Why demographic segmentation is bad for democracy

2012 November 11

It is a bad outcome when the main lesson learned from the recent US Presidential election is that future political leaders will win through a better understanding of demographic segmentation. The conventional wisdom emerging from the recent victory of Barack Obama is that Republicans lost because they failed to understand that the United States is becoming more diverse, and consequently over-relied on older, white votes. Conversely, Democrats are deemed to have won the Presidency and gained seats in the Senate by energizing the vote of Latinos, African Americans, women and younger voters.

The problem with this argument is that it represents a static view of the situation (yes, the numbers are as advertised in the re-election of President Obama), but fails to recognize the dynamic role of political innovation in electoral success (no, there wasn’t any of that in the recent election). Like in business, political innovation does not reside in the ability to activate one’s traditional segment by honing in messages specifically crafted for them (the proverbial “red meat” for the equally proverbial “base”), but in rearranging the segments and building new creative coalitions among them. The name of the game should not be to grind out electoral victories through micro-segmentation and predictive modeling of votes county-by-county or citizen-by-citizen. The role of a political leader should be to engage a large electorate of diverse people in not only redefining their relationship to the candidate, but to each other. There is room for operational micro-segmentation processes as a second implementation step, but it is hardly a substitute for the broad democratic engagement process a candidate should orchestrate. In the election, both candidates had a lot of the former, and precious little of the latter (particularly if one compares Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign to 2008).

Successful campaigns are those where demographic frontiers get blurred and new relationships develop among supporters of widely varied ethnic, gender, sexual preference or age backgrounds, triggering new electoral coalitions. A campaign platform should be about drawing as many people as possible to become active members of the system and co-create with the candidate what he or she stands for. Voting is but the tip of the democratic co-creation iceberg, with day-to-day life in the community its underwater part.

Political campaigns should start in wide open form, not as manifestos. The pressure put by pundits on candidates to define their programs very early, down to the specific tax deductions they will eliminate and the energy programs they will support, is a negation of democracy, not an enhancement thereof. In a co-creative electoral system, there ought to be room for the much derided “listening campaign” of Hillary Clinton in her first senatorial run, or for the highly ridiculed etch-a-sketch views of Mitt Romney. Thinking that candidates should state their views once and for all, then execute them flawlessly once in office under penalty of becoming flip-floppers is as ridiculous as would have been to ask Steve Jobs to define the Apple strategy down to the scroll wheel of the next iPhone, all the while testing whether Latinos or women respond favorably to it.

The new leadership we need is not about ideas, but about process. It is not about reconfiguring party lines, or even bipartisanship from the top-down. It is about democratizing democracy at the community level, and reconstructing it piece by piece.

 

 

 

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