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Why the Geeks are Ruining Politics

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Why the Geeks are Ruining Politics
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Why the Geeks are Ruining Politics

Geek (gēk)

Slang

Etymology: From the Latin: Geekus Expertus

Noun, Slang

  • An enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity, often worn as a badge of pride, especially in the IT community (E.g., Computer geek)

Look, I get it. Electoral politics is a numbers game: the guy with the most votes wins — although I’m sure that with a few eco-friendly cocktails under his belt, Al Gore might be able to convince you differently.

Politics used to be about more than percentage points and message penetration. It used to be about guts, about connecting with voters, shaking their hands and getting to know the issues that really mattered to them. Now, candidates are propped up by a cadre of iPad toting math geeks, who have at their fingertips more information than a regular field director could ever dream of.

Campaigns today are just as likely to have a “chief scientist” as they are a “chief strategist.” Out in Chicago, Obama is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to scour tweets, pore over Facebook and “crowdsource” a multitude of other social media. All this is in the name of crafting the perfect message that will appeal to precisely the right voter, at exactly the right time.

But where has the fun gone? Where’s the human element in an Excel spreadsheet?

Voters are more than numbers, but politics has devolved to such a point that constituencies are now measured by click-through-rates rather than rallies, website impressions instead of campaign stops.

The more technology a campaign implements, the less its candidate actually has to deal directly with the voters. Up the ad buy here, geotarget a prerehearsed message there, and suddenly you have yourself an election. Scott Brown’s recent Senate campaign offers an example of electioneering in the information age, as The Wall Street Journal explains here.

Politicians are becoming preprogrammed shells, beholden to their number-crunching masters. Instead of creating a platform or running on an issue, today’s office-seekers tailor their message by the minute.

Dubbed “microlistening” by the Obama operation, BusinessWeek calls this new, quantitative approach to politicking the “cold, numbers-driven side of campaigning that candidates and their staffs don’t like to talk about.” I think of it as Pandering 2.0. The fact that quants and mathematicians are replacing scraggly campaign flacks probably isn’t going to faze most people. But it should. No amount of technological wizardry could ever replace Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” moment. It was a moment of pure voter connection. And as hard many of this year’s crop of candidates try, they’re simply failing to replicate it. Geeks are adding another layer between politicians and the electorate; and this is never a good thing.

Why would one take the extra step of getting to know an entire district if it can be summarized on two pages, along with exact messages, customized ever so slightly, to push just the right buttons? The answer is that one probably wouldn’t.

And here lies the crux of the issue: when politics becomes this precise, it morphs into something that more closely resembles an academic experiment, rather than a free and fair exchange of ideas. There is no doubt that the statisticians and scientists have a role to play in a campaign, but they shouldn’t be the ones dictating an agenda based on whatever motivates a certain subsector of the electorate.

I have endless respect for geeks. Bill Gates — a self-admitted geek — changed the world. However, I do find the current rush toward the intersection of politics and science to be cause for alarm. Candidates should earn our vote, not simply arrive at a mathematical equation for victory.

Maybe I’m getting nostalgic, reminiscent of the days I’ve read about, when politics was retail, when politicians and their campaign would camp out in a state for months on end, earning the smallest of counties.  But on the other hand, is it too much to ask for a little more human interaction? I think not.

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