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Maybe Big Data Should Play Smaller Role in Our Politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
"To everyone who voted," President Obama said in his press conference on Wednesday, "I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate yesterday, I hear you, too."

Let me begin with a bit of a rant.

In a sense, this is the last piece of the puzzle to click into place for the president's Nixonian transformation.

Spy on reporters? Check. Bomb a country (or two) without authorization from Congress? Check. Issue dubious claims of executive privilege to conceal embarrassments or prevent scandals? Check. Withdraw from -- and lose -- an unpopular war he didn't start? Check. Corrupt IRS? Check. Imperial presidency? Check.

One of the last things on the list was to insist that the silent majority of Americans is really on his side. Of course, Nixon's "silent majority" actually voted. Obama's, not so much. Nixon's silent majority was also actually on his side. Obama's silent majority isn't, at least according to polls. If the majority of Americans agreed with him, a majority of Americans wouldn't disapprove of him.

OK, rant over.

Still, in a way, Obama is right, though not in the way he intends. He can hear from non-voters.

Thanks to the Big Data revolution, we no longer analyze public attitudes, we digitize them. Big corporations don't merely know what consumers want, they know what Bud Gretnick at 123 Sycamore Road, Everywhere USA, wants.

The New York Times famously reported on one instance where a father of a teenage girl was furious that Target was mailing his daughter coupons for baby furniture and maternity clothes.

"My daughter got this in the mail!" the outraged father yelled at a Minnesota store manager. "She's still in high school, and you're sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?"

It turns out the store knew she was pregnant before the dad did.

Meanwhile, we've been debating for several years how much data-mining the government should be allowed to do in the name of national security. It's a serious debate with solid arguments on both sides. Should the government monitor which websites we go to? Should it keep tabs on who we are emailing? Etc.

Reasonable people can disagree about the pros and cons of all this stuff. What I find remarkable, however, is that we don't seem to care that politicians are in on this game, too.

In the run-up to the midterms, the Democrats sent out letters to presumed Democratic voters in an effort to shame them into voting. "Who you vote for is your secret," read a letter sent out by the New York State Democratic Committee. "But whether or not you vote is public record."

"We will be reviewing voting records ... to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014." The letter ends with a creepy, if not outright threatening, warning: "If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not."

Am I the only one thinks it's bizarre that we spend so much time fretting over how much government agencies can know about us, but we don't seem to care a bit about how much the politicians who run those agencies know about us?

Big Data is in its infancy, but focus groups, polling and other kinds of market research have been staple tools of political consultants for decades. Pop quiz: Have these techniques yielded better, more responsive or more representative politicians and public policies?

Maybe we're doing it wrong? The dirty secret behind gridlock is that all of these seemingly constipated politicians are doing exactly what the market research tells them their customers -- i.e., the voters -- want them to do.

What if politicians didn't have access to focus groups and ZIP code analysis? What if we had no exit polls telling us what the chief concern of married Asian-American males in Portland is?

What if politicians were expected to make decisions based on what they think is right, informed by their principles, their analysis of the issues and from actually talking to constituents -- and not from an analysis of what a dozen people say in a dimly lit room in a shopping mall with men in suits taking notes behind a two-way mirror?

The Founding Fathers didn't take a poll. Nor did Abraham Lincoln. Modern -- though still rudimentary -- polling began in the 1930s. Have our politics really gotten better as a result of ever more sophisticated poll-assisted pandering?

People say the only poll that matters in on Election Day, but it's not true anymore. Maybe it should be again.

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