Building a New Profession

The work of Edward Bernays offers a glimpse into American politics in the making. Although the term “political consultant” had not yet been invented, Bernays was one of the first to distinguish the role of the paid expert from other sources of political advice. Bernays would certainly be pleased to see the business of politics he helped create, but he bequeathed much more than just a profitable way to live. To describe the rise of a twentieth-century political style in the United States is to trace changes in political work, especially the reliance on polling and media to craft campaign messages. In his effort to create a new profession, Bernays laid the foundation for a new kind of campaign, one that relied on the insights of behavioral social science in order to construct coalitions out of distinct segments of the electorate. Features of society such as class, ethnicity, or religion provided the raw materials for political strategy. Rather than mobilize armies of partisans as in the nineteenth century, Bernays approached politics through the selective activation of identities and allegiances using carefully chosen symbols, images, and words.

Although claiming the mantle of science bolstered his professional claims, and furthered his financial interests, the relationship Bernays cultivated with Lasswell, Herring, and other social scientists was not simply a marriage of convenience. For those at the forefront of the behavioral turn, propaganda was an object of scientific study and an indispensable instrument of social control. More than ivory tower academics, these scholars were interested in the practical applications of their work. They envisioned a new science of persuasion at the heart of modern democratic practice.

This union between scholar and practitioner would play an important role in the continuing development of political consulting in the United States. In the 1920s, when Bernays urged campaign managers to study the attitudes of voters, sophisticated methods for doing so did not yet exist. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, advances in scientific polling provided a more reliable way to map public opinion. At the same time, the extraordinary growth of radio prompted both academics and commercial interests to study advertising and its effects. Scholars and practitioners shared much in common as they developed survey research methods to understand the influence of radio on individual behavior. This integration of polling and media techniques became the core of the political consulting profession.

Polling and media, however, are more than just tools of the trade. They also carry a distinct view of the public and the nature of politics. Increasingly, scholars and practitioners approached politics as a selling campaign, much as Bernays had envisioned. Just as one might segment the market into various demographics, political polls disaggregated the public into any number of components such as race, class, religion, or gender. Similarly, just as commercial advertising built market share by appealing to specific niches of consumers, political media used targeted messages to construct a coalition out of particular groups of voters. Political behavior and consumer behavior were one and the same; voting and buying were expressions of individual preference that could be managed through the application of technique. The result, historian Robert Westbrook notes, turned American politics into a form of commerce: campaign advertising sold candidates to voters, while the tools of survey research packaged voters for candidates.136 Political consultants, whose services could be bought and sold as well, became crucial intermediaries in this exchange.

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