Electoral fact mirrors science fiction. The first time that computers were used to do “exit polls” was in 1952, in the Eisenhower-Stevenson election. The pundits were predicting a Stevenson victory, but early exit-poll results were fed into Univac, a vacuum-tube computer (transistors had not yet been invented,) and correctly spotted the Eisenhower victory.
Isaac Asimov, the master science fiction writer, saw the possibilities of “computer-assisted elections,” and in 1955 wrote a short story titled “Franchise,” which takes those possibilities to their logical conclusion. If computers are powerful enough to extrapolate accurate results from a small number of votes, perhaps…?
Enter Asimov’s fictional lead, one Norman Muller, who is “the elector” in a future election — the election of 2008, no less. On Election Day, to great fanfare, he goes to the polls to cast his ballot. When he returns home, his friends and neighbors pester him: For whom did he vote? Since he had been picked as The Typical American voter, he was in fact The Only Elector that day. The computers had decided that he had just the right mix of qualities and that his vote would therefore doubtless be cast for the winner. So why bother having millions of others vote?
The trouble was, Muller had no idea for whom he’d voted. He wasn’t given a ballot with two names and a pencil with which to draw a circle around one of them. Instead he was given an attitudinal inventory, asked to respond to a bunch of hypotheticals and, at the end of the process, was sent home, while the computer analyzed his responses and extrapolated from him, a sample of one, vox populi . As ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, The Typical Voter recapitulates The Voting Public.
I once knew that story well; I used it as part of the syllabus for courses I taught in American politics. Now comes Ken Mehlman, manager of the Bush campaign in the recent election, and tells us how his candidate’s get-out-the-vote operation was conducted. Until now, party volunteers, Republicans and Democrats alike, would ring doorbells in neighborhoods known to be heavily in favor of their candidate.
This time, however, the Republicans, says Mehlman, did what Visa does: “We acquired a lot of consumer data. What magazines do you subscribe to? Do you own a gun? How often do the folks go to church? Where do you send your kids to school? Are you married? Based on that, we were able to develop an exact kind of consumer model that corporate America does every day to predict how people vote — not based on where they live, but on how they live.”
How they live: It is too simple to dismiss this method as entirely consumer oriented. Where you send your child to school, how often you attend church, your marital status — these are not consumption habits. No, this is a method that is as much about values as it is about shopping. And “values” is, of course, the Big Concept that has emerged from the recent elections. “Moral values,” to be specific.
That’s not a bad thing, not at all, nor for that matter a surprising thing. What is surprising, even dismaying, is the conflation, in almost all discussion of the phenomenon, of moral values and religion. And unless the Democrats distinguish between the two, they will likely fall over themselves, blabbering about how important their faith is to them, thereby not only distorting their views but also missing the point. Americans want, and deserve, politicians who are moved by and committed to moral values.
But when Al From, chief executive and founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says that his party “needs to relearn how to appeal to rural voters and religious voters,” watch out. There go the Democrats, and there goes the wall of separation between church and state. Yet again and again, in the endless commentary on the election, “faith” and “religion” are used as virtual synonyms for “moral values.”
Whether to allow the hanging of the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall is not the great moral question of our time, nor for that matter is even the status of stem-cell research. If voters in 2004 were moved by such questions, it is in part because there are some who are passionate about them, but in far larger part because the deeper and more urgent moral questions were either not raised at all by the Democrats or were mentioned more or less in passing — and when mentioned, were only rarely framed as moral questions.
I, too, wish the Democrats had taken a more explicitly moral stand. Health care and hunger, for example, are moral questions; so is tax policy. And I wish the voters had been more tolerant of flip-flops, and less tolerant of the outright lies that characterize the Bush presidency. But before everyone goes jumping into baptismal waters, it is worth remembering that John Kerry did not run a campaign so much as he stumbled through one.
The least nimble of people, who chose weeks of silence after the devastating Swift Boat attack, he made it possible for observers well into October to wonder what his campaign was about. One theme one day, another the next, and all in the shadow of his incredible “If I knew then what I know now, I’d still have voted for this war.” And with all that, Kerry got 48% of the vote, came within one state of winning the election.
It remains impossible for many of us in the progressive camp to understand how people could vote for Bush; it is not at all difficult to understand why they would not vote for Kerry. A consistent moral stance might have helped.
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).