Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Party as Database


Last year, in my essay The Last Days of Disco: Why the American Political System is Dysfunctional, I explained that modern American political parties were turning into databases connected to fundraising operations.  The two major political parties, and in particular, the Republican Party have been growing weaker because party organizations can be supplanted by wealthy contributors who either have access to party databases or have developed databases of their own.
In the Jacksonian era, mass political parties emerged, held together by party platforms, mobilization efforts, and systems of patronage. The political party of the early twenty-first century is increasingly organized around the collection and analysis of information. This is the idea of the party as database. The party’s electoral success depends increasingly on its abilities at data mining and political surveillance of potential voters and messaging to those voters.  Information systems are indispensable to their continued success. Parties must be able to gather information on likely voters and contributors and calibrate their messages to them. Surveillance and data analysis allow campaigns to figure out who might support them. They can then micro-target potential supporters with individualized messages, raise money repeatedly from them, and get them out to vote. Like other organizations in the twenty-first century – both in the public and private sector – a political party collects and analyzes information about the public in order to promote its goals. Databases and surveillance are by now as important as shoe leather and campaign rallies.

This new model of party organization has important side effects. First, parties increasingly engage in political surveillance of their members and potential members.  Parties want to know who will contribute to and vote for their candidates, and avoid wasting time and resources on persons who are not worth pursuing. Once supporters are identified, parties want to know how best to mobilize these people and get them to the polls on Election Day. Thus, instead of voters choosing parties, parties seek to choose their voters by ever more finely detailed data analysis and targeted communications strategies. Digital technologies can be used in many ways, but they are particularly valuable in an era of polarized parties and a polarized electorate, in which the set of genuinely independent and/or persuadable voters is small, relatively uninformed, and may be susceptible to micro-targeting strategies.
A second issue is ownership of intellectual property – who maintains databases and with whom they share their data and their analysis. Increasingly, those who control the databases control the party.  This tends to weaken party structure and the ability of party leaders to discipline insurgent groups. Independent funders or organizations like Americans for Prosperity, founded by David and Charles Koch, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, or the Tea Party Express may become more important than the traditional party apparatus, not only because they have independent sources of funding to support their favored candidates, but also because they have information on potential voters and donors.
Owners of databases become like warlords, masters of individual fiefs, who enjoy autonomy and independent political power, and who are therefore less easily controlled by a central party apparatus. This phenomenon has been developing for a long time. The New Right emerged through the use of mailing lists to generate political support and funding. Digital technologies have simply sped up the process; they amplify the possibilities for action outside traditional party control, making data-mining strategies ever more powerful and therefore ever more essential to political success. Technology changes the balance of power not only between parties, but also between various actors within parties and outside parties who seek to control or influence American parties and American politics.

This prediction appears to be coming true, as evidenced by the struggle between the Koch brothers and the Republican National Committee over access to data. Nico Lauricella explains:
The Republican National Committee and the Koch brothers, who have the deepest pockets in conservative politics, are fighting what one GOP operative is calling an "all-out war" over who gets control of the party's voter profiles, Jon Ward at Yahoo Politics reports. If that sounds too esoteric to be meaningful, it shouldn't.

Voter data is the stuff that campaigns are built on. It lets politicians, super PACs, and advocacy groups know who to target with different messages and where. The RNC controls the GOP voter file — but the Koch Brothers apparently have built the better interface to process it. And the latter is getting more and more traction with Republicans campaigns. The RNC isn't pleased.

"I think it's very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how," Katie Walsh, the RNC’s chief of staff, told Ward.
Well, of course, the RNC would say that. If powerful contributors already have access to the RNC's data, and if, as Philip Bump suggests, the Koch version of the database is actually superior and easier to use, the RNC matters less. It adds less value, it can impose less discipline, and it has less ability to  control the party's strategy in  primary and general campaigns.  The rise of data-driven campaigns threatens to weaken party control and indeed, completely transform the political system.  Even if parties are able to reassert control over databases-- a big if-- the digital age means that party organization will never be the same.

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