An Emergent Profession of Political Advice

The radio experts and pollsters of the 1930s and 1940s represent an emergent profession of political advice whose ability to craft messages and plumb the public mind would grow in value over the course of the twentieth century. Radio, and later television, changed the relationship between leaders and led, opening a space for a new kind of specialist to emerge who could interpret a public that was often “invisible” or “unseen.” In the first part of the twentieth century, newspaper publicity was a rather straightforward affair that sought to shape opinions by influencing the content of what people read. The discovery of propaganda raised the spectre of a public that was manipulated rather than informed, but it shared with publicity a simplistic notion of influence. Commentators, whether critical of propaganda or not, overstated the susceptibility of the public to mass persuasion.

Radio, however, posed new challenges and a new view of the public. Rather than a straightforward task of publicity or an undifferentiated public easily swayed, mass communication encountered an audience that could choose not to listen. Considerations such as the timing, format, and content of political broadcasts became important. Surveys offered a way to track the appeal of the new medium to particular groups or demographics, or even the individual listener.

Together, sophisticated media and scientific polling had far-reaching effects on American politics, contributing to a shift in the institutional balance of power between the executive branch and the rest of the political system. Through the instrument of public speech, modern presidents developed a new and powerful instrument of executive power.164 Radio was crucial to this development because it allowed presidents to speak directly to the people without the mediating influence of a potentially hostile press. Beginning as a powerful tool of the presidency, the use of poll-tested messages eventually spread throughout the political system, helping give rise to a consulting industry that today exercises almost complete control over the conduct of political work.

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