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Microtrends

By Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne
Twelve, 2007

Anyone who wants to know why American politics have the shape they currently hold need look no further than Mark J. Penn’s new book Microtrends. It must be stridently emphasized that this is not a compliment. Penn is a pollster (his smaller-fonted co-writer E. Kinney Zalesne has no such taint on his character, although he knows his way around the Beltway), and on the strength of this vocation he has been an influential advisor to such figures as President Clinton, Bill Gates, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In other words, he’s the living nightmare of all rational individuals: an intellectually shallow trend-wonk with his hand on the jump-lines of actual, real world power.

He got there by reducing thought to instinct, and by reducing instinct to numbers. He shot to bankable notoriety by coining the phrase ‘soccer moms’ to identify a suburban voting-bloc he claimed would be pivotal to Bill Clinton’s attempt to gain the White House, and in Microtrends he expands on this idea, laying out 75 similar rubrics and claiming these ‘microtrends’ have the power to shape and alter national and world events in new ways:

In fact, the whole idea that there are a few huge trends that determine how America and the world work is breaking down. There are no longer a couple of mega-forces sweeping us all along. Instead, America and the world are being pulled apart by an intricate maze of choices, accumulating in ‘microtrends’—small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as 1 percent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society. It’s not just that small is the new big. It’s that in order to truly know what’s going on, we need better tools than just the naked eye and the eloquent tongue. We need the equivalent of magnifying glasses and microscopes…

It’s hard to read claptrap like this without thinking about the late lamented TV show The West Wing, in this case the first season episode “20 Hours in L.A.” in which smart and idealistic President Bartlett and his staff have made a quick visit to Los Angeles to shore up political alliances. One meeting they arrange is with super-pollster Al Kiefer, who’s giving his input on the question of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

To the consternation of the President’s staff, Al Kiefer proposes that far from opposing such an amendment or staying neutral, Bartlett should ‘lead the charge’ in favor of such a change. His staffers scoff, but the President wants to hear more, and like all pollsters everywhere, Al Kiefer has plenty to say:

Look, I get that this is not the most popular idea in the room. But I’ve got numbers, and I know numbers, and I trust numbers.

All of which would no doubt have Penn nodding vigorously, but the real punch line happens a beat later, when Al Kiefer is making his pitch directly to the President:

Because of guys like me, you get to know the results before anybody else does. So you get to pick which side you’re on. And not only do we get to be on the winning team, we get to lead the winning team.

In the episode, a virtuous rival pollster saves the day by clueing in the staffers to how fraudulent Kiefer’s numbers are, but it scarcely matters: a President as cantankerous and intellectually scintillating as Jed Bartlett would never yield to the Jedi mind-tricks of a mere pollster. And he doesn’t—despite being told that saying otherwise would ‘sew up’ his second term, he later uses the non-issue to gently excoriate a panel of influential L.A. citizens, basically telling them they’re all upset about nothing, and that even if they weren’t, there’s no way he’d advocate a constitutional amendment that ran contrary to the first amendment.

Jed Bartlett was of course a fictional creation, a president literally too good to be true: Nobel laureate, loving, faithful husband, doting, overprotective father, and most of all principled, uncompromised leader of the United States, a man as likely to honor a staffer’s childhood schoolteacher as he is to stare down a belligerent Pakistan.

The real world doesn’t offer up such leaders (well, at least who are Neilson-approved…we won’t be talking here about such US-ambivalent figures as Muammar Qaddafi, Vladimir Putin, and Hugo Chavez), but it certainly does offer up such creatures as Al Kiefer.

The reader can’t help but think about Mark Penn in such a context, because there he is, on every page, vociferously advocating a constitutional ban on flag-burning.

Not really, but goddam close enough. What is this noxious book, but a tight-packed bestiary of mindless media-tags masquerading as demographic research? This stuff doesn’t have the validity of intelligence, but it likewise lacks the grounded security of true ignorance—instead, it’s anti-thought, and its foremost goal is to foment anti-thinking. It never crosses Al Kiefer’s mind to ask the President what he actually, personally feels about flag-burning, any more than it crosses Jed Bartlett’s mind to change what he feels because of anything Al Kiefer might say based on the numbers he knows so well. But in the real world, people like Mark Penn were able to convince presidential candidate Bill Clinton to devise (and then promise) legislation specifically tailored to the statistically perceived wants and concerns of so-called ‘Soccer Moms.’ And candidate Bill Clinton, who’d never previously displayed any interest in such a focus-group, complied—not because his eyes had been opened to a social injustice, but because somebody like Al Kiefer had leaned across a table and promised him a landslide if he did as he was advised.

That person was Mark Penn. And to hear him tell it, he’s just a guy with a calculator:

My job was to wade through all the opinions and offer a solid, quantitative view of reality based on the numbers, so that leaders had a true picture when they made their decisions.

The two assumptions underlying this claim—that numbers will give you a ‘true picture’ and that of course no leader will make a decision contrary to that picture—run through almost the entire length of Microtrends, and they’re mighty depressing. The point of that West Wing episode is that numbers can lie just as easily as words, that they must never act as a substitute for a leader’s judgment or conviction.

Penn actually has the gall to write, “Many of us have a healthy mistrust of numbers, because some people, in an effort to advance an agenda, misuse them.” In case you’re missing the irony there, take another look at the jobs Penn has had, and the one he currently has. If that doesn’t constitute an agenda, it would be hard to know what does.

Outrage at this point will surely seem a little quaint; presidential candidates have been listening to pollsters and media experts as long as polls and any kind of media have been around. But in American politics, the ideal has been that the candidates use such people to best present to the public a set of beliefs and convictions that are already in place before the race. The challenge was to let the voters know what you stand for and hope they like it better than what your rivals stand for, not to use microscopes and magnifying glasses to find out exactly what voters care about and then become that. Imagining a liberal governor of a liberal state decamping to seek higher office in a largely conservative country and suddenly spouting a conservative party line is soul-wearying stuff. But to Mark Penn, it’s business as usual.

 
So he sets about delineating his 75 microtrends and explaining why each is important, how each could break out and become the next ‘soccer moms.’ We have ‘office romancers,’ ‘working retired,’ ‘wordy women,’ ‘ardent amazons,’ ‘pro Semites,’ ‘interracial families,’ ‘pet parents,’ ‘Christian Zionists,’ ‘newly released ex-cons,’ ‘high school moguls,’ ‘aspiring snipers,’ ‘caffeine crazies,’ ‘neglected dads,’ ‘second home buyers,’ ‘bourgeois and bankrupt,’ ‘surgery lovers,’ ‘video game grown-ups,’ ‘Vietnamese entrepreneurs,’ ‘educated terrorists’ and a host of other tabloid reductions, and their seductive potential is obvious. Just look at that partial list: virtually every label is loaded enough with surface innuendo to evoke a split-second visceral reaction. You hear ‘newly released ex-cons’ or ‘aspiring snipers’ and suddenly a whole hedge-work of biases, knee-jerk judgments, and unexamined prejudices springs up; you can picture such a person, you can talk for fifteen minutes at a party about such a person, and you have almost certainly never met such a person. In other words, even by invoking such a category, Penn has begun to relieve you of the burden of thought. If you’re counting on ‘soccer moms’ acting as one big undifferentiated herd, you’d best treat them that way. The quickest way to see the ugliness of this tactic is to adjust Penn’s ‘microtrend’ tabloid-tags to, say, 1907 instead of 2007—suddenly Bill Clinton is being advised to court the votes of ‘mouthy streetwalkers,’ or ‘scheming Jews,’ or ‘lazy niggers.’ In both cases, an easy, offhand generalization takes the place of actual people, and in neither case is the comfort of generalizing discouraged.

But Penn wouldn’t shift his parameters backwards a century, because he claims ‘microtrends’ are endemic to our frantic modern times. “We live in a world with a deluge of choices,” he tells us:

In almost every area of life, Americans have a wider freedom of choice today than ever in history, including new kinds of jobs, new foods, new religions, new technologies, and new forms of communication and interaction.

That easy equating of the ‘world’ with ‘America’ happens throughout Microtrends, and yet this fails to save the book from a persistent, low-key xenophobia, even when Penn is at his most passionate:

The math can be not just strategic, but also catastrophic. If Islamic terrorists were to convince even just one-tenth of 1 percent of America’s population that they were right, they would have 300,000 soldiers of terror, more than enough to destabilize our society. If they could convert just 1 percent of the world’s one billion Muslims to take up violence, that would be 10 million terrorists, a group that could dwarf even the largest armies and police forces on earth. This is the power of small groups that come together today.

But do they stand up to scrutiny, these microtrends Penn’s putting forward? Well no, of course they don’t, any more than would ‘lady drivers’ or ‘aging lotharios’ or ‘city hall hacks’ or any other cheap label designed to replace reason with reaction. Probably the most unintentionally funny example is Green’s ‘Christian Zionists’ microtrend, purporting to examine the sub-group of Christians who passionately support the existence of the state of Israel. These are deep and murky waters, so it’s not surprising that our author quickly loses his way:

Alas, a muddle of religion and politics—with Christians battling out what most people think of as a crisis between Jews and Muslims. And while they battle, American Jews and American evangelicals are finding themselves strange bedfellows. Historically, the two groups have been on opposite sides of most domestic social issues, from abortion to gay marriage—prompting both to wonder how close their alliance over this issue can be. Moreover, many Jews, understanding that the Christian vision of Christ’s Second Coming involves not just redemption for Christians but also conversion of the Jews, are wary that their political partners may have a hidden agenda in mind.

It’s easily the funniest passage in the book (that ‘moreover,’ hovering right between no point at all and no point whatsoever, is especially choice), reading for all the world like a virginal middle-schooler’s attempt to describe an NFL after-hours poker game. Not only are we told that American Jews have always been die-hard advocates of divorce and gay marriage, but—moreover—it’s revealed that ‘many’ of them suspect American evangelicals might like them to convert. Heady stuff, this microtrending.

Other categories fare little better. About ‘Uptown Tattooed,’ for instance, we’re told, “And what started in the US as part of the hippie and motorcycle gang movement has gone mainstream,” which would come as a surprise to all the American sailors and whalers of the 19th century. ‘Unisexuals’—individuals who reject the stereotypical definitions of male and female—are given their moment in the sun: “While such unisexuals are few, some say they’re the next wave of the civil rights movement.” That ‘some say’ is, alas, fairly representative of this book’s precision—and, one hopes, its prescience, since ‘the civil rights movement’ still has a bit of work to do with women and minorities.

Some of Penn’s categories verge on the absurd, like the bizarre amount of space he gives to ‘young knitters’:

But for young folks, the appeal of knitting is even greater, combining the best of a few of their worlds. Knitting is social like MySpace, with groups gathering to do it communally—and enjoy the conversation that has apparently flowed from it for twenty five centuries. It is skill-oriented, like video games—with the chance to take on increasingly harder challenges and get intense satisfaction from accomplishing them. And in today’s self-defining, self-actualizing teen world (which comes in handy when positioning oneself for college), handmade clothes and accessories can be a smart, creative way to brand one’s unique identity.

This is poll-speak at its most impenetrable—volunteers welcome, for example, to explain what in Hell that parenthetical means (ten re-readings have yet to crack its code, but the book has blurbs on it from Bill Gates and Bill Clinton). The heart of this nonsense is a word you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in ‘Microtrends,’ and that word is fad. ‘Young Knitting’ was a fad, like twist parties or the hula hoop. Fads are random brush-fires of quirky little interests that flare up and then fade away. They have no deeper significance whatsoever. They are micro-relevant. They should not win presidential elections.

Perhaps the most audacious of Penn’s categories is the one his entire professional existence is dedicated to exterminating: ‘long attention spanners’, a group he claims “represent a movement away from split-second decisions and toward deeper, deliberative thinking.” Penn doesn’t appear to consider what deliberative thinking would do to his ‘ardent amazons’ or ‘aspiring snipers’…he’s otherwise occupied, describing this vital microtrend of people who don’t believe in microtrends. Maybe this is why his illustrations are unusually wrong-headed, even in a book full of wrong-headed illustrations. “For every Tuesdays with Morrie,” he tells us, “there is a Tom Wolfe novel,” and before the howl of denial can even build, he’s reminding us of other ‘facts’:

The biggest-grossing movie ever in America was Titanic, which ran for more than three hours.

24, the TV show that took five Emmys in 2006, makes you watch a whole season just to know what happens in one day.

America itself is a country founded on long intellectual documents.

By which point the howl of denial has become a harried, overworked whine of aggrieved corrections. This is Penn example of painting pictures of ‘reality’ based on numbers? Titanic was popular not because of its length but in spite of it—because teenaged girls were willing to sit through all the old people talking about bulkheads in order to repeatedly soak up the poignant lesbian love affair at the movie’s heart. 24 kept viewers watching not because of long attention spans but in explicit contradiction of them, since every installment of that one day was filled with torture, violence, eye-needles, rogue nukes, viral pathogens, assassinations, attempted coups, hairsbreadth escapes, and lots of shouting. Without these elements specifically geared to the short attention span of video-gamers, the show would have promptly disappeared. And the documents on which America was founded—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—tally up at about 30 typed pages. It’s enough to make one wonder if ‘clueless pollster’ might be a microtrend.

Sadly, not all Penn’s categories are so laughable, and although ‘pro Semites’ and ‘aspiring snipers’ are bad enough, perhaps none is more troubling than the so-called microtrend he chooses to call ‘Black teen idols.’ With unconscious irony, he tells us, “Black teens are in an area where old stereotypes die hard,” and he goes on to mention polls that show black teens in America showing increased church attendance, increased volunteer-work, and increased voter turnout. It never seems to occur to him that he’s gleaning these figures from polling precisely those black American teens who’d give a pollster the time of day and none of the vast majority who wouldn’t and who are currently killing each other in unprecedented and rising numbers. Penn explores only his church-going, voting, volunteering slice of the community and concludes:

The bottom line is: Most young blacks in America are serious, engaged, independent, and ready to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

People actually living in America (especially urban America) will stare in wonder at such a conclusion, but its real danger comes from the possibility that Penn or somebody like him might actually convince America’s leaders that such a picture is true, that young blacks in America are a success, something to be checked off the ‘to do’ list and turned away from in satisfaction. This is the signal danger of numbers: they always lie.

Penn is less breathy and less blithe in his concluding chapter (one hopes it’s this voice the man uses when he’s swaying world events in conference sessions behind closed doors), but even there, he exercises little or no control over the thought-provoking ideas he throws out. A perfect case in point is his illustration of the ‘1 percent threshold’ at the heart of his proposed microtrends:

Movements get started by small groups of dedicated, intensely interested people. The al Qaeda model of organization, and the focus on the number of terrorist converts, is crucial. Winning movements are not necessarily majority movements, but they have drive and intensity behind them. Ten people with bazookas can overcome 1,000 people with picket signs, but they can’t overcome 10,000 people with picket signs. This is the magic of the 1 percent threshold, and the potential of microtrends to be at the center of changing the world.

Unlike in the rest of the book, the reasoning here almost seems to make a kind of sense, but it still leads more to frustration than anything else. The analogy as a whole won’t hold: ten people with bazookas can overcome 10,000 people with picket signs, if they’re well supplied with ammunition. In such a circumstance, they’ll fail only if those 10,000 picket-wavers decide to change their tactics and attack, and just that simple wrinkle changes the whole picture in ways Penn doesn’t engage and seems not to see.

All of which would be of little import were it not for the amount of influence he wields. In a little over a year, 5 percent of registered voters are going to go to the polls and vote for somebody to the highest office in the land. And only a few months later, that person’s wealthiest rival will be sworn in as President. That President will face a strong and weird tangle of complicated issues and heavy pressures, both domestic and international. Such a world will need thought, much more thought than is needed today. Anti-thought, used as a guidebook in that frantic future age, can only augur trouble. We can we’ll just have to hope microtrend-spotting is a fad.

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Steve Donoghue briefly served as an advisor for President Franklin Pierce before resigning in protest when Pierce came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He retreated to a log-cabin fastness in the White Mountains, where he currently hosts the literary blog Stevereads