Monday, November 9, 2015

Neuropolitics: Because Voting Doesn't Work The Way We Think

If you're a politician, your main concern is probably getting elected. Yes, there's lots of important issues, but even if you're the most principled of the principled, you probably realize you can't do much if you're not in office.

So, how do you make sure you get those all essential votes? A new trend is exposing not just what politicians will do, but the underlying mechanics of democracy and sheds light on why money is so powerful.

Last week the New York Times reported on Neuropolitics, which uses sensors to track facial expressions, eye movement and other biometrics when people look at political ads. The goal? To determine what people like, and change the message so they like it more.

The tools of our democracy make it exceedingly hard for voters to tell politicians what they actually care about. That's the story, not that politicians are experimenting with new technologies or even that they are desperate to figure out what voters like.

A democracy is meant to be driven by the will of the people but politicians find it so hard to figure out what that is, they are willing to settle for an ad that makes you smile for a split second in the hopes that reveals something about what you want them to do.

It's not like this for everyone.There is one group whose desires politicians understand and reliably transform into law - the wealthy. As a much touted 2014 paper from Princeton University showed, the relationship between what voters want and the laws Congress passes is virtually non-existent. Any law passes with a probability of 30%, no matter what we want. On the other hand, the odds of law passing or failing is well correlated with the sentiments of the economic elite and organized special interests. 

Why the difference? Many would say that politicians just want money. But that is a lazy answer. Remember, what they really want is to keep their job. The influence of money, unfortunately, flows rationally when you consider:

  1. Politicians have no idea what voters ACTUALLY want.
  2. As a result, politicians must convince everyone to vote for them. That means having the best campaign. And that means tools like facial recognition technology on all your ads, which isn't cheap! 

Voting lets us down because, in reality, voting for candidates - the core of our democracy - is a really, really blunt tool. It is almost impossible to learn anything about the issues someone cares about from their vote. Campaign are run on dozens of issues for hundreds, thousands or millions of people. Figuring out why one person actually voted for a specific candidate is almost impossible. 

Just imagine...

You're a politician. You want to be elected for the good of your community. You can

  • A) spend 5 minutes with 100 voters.
  • B) spend 5 mintues with 2 wealthy donors. 

You chose A - Good for you! 
Along come 100 voters - perfect! But you only have 5 minutes - Nooo! What do you do?

Talking: Well, there's clearly not enough time to talk to everyone. 

Petitions: Great idea! You ask everyone to write down their most important issue and ask them to get signatures from all the people who agree. In the end you have a few petitions from a few active people who all got almost everyone signed. Ok...

Social Media: You quickly logon and see what's trending on Twitter and Facebook in this group. Not only are people rallying around multiple issues, but something JUST happened and now there's a hashtag for it - #MostImportantIssueEver

Well, time's up. Can you tell what you have to do as a representative to maximize your votes? 

You chose B - Smaaaart
In 3 minutes these two donors have made the case for why their industry needs a tax break. There's no doubt about what they want. There's also no doubt about what they give candidates they like - enough money to hire 10 people to talk to the 100 voters in Scenario A, and buy ads to address every issue they care about. 

Taking the money magnifies your ability to reach the voters. That increases the odds of you winning. And these donors only want a few specific things...

If you want to maximize your chance of winning, you need to be efficient in your fundraising. Because in real life you actually can raise thousands of dollars in a single meeting,  but you could never meaningfully talk to 100 voters that way. This is  why politicians spend hours on "call time" every day and 45 minutes at a rally twice a week. 

Voters need a tool that tells politicians what they really want. The problem with the petitions and social media in the scenario above isn't that there's so many people, it's that every action was so easy nobody had to prioritize - nobody had to commit their decision to an issue, which made it impossible to know what to do. 

The power of the wealthy donors was NOT that they had infinite money, but that they were willing to commit what they had to an outcome they prioritized. Once the commitment was clear, the decision on that specific issue meant verifiable electoral impact. 

This is what ShiftSpark does. By pairing small contributions with policies, it allows donors to put make a statement about what they will do to change an election because of the issue(s) they care about. And that send a message a hundred times more meaningful than a small smile. 

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