Simulating Democracy

James Gleick in the New York Review of Books:

“Which category have they put you in?”

This sinister question—at least, it was meant to sound sinister—headlined the advertising copy for The 480, a 1964 novel by Eugene Burdick. His previous best sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, had caused sensations in political circles, and the new one promised to do the same. Its jacket featured the image of a punched card. The title referred to 480 categories of voter, defined by region, religion, age, and other demographic characteristics, such as “Midwestern, rural, Protestant, lower income, female.” Many readers recoiled from the notion of being sorted into one of these boxes. The New York Times’s reviewer called The 480 a “shock novel” and found it implausible.

What was so shocking? What was implausible? The idea that a company might use computer technology and behavioral science to gather and crunch data on American citizens, with the nefarious goal of influencing a presidential election.

In the 1950s and 1960s this seemed like science fiction. Actually, The 480 was a thinly disguised roman à clef, based on a real-life company called Simulmatics, which had secretly worked for the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy. Burdick had been a political operative himself and knew the Simulmatics founders well. The company’s confidential reports and memoranda went straight into his prose. And the 480 categories—listed in an appendix to the novel—were the real Simulmatics voter types, the creation of what one of its founders called “a kind of Manhattan Project gamble in politics.”

Simulmatics was founded in 1959 and lasted eleven years. Jill Lepore mentioned its involvement in the Kennedy campaign in These Truths (2018), her monumental history of the United States; she was already on the trail of the story she tells in her new book, If Then.

More here.