Polarization, Aggregation, and the False Anti-Democratic Promise of Microtargeting

“…it has always been no less dangerous to discover new ways and methods than to set off in search of new seas and unknown lands…”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

Politics is not only unpleasant but difficult. It requires bridging the infinite gulfs between people’s metaphysically irreconcilable worldviews and conflicting desires. Out of the rock of these apparent islands, the politician is tasked with building the bridges on which most people must travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could just order in? If the goods we all want could just show up on our island one day like an Amazon package (perhaps by drone)?

That is the false promise of microtargeting, which is the practice of communicating distinct messages to increasingly narrowly defined segments of the population (e.g. through Facebook ads).

Why go to the trouble of writing a speech, law, or policy that weaves together all the disparate views into a coalition capable of propelling the politician forward, when you can merely aggregate the support you need one micro-constituency at a time by giving each some discrete good or promise? While they’re busy at home, you can remold or neglect the landscape as you please.

But make no mistake, it’s a false promise. People may be able to draw their blinds and eat their piece of the pie at home alone or with family and friends for a while, but eventually they will look outside. It may be that every time they looks the weather is a bit worse encouraging them to stay in a bit longer, but sooner or later the banks of the river will overflow and the flood will force them out.

When they do, they will notice the crumbling bridges, the broken sinews of the body politic.  Something will happen and they will recall why it was people first drew together in common life (or at least so the story goes). But they will be cut off and what could only be accomplished together will simply not be possible.

But necessity is the mother of all invention. And when the political technology of aggregation is revealed for what it really is, something new, or perhaps something old, will have to come.