Appetite or Reason? By Al Sikes

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What happens when big data and artificial intelligence tools dominate humanity? Will a super-rational world result as leaders, with the resources, use the tools? We are in the midst of finding out.

Count me a skeptic. The early stage of the experiment started years ago in politics. I had a front-row seat and believe the results are not encouraging.

In the 1970s and 80s, I worked with some very gifted political pollsters, strategists, and tacticians who were pushing the boundaries of targeted politics.

My collaborations were in Missouri helping friends who were campaigning for the U. S. Senate, and later Governor. My closest relationship was with Bob Teeter who founded Market Opinion Research and subsequently took the lead in campaigns for Presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush. Peripherally, I got to know George Gallup Jr and spent time with him talking about the predictive power of polling.

Political science had been my major and I was quite fortunate in going beyond academics into the practical application of data science in winning elections. But, I shudder to think of where today and tomorrow’s tools will take us.

The essence of political targeting is mostly exploitative. Passions are discovered and fed—moderation is left out. And when I use the term moderation I mean moderate voice.

Some years ago, Lay’s Potato Chips issued a tongue in cheek challenge: “Bet you can’t eat just one!” There is a political corollary. Once discovered, emotional positions are mined over and over.

Former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth

In a campaign I managed for John C. Danforth, then Missouri’s Attorney General who was running for the U. S. Senate, I worked with Richard Viguerie, a fundraising specialist. Viguerie was right when he said Danforth would have limited success because he wouldn’t use inflammatory language or imagery. Danforth was pro-life but refused to use an image of a fetus floating in a bottle of formaldehyde.

This 1970s story, in today’s world, seems antique. Our current President specialized in inflammation and he won.

At the risk of brevity, The Philosophical Dictionary notes, that “According to Plato, a person who has the virtue of moderation subordinates the desire for pleasure to the dictates of reason. For Aristotle, all virtues are to be understood as the mean between vicious extremes.”

Today the word moderation is used by the political immoderate to mean, unprincipled. Striking a balance is somehow heretical. In a nation of 325 million very different people, the politics of division weakens politics and society.

Abortion, unfunded public employee benefits, school choice, immigration, and guns are atop the hit parade of political combat. On issue after issue the center, often a voice of realism, is shouted down.

Two generations ago political research firms mainly used demographic patterns to predict responsive political groups. Catholics, it was thought, were likely to be pro-life. Urbanites more anti-gun. Etcetera.

Today political research and targeting is done at the granular level. The public is trolled and then sold. Relatedly, it is why candidates are tightly scripted. Political debates have devolved into a war of scripts, and the debate loser is often the victim of a gotcha moment.

In most competitive debate, debaters have to be able to take the side the judges assign. Perhaps the best question at a presidential debate is to ask each candidate to make the best case for the other side’s position.

But, regardless of how the rules of campaigns and their funding evolve, we need to understand that our appetites, not reason, are the first line of persuasion. We will be told that the other candidate (attack seems now the first line of attack) is pro this or anti that and the language used will not be moderate. This, all too successful tactic, eliminates the fondest dream of all democrats—governable consent by a well-informed electorate.

But, let me leave the final word to Irish born philosopher, Edmund Burke.

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites… Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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