Making More Decisions

          We are reminded regularly that the country is divided, but we have always had divisions. Who can forget the Civil War? Now there was a divided country. We have had, however, other divisions, often violent ones, including our many, many Indians wars as well as strife between labor and the plutocrats that took the lives of lots of mostly working people.

          Increasingly, however, we think of divisions that aren’t as stark or cause as much violence. A lot of that comes from politics where vote seekers dice the electorate into more and more groups. The New Yorker writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore in her book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future suggests that 1960 was a turning point. Simulmatics, formed in the 1950s, was a little-known company with big dreams. It sought to collect data about voters and consumers, analyze the information by what was then new computer technology, and predict how people would vote. It tried to take credit for at least some of JFK’s success in winning in the 1960 election, but it is not clear that anyone in the Kennedy campaign saw the Simulmatics reports. I never fully comprehended what the corporation really accomplished other than its many public relations efforts to promote itself before it disappeared into bankruptcy in 1970. However, the book did make me think about the data I might like to collect if I were going to segment the American populace to better understand it for political purposes.

          Of course, we are aware of some categories that pundits and politicos already consider: race, age, education, and income and whether voters live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. All useful information, but I would want to ask further questions.

          Religion, for example. That seems to be an important piece of information. What is your faith? Do you worship with an established denomination? Would you describe yourself as an evangelical? How often do you attend a House of Worship in a year? What percentage of your income do you give to charities? How much of that flows to non-religious charities?

          Where do you get your news?

          How many books do you read a year?

          What two sports do you most like to participate in? To watch? None is an acceptable answer.

          Do you play video games? Which ones? How often?

          How often do you go to a gym? How often do you otherwise exercise?

          How many sexual encounters have you had that you regret or want to apologize for? (Our questionnaire is, of course, confidential.)

          What social media accounts do you have? How much time do you spend each day with them?

Which is more important for preventing oppression by the government: free speech or possession of a gun? What rights are protected by the First Amendment? The Second Amendment?

How many guns do you own?

          How much money does a family of four need to live comfortably?

When in American history did Italians come to be considered “white”?

Have you ever had a mullet? If so, when was the last time?

Have you ever had teased hair? If so, when was the last time?

Do you find yourself feeling superior to someone with a mullet or teased hair?

Do you know what white guilt is? Have you personally experienced it?

What kind of vehicle do you drive? If you had more money, what kind of vehicle would you drive?

Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

Have you ever served a sentence in jail longer than 60 days?

If you don’t now, would you consider living in a manufactured home?

Do you live in a gated community?

Do you own your own home?

Do you know what stock options are? Have you ever owned a stock option? Do you own stocks or bonds?

          What kind of music do you most listen to?

Where did you buy your last pair of shoes?

Have you served in the military? If so, what rank did you achieve? If you have children or grandchildren of an appropriate age, would you encourage them to join the military?

Would you encourage your children or grandchildren to join law enforcement?

How was your last medical procedure paid for? How much did you have to pay out of pocket?

Define a bell curve, a t-test, statistical significance, a control group.

          Do you think that the following statement is correct?  “If you weren’t a little dirty at the end of the day, you weren’t much of a man.” (Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.)

          What kind of shows have you binge watched?

When was the last time you went to a museum?

What podcasts do you listen to?

Do you agree with this statement? “The greatest pleasure I have known is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.” (Charles Lamb.) Has that ever happened to you?

Let’s Divide Up America

 We are now a highly divided country, but we have had divisions that have affected politics, government, and our society since the inception of the nation. For over seventy years, we had slave states versus free states, which morphed into South versus North. We have had free trade versus protectionism; the gold standard versus silver; imbibers versus teetotalers; labor versus management; men versus women; everyone versus plutocrats; Protestants versus Catholics; everyone versus Jews; blacks versus whites; Italians versus the Irish; suburbs versus cities; urban versus rural; war proponents versus war opponents (and on a different front, everyone versus the New York Yankees; everyone versus Tom Brady fans; everyone versus Ted Cruz; and almost everyone versus that My Pillow guy).

 We tend to believe that our politics reflects our divisions, but it does more than that. Our politics helps to create the divisions and does less than ever before to bridge them.

The two major parties are increasingly ideological or, perhaps more accurately, partisan. When was the last time that there was a conservative Democrat or a liberal Republican? There are many reasons for this. The successful Republican “southern strategy” killed the old Southern Democratic party and thereby most conservative Democrats. Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay made Republicans, in effect, swear loyalty oaths to one brand of Republicanism that excluded liberal Republicans. Gerrymandering has produced more safe seats in both state and national legislatures creating ing districts where officeholders and seekers do not have to appeal across divides for votes. Robert G. Kaiser in Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t points out that as cooperation between the parties has declined, the demonization of opponents has become more common which further increases divisions. (Kaiser says this trend has been aided because members of Congress no longer spend uninterrupted weeks and months in Washington getting to know each other. Instead, with modern transportation, they have three or four-day Washington work weeks and then go back to their home districts.) Trump is not the creator of this path of demonization and divisiveness; he is merely an extreme example of its danger. He and other politicians seek to divide with the hope that their cries of the devil will energize their supporters who will turn out to vote more than their opponents.

Besides the major chasms that the parties have fostered, however, politics today creates many mini-fractures in the societal landscape that have been deepened by modern media. Jill Lepore suggests in These Truths: A History of the United States that this started with the 1960 presidential election when the Democrats turned to “data science” and hired the Simulmatics Corporation. (Jill Lepore, who seems to publish something interesting at least once a month, has a new 432-page book out about Simulmatics, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. I have not [yet?] read it.) That company got punch cards from pollsters of recent elections, fed them into an early computer, and “sorted voters into 480 possible types.” One category, for example, was “Eastern, metropolitan, lower-income white, Catholic, female Democrats.” Another was “Border state, rural, upper-income, white, Protestant, male, Independents.” Such data dredging revealed shifts in voting patterns not apparent before. So, for example, the Democrats discovered that between 1954 and 1956 a small but significant shift by northern Blacks to the Republicans had occurred in eight key states. This helped to propel the Democrats to put a civil rights plank into their 1960 platform and encouraged John F. Kennedy, who had showed little interest as a Senator about the issue, into supporting civil rights.

We continue to see similar data today. Politicians seem to assume that on many major issues—abortion and gun control, for example—minds are made up, and voters and can’t be persuaded away from the candidate they already support. Accordingly, elections are seldom analyzed along ideological lines. Instead, analysts and strategists turn to the 1960 approach but with increasingly sophisticated demographics. “Male whites without college degrees and over fifty living in a rural area;” “white suburban women with children who work outside the home with family income above $75,000 per year” are now categories that are refined and then refined some more.

Of course, this in some way is just an extension of what has been going on since the Kennedy-Nixon election, but now there is a difference. However it was that JFK decided to be a civil rights candidate, this stance was apparent to all Americans. He was basically the same candidate in every region and with every demographic group.

JFK, however, did not have the tools available today. Through social media, the internet and search-engine advertising, increasingly smaller demographic groups can be targeted, and a distinct message can be tailored for each groiup without that campaign reaching all Americans. The candidate I may think I know might appear to be different from the same candidate that you think you know. We may vote for the same person, but we may be voting in essence for different candidates, and a little wedge is driven between us as a result. Instead of broad expanses of shared perspectives, we have a many-fissured landscape that looks different from every perspective.

Our current political process does not just exploit the divisions among us; it helps to create them.