan

Since early June I've probably received a dozen inquiries from polling organizations. One cold-caller actually informed me that her survey could be completed in just under half-an-hour. Really! How considerate of her to inform me. I refused to participate -- told her that I "wasn't going to play this game", my exact words. Then I hung up the telephone.

I wasn't about to provide politicians with information that they could use to mislead the electorate then and I'm not about to do it now. I've deflected perhaps another half-dozen phone calls over the past ten days from spot polling organizations with "just one quick question". Can you guess what it was.

"Let the candidates be themselves, their true selves", I say; my rationale for being so anti-social, remembering hapless Mitt and how he fecklessly sabotaged his own campaign. Absurdly fake Hapless Mitt, our "severe conservative", so adept at twisting himself into a pretzel as his campaign went on to follow his pollsters' winding path.

I detest the abomination politics has become. And don't get me started about the hundreds of e-mails soliciting donations from maybe ten organizations (or the same one with ten fronts) received over the last few weeks. How obscene.

40 2017-09-29 23:35:34 - Steve Singer

Touche! I was devilish by not finishing the quote. Here's the rest, "Where we are is who we are...But it don't necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and..." And I was hoping someone would notice, and you did! And you are right! Her point is just as you said, she was trying to get people to move out of their righteous comfort zones. "Righteous comfort zone" has to be the best way of summing up where Brooks is coming from.

1 2017-08-01 18:45:31 - David

For the first time in many years, I actually agree 100% with David Brooks! Don't worry, it probably won't last.

However, this column explains precisely what is wrong with modern politics. It also explains why neither party has had a descent leader in a long time.

I would add something vital that wasn't mentioned: Clearly both parties think only about winning the next election. A political system cannot be healthy if nobody in power is thinking long term about how things should be, but more importantly, they can't make progress towards how things should be if they never talk about it!

We said this from the beginning of the Obama administration. We've said he needs to talk about stuff even if it doesn't lend itself to the political message de jour. But Obama has had a problem when he has tried this, because it turns out he doesn't seem to have a good vision of how policies should be, he only envisioned how politics should be.

No good leader should try to change politics directly. Rather, they should provide clear leadership and a coherent direction regardless of how it plays out politically in the next election. Without this, our system will only degrade further and further.

2 2017-06-21 15:44:06 - DD

Regan a great actor? A good enough actor perhaps to to sell 20 Mule Team Borax or to fool the voting public but he was no Walter Huston (who?).

7 2017-03-22 08:18:14 - RDA in Armonk


During this past week or so, I have been deluged by ads (mainly on TV) which insult the opponent du jour. Sometimes, I find these 30 second spots just keep on repeating the same (sometimes, trivial facts or lies?) over and over again so much so, I can't remember whose wife is a thesbian.

It is not only the ad which is brief, it keeps on repeating the same insults. There is no time for any substantive information. This all cost an insane $4B -- with a "B."

As far as the media go, to them it's treated as a bookie who handicaps and athletic event. With little discussion on the many important issues, they constantly predict (rightly or wrongly) the winner or "too close to call." Of course, it changes on a daily basis and only one poll counts -- after the votes are counted.

As we elect the winners by predilection or intuition. And, look at what we get.
The ones who get the most money to spawn as many beyond superficial and silly ads as possible.

Yes, many in our electorate know nothing and will never know anything -- even basic civics. But, this past weekend I felt as though our democracy? has so deteriorated into a barrage of 10 second sniper attacks by whom ever is backing the giving candidate and hanging around a betting parlor attempting to find out who's going to win. lose or have a runoff.

I felt personally insulted.


33 2017-02-07 13:25:47 - David Chowes

If politicians weren't data driven, Mr. Brooks, how would they know whose votes to suppress and obstruct?

31 2017-02-01 22:00:28 - Robert Eller

Ross Perot was one of the few in recent history not data driven and the media, including the NYT sliced and diced him into caricature...

2 2017-01-21 14:21:38 - EEE

To say that President Obama's 2012 campaign lacked a policy agenda is evidence that Mr. Brooks was not paying attention. The president then and now said that there was a clear contrast in policies between the two parities--healthcare, climate change, women's reproductive freedom, the minimum wage, foreign policy differences, the Supreme Court and more. My disappointment with this campaign season is that people running for office failed to use the opportunity of elections to be a teachable moment.

Mitch McConnell kept saying that a GOP takeover of the senate would end gridlock as if President Obama would disappear or refuse to veto GOP legislation designed to dismantle the ACA. This was a teachable moment about how government works, about the ACA, about climate change and other important issues. When politicians simply tell voters what they want to hear, then we all lose.

8 2017-01-13 13:40:31 - Valerie Elverton Dixon, Ph.D.

"administration has projected an image of reactive drift and lost public confidence." I love it when David goes philosophical. I agree with much of what he says, and it is refreshing to hear a conservative actually think. It truly would be great if we had a leader who could get out ahead of what is the aspirations of the electorate, and propose a framework that considers the aspirations of the electorate, but clarifies it with a truly forward moving vision of what policy could be; not because it is popular, but because it is more likely to work, being congruent with reality. Is Obama responsible for the "image of reactive drift?" Or is it not the cowardly stance of a conservative mind that really could not debate Obama's policies, because the policies were by and large conservative? I think the latter, but it will not happen, this kind of leader, until both right and left realize they don't actually believe Joe Six Pack is capable of making informed decisions. They therefore throw their red meat, instead of talking policy. The mind of the electorate is not even what is was at the turn of the twenty first century. It has grown in ways that even science has yet to capture. So yes, let this leader emerge; but not from some theoretical construct of centuries ago, right or left. Let someone emerge that knows that the minds of people in general do know better than their supposed betters. Let them listen not just to polls, but a heart and mind rooted in We the People.

2 2017-01-09 14:06:59 - Timothy

@JW: I very much appreciate your fine comment. I'll think about it tonight when I watch Vanilla win by a hair.

1 2017-01-08 01:29:58 - sophia

Let us start talking about truth. Maybe we can start with the early 50s when Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible which seemed to be about earlier American history but was really about the witch hunt of the late forties and early 50s congressional witch hunt. Let us talk about the President of the screen acto's guild Ronald Wilson Reagan who was willing to accuse his guild members of being anti American because that is what the house committee wanted to hear.
That is what the American conservative movement is all about, telling American conservatives what they want to hear. The truth be damned and manana never comes. Maybe that is what Merrill Lynch was telling us America loves its bull markets.

5 2017-01-04 22:50:19 - Montreal Moe

No mention is made of the informationally challenged who consider voting as a cultural and tribal duty without a hint of cause and effect, and without whose predictability would make such data analytics impossible. It's appropriate that voting comes so close to Halloween and all Saints day as these zombies are at the source of most of our Democracy's problems, from gerrymandering, to polarization in Congress and the media, to the wacky Tea Party 'Government is Evil' ideas. It's as though the 1% have parasitized the 99% into numbing mind control as in the recent National Geographic article on Mindsuckers.

0 2016-12-27 18:58:03 - joe

Does David Brooks *really* not know that money-driven elections and the candidate requirement of kowtowing to financial elites, corporations and big business has produced exactly the lack of creativity and innovation he bemoans?


13 2016-12-18 01:45:38 - Principia

Everyone who is running for public office is now well aware that every utterance they make is recorded for all posterity. As Nixon found out one who lives by the sword may die by it.

This demand to be perfect is an impossible mission. No one is, especially an electorate which has turned into a bunch of gossiping goobers: Did you hear what so and so said? It's all over The Blog. I read it on some web site. It's gone viral.

Politics is a strange beast indeed. But with constant data mining, the beast has grown fangs. Most voters will never meet (stump speeches and mass rallies don't count) let alone know their representative with any depth. Yes, incumbents have records, but engaged voters with a smidgen of smarts about political wheeling and dealing knows most votes have more interpretations than the Bible or the Second Amendment.

When an electorate demands perfection and then is disappointed when "Their" reps doesn't measure up, is the political mess we are experiencing really the fault of the politician or an ignorant electorate?

Perhaps the real fault lies with the people. As I see it, we deserve the leaders we have. We want them to lead but the minute they do the people take offense with instant armchair analysis. In this microwave world, we want change to occur in the time it takes to heat a cup of coffee. Talk about impossible.


0 2016-12-15 16:23:58 - Dennis

That President Obama did manage to focus the primary issue in question in the Mid Term Election is admirable and he must be commended for being so honest as to focus the central topic for all Americans on his policies which will be voted upon tomorrow as his main accomplishment since becoming President. His litany of disasters, scandals and appalling political decisions, piled unremittingly one upon the other, is known to all who take an interest in US politics, and I will forego naming them, since they are so well known to all, with the exception of the following.

The promised transparent administration never occurred of course; instead we were treated to an enormous increase in NSA surveillance, and lies told to Congress in denial, by General Clapper without consequences, and press suppression, aided by a compliant main street media. Justified criticism of political ineptitude and disregard for the US Constitution has been characterized as racial politics and decent people became afraid to express their true feelings fearing being tarred and feathered as racial bigots.

Americans are free thinking citizens and are still protected by The First Amendment in our right to express our individual opinions without let or hindrance as are the electorate at large enabled to do the same today on November 4th 2014 nationwide as we vote for our choice of Congressional and State representatives and on the policies of President Obama which he has so graciously given us leave to do.

4 2016-12-10 12:32:17 - Bryan Barrett

Brooks has it right within the sphere of political campaigns. But the issue is even larger. We are letting data and its quantification denature us by eliminating what makes us human beings. Education has thus been reduced to training, and what we study to make a living has little to do with making a life--which, I think, explains why we are so sour and so skeptical. Politicians and everyone else would do a lot better for themselves and for us if they regularly read a good book in history, literature, and philosophy. The Rx is the humanities, old-fashioned as that no doubt sounds in the world of twits who tweet.

2 2016-12-05 10:49:22 - Michael L Hays

Love the article.
"Do your work in ernest... no need to be swayed by the marketplace". - A Chinese Proverb that your article reminds me of.

3 2016-12-01 02:24:04 - Katheryn O'Neil

A superb column. I believe its message should be heeded not only by individual candidates, but by our national political parties, which seem to be the real driving forces behind the data-driven approach so well described here.

2 2016-11-29 17:40:47 - Walter

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