A look at Cambridge Analytica’s real business.
The tl;dr is that CA is part of an established consulting industry that, basically, swoops in to developing nations in order to put a veneer of credibility on fixed and-or otherwise corrupt elections. It’s been doing this for years, in a practice that’s been around for decades. The only reason we’re hearing about it now is because someone (i.e. Russia, and their cultivated kleptocratic pets) has finally started turning the West’s tools against itself.
For the record, I think the sort of “political consultancy” services offered by CA are bad whenever they pop up, which means I’m a little torn. Because, like, on the one hand, it’s good that this shady shit is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves. But, like, on the other, I think people need to keep in mind said “shady shit” is something the West has been exporting for decades, and getting uppity only because it is now impacting us is kinda bullshit.
The other thing to keep in mind is that—for all the West likes to bleat about liberal democracy—very few of its elites actually really believe in it anymore, particularly if you take the “three pillars” model of a modern, healthy democracy requiring rule of law, bureaucracy, and accountability in order to function.1 The political right in particular has spent something like the last three-plus decades undermining bureaucracy (a.k.a. “the state” or “government”), for example—think any negative stereotype you’ve seen in pop culture about civil servants—while certain factions (cough libertarians cough) don’t believe in it at all (regulation, including of capitalism, is a core function of a well-functioning bureaucracy, as are things like effective taxation and administration of social welfare). Meanwhile, the Trump White House is basically the cumulation in the longstanding attack on the rule of law. The idea that one can use one’s money/power/etc. to put oneself and one’s cohort above legal ramifications is a fundamental attack on liberal democracy in a way I think a lot of people don’t really appreciate. But the concept of rule of law—that is, that the law is the law and the law is the same for everyone, regardless of station—is the fundamental manifestation of the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy”. Yes, the practical application of the law is flawed—all human institutions are—but I’d be very wary about that fact alone being used as an excuse to scuttle the judiciary, rather than attempt to improve it.2
It’s telling about the insidious success of long-term efforts to erode democracy from within that most people nowadays don’t even process weaknesses in rule of law and bureaucracy as being attacks on liberal democracy itself. Nowadays, we “expect” bureaucrats to be bad at their jobs and judges and politicians to be corrupt, because everything from the news to pop culture tells us they are. But this is not an inevitability, and we really should demand better. And the way we demand better? Elections, a.k.a. the third pillar, or accountability.
I think people are a little better at associating election interference as being an attack against liberal democracy than they are with attacks on the bureaucracy and the rule of law… assuming you can get people to accept that what they’re seeing is, in fact, an attack. My husband, for example, recently attended a speaking lunch by a dude who, straight-faced, made the argument that people shouldn’t get up in arms about the techniques used by CA because “it’s just advertising” and “everyone does it”. Which is one of those arguments that seems kinda reasonable on the vapidly cynical surface—I mean, everyone does do it, right?—except that, like, holy erosion of democratic norms, Batman. Or did we all forget the part where advertising in general, and election advertising in particular, is heavily regulated precisely because it can be used for ill intent?3
This is the point in the conversation where you tend to get to the, “So what?” It’s the part where people start nitpicking over whether CA’s methods of action were “ethical”, for example, which I honestly think misses the point. I don’t know if electoral message hyper-targeting with the intent of influencing voter outcomes is “ethical” or not and, frankly, I’m not even that interested in the question. What I am interested in is the preservation and continual improvement of oldskool liberal democracy as an institution, and the fact that secretive partisan propaganda campaigns hidden from broad swathes of the population really feel like a violation of liberal norms. It’s not about “ethics”; it’s about whether or not this sort of behaviour operates in the sphere of “free and fair” elections.4
This isn’t about partisan politics, or at least it shouldn’t be; the whole point of a liberal democracy is that it’s a political form that isn’t beholden solely to the left or to the right, to the conservatives or the progressives. It’s the institution that’s supposed to transcend all of that. Except… apparently, somewhere along the way, we forgot that. And, well, I say “we” here but let’s be real; anti-democratic attacks in the last few decades, at least in Western nations, have come almost exclusively from certain segments of the political far right.5 Also, “forgot” is kind of a nice euphemism to cover up the actual meaning of, “Intentionally undertook a long-term campaign of attempting to keep progressives/leftists out of political power by any means necessary, up-to-and-including the erosion of democracy itself, because… Red Scare and genderqueer hippies, I guess?” Who knows, even.
The problem, I think, is that because the political right has spent so long dragging itself and its constituency outside of the democratic tent it’s no trivial task to get them back in; how do you convince conservatives who’ve been trained to see democratic institutions as fundamentally leftist/socialist/liberal/progressive/etc., and thus untrustworthy, that the system only works when everyone is included? That’s, like, literally the definition of the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy”, back before the right turned liberal into a dirty word (which, yanno, is kind of emblematic of the problem itself).
I have no idea what the answer is and, let’s face it, that was a kind of depressing twelve-hundred words for something that originally was supposed to be just an article link. So… yanno. Let’s finish up with a picture of my dog to make everyone feel better.
- Also known as the judiciary, executive, and legislature respectively, for those of you who learnt about separation of powers in school. ^
- Ditto with “government is inefficient” being used as an excuse to hand public goods—everything from clean water to parklands to the defence forces—over to the profit-making private sector rather than, like, improving the quality of government administration. Heresy, I know. ^
- See, for example, cigarette companies, who are no longer allowed to knowingly lie and tell you smoking is good for you—even if doing so makes them a lot of money—and also the various court cases and scandals that got us to that point. ^
- See also: gerrymandering, for example, or bullshit techniques like only locating polling booths miles away from certain populations and only holding elections on days when it’s difficult for those communities to get to them. Technically, these techniques don’t violate the letter of things like “one person one vote” but, I mean, c’mon. Thinking that they’re in any way in-keeping with the spirit and principles of “free and fair elections” requires nothing less than a fundamental contempt for the institution of democracy itself. ^
- Not all of it; there are still scattered pockets of right-wing and conservative types who believe in liberal democratic institutions more than they do partisan politics. Ref., for example, the fact that a lot of this post builds on the work of Francis Fukuyama, a political theorist and arch-conservative of the pre-2000s variety. ^