We Elect Soundbites

by Saurabh Jha

31indo-pak1In 2004, India’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the incumbents, lost the election to the Congress party. Their loss was a surprise. Though polling is not an exact science, least of all in the sub-continent, what made the loss even more surprising was the election slogan used by the BJP – “India Shining.” India seemed to be shining. There was an economic boom, particularly in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore. The Indian cricket team almost beat Australia in Australia, and had just beaten Pakistan in Pakistan. The Indian cricket team usually got walloped by these countries. The successes on the cricket pitch were extrapolated to the happiness of the proletariat.

I was in Hyderabad, Telangana, at the time. The youth had optimism and spoke about making crores (10 million rupees), not just lakhs (100 thousand rupees). Satyam, a computer giant, was building, literally, a computer village in Hyderabad. Though the skies were polluted in Hyderabad, everywhere you went there was beer, biryani, and belief. It was a good time to be in Hyderabad.

I visited a village less than 100 kilometers from Hyderabad, in the Ranga Reddy District, partly to fulfil my desire for “poverty porn.” The sky there, though less polluted than Hyderabad, seemed darker. Suicide of farmers, because they couldn’t pay their loans, was particularly high in that village. It was the sort of place where people still died from snakebites. The villagers couldn’t give a crap about India’s success in cricket – such joys are a bourgeoisie indulgence. For them, India wasn’t shining and it annoyed them to hear that India was shining, India was the same old, same old. Over two thirds of Indians live in villages. It is the villagers who decide who governs the nation. By rejecting the soundbite, “India Shining,” the villagers rejected the BJP.

In the 2008 elections, Americans gyrated to “Hope and Change.” I never understood what exactly was hoped for, and what one should change to. I’m still unclear. I presume “change” meant “be less capitalistic” and “hope” was a promised utopia where we’d all be our brother’s keeper – although if everyone was going to be kept who would do the keeping?

Shortly after Obama beat McCain, I was in Danville, a small town in Pennsylvania. It is said that Pennsylvania is Alabama between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Danville is Alabama central. Things are different in Danville from Philadelphia, where I live. You know you’re entering Philadelphia when you see billboards of mustachioed plaintiff attorneys. In Danville, the billboards advertise guns, not lawyers. Whilst Philadelphians swooned to Obama’s “Hope and Change” melody, there seemed little evidence of swooning in Danville. I admit I didn’t survey everyone in Danville, but the barman who served me a drink pithily said something I’ll never forget. I asked him if he was happy with Obama’s victory. He replied, “What fucking hope? What fucking change?” I suspect his questions were rhetorical.

For many of my colleagues – Ivy-league-educated doctors, who drive Priuses and Teslas, who know which red wine to pair with steak, who meditate to Bikram Yoga, and eat non-American cuisine, usually sushi, at least once a week – that someone voted for Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, strains their credulity. “I don’t get it”, they say. But such intellectual savants miss a point. People, including they, don’t vote for the greater good; people vote for soundbites. In this election, Trump had the catchier soundbite. Trump’s soundbite, “Let’s make America great again,” is genius in its simplicity. It captured America’s great past, instilling pride and nostalgia. It emphasized the dismal present, or at least convinced you that the present is dismal. And promised a bright future. It’s all of history in a single Tweet. “Let’s make America great again” is the heir apparent to “Hope and Change.”

A friend, who supports Trump, challenged me to name a specific policy of Hillary Clinton’s that would arouse the masses. I thought carefully and said, “minimum wage.” “LGBT rights.” Reproductive justice.” He was nonplussed. I then imagined how the barman in Danville would have reacted if I came in shouting “minimum wage, reproductive justice, hope and change.” The best soundbite Mrs. Clinton had at her disposal was “Never Trump,” which seemed to have spectacularly backfired.

If Mrs. Clinton had mastered the science of policy making, Mr. Trump owned the rhetoric of democracy. And rhetoric gives science a run for its money. Democracy has always been about soundbites. “India Shining” failed not because it was a soundbite, but the wrong soundbite. In 1971, Indira Gandhi romped to victory by using a clever slogan, “Garibi mitao”, which means “remove poverty”. Mrs. Gandhi never explained how she would remove poverty. Nor has Mr. Trump explained how he will make America great again – he doesn’t need to. Soundbites have an inherent appeal in a democracy – they’re a heuristic of sorts.

But soundbites aren’t just expedient, but necessary. It’s unlikely that many voters, even those with a PhD in economics, calculate an expected value of the benefits and harms of presidential candidates before voting. And even if they did, it would be a forlorn endeavor because of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. The theorem, devised by an economist, Kenneth Arrow, says that it is not possible for choices of individuals, which vary, about competing public policies to be retained by the group. This means that when different people prefer different things to different extents, and you add their preference to derive a preference for the group, the result is that everyone is unhappy. This sounds like common sense – you can’t please everyone about everything all the time – but Kenneth Arrow got a Nobel Prize for this intuition.

The only way to achieve unanimity in governance is a dictatorship. The alternative is a soundbite. A soundbite is a crafty dictator. Rather than forcing you to obey, the soundbite coaxes you into suspending cerebral activity. Better a soundbite than a dictator. I hope.