Obama Emails Are Awesome, But They Could Also Destroy Democracy

As someone who has been donating to President Barack Obama’s campaign since long before last year, I often get emails reminding me that I am one of the campaign’s most committed supporters. Vice President Joe Biden likes to send me videos with the tagline, “This is sooo cool!” deviously exploiting my weakness for clicking on entertaining videos. David (Axelrod), Jim (Messina), and Michelle (Obama) just always know what I like and what gets me going.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when President Obama came onstage during the election debates and started talking about Medicare. A lot. And then he kept talking about Medicare, even when the topic was foreign policy. Of course, I knew before hand that health care was a big issue, but thanks to targeted advertising, I never thought that Medicare would take up so much of the discussion. The campaign managers at Obama2012 have mercifully spared this 23-year-old the worries of old people.

It’s easy and tempting to focus only on the privacy concerns of political targeting. Campaigns collect data on age, race, credit history, magazine subscriptions, and a host of other consumption patterns. Everything that companies know from tracking users online, political campaigns know from buying the information from the same sources.

Of course, Yahoo and Microsoft defend their decision to sell the data by pointing out that individuals are never specifically identified in the anonymous data set, and, indeed, if nobody puts the data together, you are likely remain merely “Number 97HK36.” But there is still something uncanny, something sinister, about seeing a commercial that pretends to address the American people, and knowing that it is actually addressing you — the white, 20-something subscriber to Cat Fancy.

My bigger concern over targeted ads, however, is that they seem to undermine the very legitimacy and functioning of democracy itself. Consider why we follow majority rule laws — even when we ourselves disagree with the majority, we know that our neighbors share our interest in things like common defense and prosperity. We also know that they care about us as people. When Sandy struck New York, the whole nation read about it, even though many knew no one who actually lived on the East Coast.

Polities are made through shared concerns and preoccupations, and without them, factionalism and self-serving-ness soon come to dominate. When others don’t care about me, it makes less and less sense for me to care about them, and this challenges the legitimacy of democratic laws. For example, Detroit unemployment does not affect anyone I know. If GM workers in Detroit need a bailout, why should I support it? And if they go through with it anyway, why should I agree to give them my money, when I was opposed to the decision?

The American Founders viewed the President as a type of a king. He was supposed to unify the nation and set the agenda for the common project. Targeted political advertisements don’t only undermine our privacy — they hinder the very ideal of democracy on which our polity stands.