In 1971, Don Maclean released one of the most iconic songs of the 20th Century, “American Pie”. Initially a lament for the death of Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash with two other burgeoning rock and roll talents of the time (“the day the music died”), the song spreads itself out into a mournful rendering of what Maclean believed to be the demise of the country’s soul. It is not only a great song, but also an amazing piece of opaque poetry.
The timing of the song’s release was not coincidental. Looking back at the Sixties from the vantage point of 1971 was to feel a loss akin to bereavement. The decade had started with such optimism and with calls to yet greater things. Most decades are lucky to have one inspirational leader, yet this one had three – the three K’s (JFK, RFK and MLK). By 1968, they would all be dead, the country was sinking into the quagmire of Vietnam and we entered into the dark period of Nixon. Moon landings apart, from the vantage point of 1971, it looked like the country had lost its virginity in the worst possible way.
From there on in, with a brief interlude for Reagan’s “Morning in America” (not backed up by his economic policies), it has been a long, slow slide into division, hatred and contempt. Starting with the hatred of Clinton, followed by the contempt for George W., we entered an era of false hope with Obama, not because of his own doings but because of deep-seated hatred for all that he stood for and who he was. Today, we have reached the bottom of the pit with the President’s populist followers hating the “elite” and the “elite” fiercely contemptuous of the President himself and his party.
How did we get here? Did the soul of the country really die in the Sixties with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King? How have we got to the point where politics has become the third rail of family conversation and where “compromise” has become the dirtiest word in Washington?
There is plenty of data to support a myriad of (sometimes conflicting) theories. Economic, social, industrial, anthropological. We have data coming out of our ears about wealth inequality, the rape of “flyover America”, the iniquities of the justice system for Blacks, illegal immigration, social security, the effects of the tax system – you name it. And yet, the data don’t answer the central question. Why are we so depressed? Why do we no longer believe in the optimism of 1960? Why are we so angry? All that the data do is to feed, through selective choice, the theories and prejudices of each side.
Human bias is inescapable when it comes to data analysis. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking politics, economics or the correct packaging for Doritos. However much folks talk up the wonders of Machine Learning (another euphemism for Artificial Intelligence), the sheer fact of the matter is that human beings will take data and manipulate it to reflect their own predelictions.
So how do we get to the bottom of the American malaise? How do we get to understand the anger? And how do we get Americans talking to one another again?
Through listening. True, unfiltered, deep listening. We need to walk in the shoes of the people, experience their life journeys, hear their arguments, live their lives. This is a huge challenge to the research profession. As we come under withering attack (justified or not) for the shortcomings of polling, we need to undertake a massive ethnographic listening tour of American life, both offline and online.
Funnily enough, the first country to do this was Britain in World War II. They set up a program called “Mass Observation” – the first mass listening, ethnographic exercise ever, designed to gauge the resilience of the British in the face of the German onslaught. It informed the Government – and Churchill in particular – to the extent that they knew how far they could take the people with them and how to do so.
Perhaps it is the existential mission of the modern-day research profession to do the same thing “for your country”.