Practical Innovation and Political Work

Politics is a speculative enterprise, fueling experiments in the conduct of political work. In fact, the history of consulting vividly illustrates the creative element in politics. As they devise a campaign strategy, consultants mix scientific polling and sophisticated media with local political knowledge and previous experience. In the process, consultants create the very context in which they work. As they craft the messages of the candidates, consultants define the issues of the campaign. When they interpret poll results, consultants call forth specific groups that make up an electoral coalition. In doing so, consultants recreate, reinforce, and reproduce the alignments and allegiances that inform the decisions of the candidate as well as the behavior of individual voters.

These practical responses to the shifting dynamics of a race have important consequences for the political system beyond the life of a specific campaign. As I detail throughout this book, the media-intensive, candidate-focused style of politics we witness today arose through a series of innovations that applied new methods to the old task of vote-getting. Although consultants and their forerunners exploited technological developments like radio and television as well as political opportunities that came with the decline of traditional party organizations, the industry’s rise also required a willingness to experiment and a fair degree of salesmanship. It is in the successful effort to define and defend their role that political consultants transformed the conduct of campaigns and altered the character of American politics.

Changes in democratic practice reflect the shifting techniques of everyday politics, what I refer to as political work and the rise of a consulting profession that exercises almost complete control of that work. In order to understand the practical aspects of democracy, we must examine what practitioners actually do.35 Consequently, this book follows the publicity experts, public relations specialists, pollsters, and political consultants who over the course of the twentieth century built a business of politics. To do so, I rely on a rich archive of source material that illuminates the experiments and gambits, the successes and the failures, that are part and parcel of practical innovation. Some of the figures we will encounter are well-known, like Edward Bernays, the “father of spin”; George Gallup, who broke new ground in commercial polling; or the California team of Whitaker and Baxter. Others have received much less attention, such as Gerard Lambert, who helped pioneer the use of poll results in the crafting of presidential speeches, or Jon Jonkel, a public relations man from Chicago whose unconventional tactics helped a political unknown unseat a four-term senator in Maryland. In addition to various archival sources, this book uses a series of interviews conducted with consultants in the 1970s and 1990s that provide crucial insights into the business of politics from the practitioner’s perspective.36 As we will see, consultants make politics through creative acts of campaigning, turning the practical work of elections into a thriving business that has had far-reaching implications for the American political system.

Democracy as it actually exists is more than just a set of rules, institutions, or beliefs.37 It is also about the practical work of politics, including the consultants who collectively earn billions of dollars to craft the images of the candidate and interpret the opinions of the public. Some of the consequences of this are less than desirable, to be sure. The constant bombardment of campaign advertising and the steady stream of opinion polls contribute to the exhaustion and cynicism many Americans feel about politics today. Consultants also serve as the conduit for wealthy donors seeking political influence by turning an almost unlimited and increasingly untraceable flow of campaign contributions into various products and services. At the same time, the consulting industry illuminates how the uncertain nature of political competition spurs innovation, fueling an unending pursuit of political advantage and a continuing search for more effective instruments of persuasion. Whether we like it or not, political consultants play a crucial part in democratic practice, and the rise of a modern business of politics provides a critical window into the changing character of American democracy.

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