Released not long after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, in the run-up to the 1964 national election, Eugene Burdick's blockbuster political novel, The 480, foresaw the rise of social media and 21st century analytical data manipulation, the use of computer-generated voter profiles to shape - for better or for worse - the outcome of a major national election. Burdick - coauthor of The Ugly American and Fail-Safe - was a true socio-political visionary, ahead of his time by more than half a century.
Many passages and scenes in The 480 bear eerie resemblances to the social divisiveness, political blockades, and moral and ethical failures that dominate today's news cycles about America's place in the world. This sweeping 13-hour unabridged audiobook is the story of the rise of a morally grounded and ethically driven businessman, John Thatch - a political neophyte - to the heights of party stardom through plots by devious party operatives who hold the keys (IBM punch cards) of voter data, and potentially salacious journals, in their greasy little hands.
As noted in the original 1964 cover blurb, "This is the story of an extraordinary presidential campaign, of unwanted fame and public responsibility thrust upon a very private citizen, of love tested and courage found, and a new breed of political expert who believes the voters can be sold a candidate as readily as a housewife is sold a name-brand toothpaste."
The story spans the globe-from India and Pakistan to the Philippines and across length and breadth of the United States - in its full spectrum of shady characters, questionable motives, foreign adventure, heart-wrenching romance, and behind-the-podium intrigue. At its 20th-century heart, The 480 asks, and-in light of American politics in the twenty-first century-answers the question, "Could the American voter be masterfully manipulated to select a presidential candidate not by rational consideration, but by hidden design?"
Eugene Burdick was an American Political Scientist and co-author of The Ugly American (1958), Fail-Safe (1962) and The 480 (1965).
He was born in Sheldon, Iowa. His family moved to Los Angeles, California, when he was age 4. Burdick attended Stanford University and Oxford University where he earned a Ph.D. degree in psychology, and he worked at the department of Political Science at the University of California. In 1956, his critically acclaimed novel The Ninth Wave, a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship winner, was published. At the end of the 1950s, he was among the first members of the Society for General Systems Research. He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 46.
Eugene Burdick wrote – or co-wrote – five novels, but three of them are his best known – and most controversial.
*The Ugly American (1958) – co-written with William Lederer
This novel is set in the fictional Southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan. It concerns well-meaning American diplomatic officials who do not speak the language or understand the culture of the country they are attempting to aid, with the result being that the U.S. is losing to the communists in the contest to win “the hearts and minds” of the population.
Of course, Sarkhan was a thinly disguised Viet Nam where Burdick and Lederer thought the real contest in the real nation was being lost for the same reasons.
A popular film adaptation of the novel, starring Marlon Brando, was released in 1963.
*Fail-Safe (1962) – co-written with Harvey Wheeler
This was a harrowing Cold War account of what could go wrong during the era of nuclear competition and proliferation. In this scenario American bombers armed with nuclear weapons are mistakenly ordered to destroy Moscow and it becomes difficult to call them back. It first appeared as a three-part serialization in the Saturday Evening Post during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Later that same year it was published in book form.
It too became a well-received movie when it was released in 1964, starring Henry Fonda.
*The 480(1964) – written by Eugene Burdick
In 1959, an actual U.S. data science firm named Simulmatics, divided the U.S. population into 480 groups, based on party affiliation, socio-economic status, geography, race, ethnicity, religion and gender. By using computers to run simulations predictions could be made as to how any – or all – of the groups would react to a particular candidate, or policy position, or even how they would vote, even before they were asked.
Of course, the information derived from the simulations could also be used to sell soap, automobiles, or, you name it. The danger was – and is -- manipulation of the public on a huge scale. Burdick wrote the novel as a warning about the danger of that kind of information – and those methods – especially if it fell into the wrong hands.
Burdick uses the concept of the 480, but creates a fictional group of political operatives who take the methods of the real Simulmatics and refines them into a more sophisticated use of computers and the information that goes into and comes out of the simulations.
At the heart of the story is a competition between an old-fashioned political operator who uses the time-tested and heretofore successful methods of cajoling, arm twisting, backslapping, and horse trading to advance his chosen candidate for the presidency while young upstart political consultants who utilize the computer along with psychology, psychiatry, and political science to tailor their candidate, a political novice, in a fashion that will give him greater appeal to a greater number of voters.
The book was not the huge bestseller that the other two were and it never attracted Hollywood film producers. That is because it didn’t have the appeal of a story about conflict and misunderstanding in a Southeast Asian country or especially one about an unthinkable, but real, possibility of nuclear war.
Burdick, with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a PhD in political science, probably thought that it was just as important as the topics that had been at the centers of the two bestsellers. And in many ways, time would prove him to be correct, but it comes off as too wonkish for many readers. Adapting it for film was never a possibility.
But it is an important book. Though it was published more than fifty years ago, all we have to do is look around us and see that what Burdick tried to warn us about has been realized. What began during 1959, has taken over all campaigns, but on a larger scale, with political consultants making fortunes utilizing those methods of manipulation that Burdick warned us about.
Eugene Burdick co-wrote two bestselling novels that were made into major films, and practically no one remembers him or his books today. I read The Ugly American, Fail-Safe, and The 480 many years ago. And now I have reread The 480.
Eugene Burdick is a mostly forgotten writer who sits on my “writers who deserve to be remembered” shelf.
This book is so timely. Sure, it's dated in the technology, but its ideas are incredibly, almost prophetically, current. In today's political climate, this was the antidote I needed--a little escapism to go along with some serious issues. I was hooked.
Imagine a man, without any untoward intention, preventing a war between two hostile peoples as an American. Imagine that he has no ulterior motives whatsoever.
As a thinking voter, doesn't that man smell good? Doesn't he even seem better to us when one knows that he has no intention to run for public office?
Imagine him ending the rebel insurrection in the Philippines in one fell swoop. And yet, he still remains without any political drive.
Haven't we just found our presidential candidate?
This is the story of The 480. Written a little after the assassination of JFK, the novel chronicles one unwilling man being sucked into the maelstrom of politics because of what he did for his country. The reader is presented with the utter shit that is being muckraked towards the candidates just so the kingmakers could one-up each other: there can only be a king if there are enough kingmakers in collusion with each other.
Despite the cynicism (and likely, truth) of the novel, The 480 still paints a positive picture toward the certain few who are incorruptible. John Thatch, the central character of the novel, is willing to sacrifice his ambition for the sake of his wife. Even then, he didn't come out unscathed: every little detail of any potential candidate is exposed, dissected, and attacked by the opposition. This is the nature of modern politics. It's a dirty game, but people enjoy its dirty rewards.
Although politics may be dominated by Frank Underwoods, Aung San Suu Kyi is still living. There are still few John Thatches around. They probably won't win, like Sanders, but they're there. And that gives me hope.
I picked up the novel after hearing Jill Lepore mention the author and the “480 groups the American electorate has been divided by the Simulmatics Corporation.” I did not expect the engaging and exciting plot. I liked the characters and their adventures more than I expected. And it helped put into perspective Lepore’s research and the current state of coverage for an American presidential election. The political big wigs are great characters and I never expected this novel to help reassure me of American history at this uncertain time. But it did.
This book is more than 50 years old, published in 1964 before ISBN numbers existed. I have a hardback copy purchased in 1968 for $1 and never read, until now. I pulled it off my basement shelf when I received a Christmas gift of Jill Lepore's 2020 If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Jill Lepore's book has an entire chapter on Burdick and another describing The 480 with lots of background. Some of my review is based on info I learned reading If Then.
Eugene Burdick had two previous novels in the tradition of muckrakers like Sinclair Lewis. Both became run away best sellers and major motion pictures : The Ugly American starring Marlon Brando and Fail Safe starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. While the movie rights for The 480 were quickly bought up and a film to be called The Candidate was actively worked on it was never made. Robert Redford's 1972 movie The Candidate is not The 480 even though it deals with similar material.
Like Burdick's previous works The 480 was his attempt to warn us of a major problem but to do it in the form of a novel. The villains we needed to be warned about were computers taking over politics. Burdick was a Rhodes scholar, Stanford educated political scientist, Berkeley professor and one of the first employees of Simulmatics. He was well aware that Simulmatics and Ithiel de sola Pool worked with John Kennedy's 1960 campaign, urging, among others, that Kennedy take on the religion question directly. Working on the side of the good guys was no problem but Burdick saw the possibility of the power of the computer and behavioral scientists being just as easily working for the dark side. As the 1964 election approached Burdick got to work. The plot was the Republicans looking for a sacrificial lamb to face the unbeatable incumbent. The assassination caused a rewrite but the basic message was still that scheming political pols could fill an empty vessel of a popular but apolitical candidate with ideas picked by the computer. Without existing ideals and philosophies to provide guardrails or restraints the computer guys would have free reign. Selling the soul to the new Satan seemed the slippery slope.
Burdick dreamed up a dream candidate, an engineer raised by missionaries overseas who faced down communists and terrorists. He skyrockets to popularity but would never consider politics unless drafted. Cleaver political pols, using the dastardly computer, engineer the draft in the good old days of deadlocked conventions. Of course he's drafted but that's as far as this goes, we never learn whether he wins. The arc is all Burdick needed for his message. Burdick knew that concentrating on the computer would lose the reader's attention. He briefly described where the name came from. The population of the U.S. was broken into 480 different demographic groups. Group #1 was Democrat, Eastern, Protestant, Rural. Professional & White Collar. Group #480 was Independent, Border states, No religion. The rest were all the permutations between the two. Burdick never explained what Simulmatics really did with those groups, that really wasn't the point. The point was here were seeds that evil types could cultivate.
So far so good. The 480 was a great human interest story combined with some reliance on new fangled computers. Once the screenwriters took over the human interest story came to the front and that difficult to understand computer got eliminated. Burdick cried foul and the standoff killed the movie and probably explains why I found a copy on the remainder table. As a young political scientist I bought the book but never read it until Jill Lepore pointed to Simulmatics and The 480.
"The 480" by Eugene Burdick - listened via Audible.
This book was mentioned in a Podcast series by Jill LePore "The Last Archive" - where it was referenced as an early novel detailing the use of computers and computer simulations within a political context.
The book details the early (now some sixty years ago) use of computers IBM 7094 Data Processing systems (first generation) and IBM 711 punched card readers in support of computer simulations related to politics. The title "The 480" represents the maximum number (480) of groupings of voters (assembled) for the purpose of being identified and classified by voter's social attitudes, background, education and larger environment.
The new "political priesthood" employs data processing specialists, psychologists, sociologists, pollsters, social-survey experts and statisticians who neither know or care little about the issues (how the position espoused by this candidate - if turned into Public Policy would benefit the average American)- but rather care about their candidate 'winning' the election.
The novel proceeds when a hitherto unknown individual becomes a 'hero' by demonstrating strength of purpose in foreign lands, obtains the attention of the 'political priesthood' before 11/22/63 - where they strategize about making him the 'sacrificial lamb' as the Republican Candidate for President in 1964 when it was thought John F. Kennedy was to be unbeatable. The novel continues after J.F. Kennedy's assassination - when this candidate now has a 'reasonable shot' at winning the Republican Nomination for President.
This character like some of the thoughts in the novel are prescient for 1964: * The Americans are going to lose in Vietnam. * This new 'political priesthood' is very dangerous - they could elect anybody...."what if Joe McCarthy had this capability in a masterful manipulation of the American Public?..."
The novel foresaw the use of computer simulations to shape the candidate's words and motions to obtain favorable results from just enough voting constituencies to win. Thinking about U.S. Foreign and Domestic policy over the last 60 years in this context may be helpful - because the 'thought energy' is involved in 'winning' - the 'thought energy' does not appear to have been used in creating Foreign and Domestics policies that both can be supported broadly and work to better the lives of the majority of Americans.
The novel details the purported 'goings on' from the 1960 election onward with the first generation computing power. Considering the rise of social media and 21st century data manipulation techniques, today's candidates' ability to analyze voter's preferences and tailor his or her campaign in greatly enhanced over the last 60 years. Whether this makes for good Public Policy is another (unanswered) question.
A good, not great political novel - think of it as a cautionary tale. Good to see references to IBM Hardware and Punch Cards - for those old enough to remember them....
This made me nostalgic for fat, book-of-the-month club political novels of the 1960s that would always sit unread on my father's nightstand. Written in 1964, it's the story of a group of GOP fixers looking to field a candidate to run against LBJ. The twist is that they use computers to microtarget the 480 separate demographics created by Simulatics (a real organization). The story moves fast and is pretty gripping, but it's especially worth reading as it foresaw a lot about modern political campaigns.
I write this during the 2020 election. Over the past several years, the power of computers to influence elections has been a huge story. Some people worry that voters are manipulated by algorithms that tell them what to believe. Cambridge Analytica and other scandals paint a picture of math nerds replacing cigar-chomping politicos in the world of influence, using data analytics and targeted messaging to control people.
The 480 shows that many of these concerns have existed for decades. The book does an excellent job of showing how those cigar-chomping politicos can co-exist with the math nerds. One side comes up with the analytics and the other chooses the right strategy. Which is exactly how modern campaigns operate. The 480 shows how data nerds and race baiting party bosses can coexist. I don't know that I've ever read an old novel that so accurately predicted aspects of the future.
The story is only meh. The characters are one-dimensional and the ending disappointing. But the main thrust of the book is so eerily prescient that the weak story only costs The 480 one star.
Two years after his best-selling novel Fail-Safe, coauthored with William Lederer, Eugene Burdick turned to the purely political novel in the aftermath of turmoil following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. In the novel, a fictitious charismatic character, John Thatch, an engineer, is seeking nomination for the Republican Party candidate at 1964 presidential elections. He is described as being contaminated with the "political virus". A handful of political professionals is promoting his nomination, in confrontation with the Party establishment. Just as in his other novels the plot is dependent on one primary idea, in this case it is the importance of the use of computers to run massive simulations, which predict the public reaction to certain (proposed) political moves before implementing them. Such simulations make it easy to manipulate the public consciousness. Thus fiction foreshadows what would become the growing importance of computers in politics down to the current use of the internet for everything from communcations to fund-raising. The title of the novel refers to the number of groups (by party affiliation, socioeconomic status, location, origin, etc.) that the computer simulation uses to classify the American electorate. While the cultural criticism is somewhat dated I would recommend this novel to those who enjoy reading about the minutae of the political process.
An old book that broke the mold of political thrillers. The first of its kind to group the American people into demographic categories that can be systematically addressed in political advertising and electronic messages. Scary then when written, scary now as standard.