Implications for American Democracy

The business of politics has transformed our democracy in fundamental ways. In assessing the significance of these changes, two conclusions come into view. One is a bit more hopeful; the other is less so. One view embraces and celebrates the uncertainty of political competition and the attendant opportunities to experiment. The other view acknowledges that the very same drive to innovate contributes to the ephemeral quality of our politics and the almost daily search for political advantage in the United States.

The rise and growth of the consulting business is part of a broader entrepreneurial style that has taken hold of American politics over the past fifty years. Across a range of institutions, political actors have carved out greater space for independent action. A myriad of elected officials, interest groups, super PACs, party committees, individuals, and firms pursue their political goals at the federal, state, and local levels; within legislatures, bureaucracies, and courts; and in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The capacity for independent action in the pursuit of a political career, a single issue, a legal ruling, or a specific regulation contributes to the cacophony of voices in politics today. Yet governing remains a collective enterprise, a task that is often ill-suited to the entrepreneurial drive for individual reward.28

The modern business of politics is both emblematic of this entrepreneurial style and an important factor contributing to its rise. Of course, consultants themselves are entrepreneurs in the literal sense that they have embarked on a drive for economic success through the innovation of political technique. The consulting industry is engaged in a constant search for new sources of revenue, new products and services, and new clients. As a result of this search, the business of politics produces a steady stream of advertisements, polls, and solicitations of public support that make up the crowded and often noisy public sphere. However, consultants are more than just another voice. In important respects, the consulting industry itself serves as a critical handmaiden for others to engage in an entrepreneurial search for political success. Candidates for office, corporate interests, parties, and super PACs, among others, rely on the services of a professional political class to help them measure the public, craft messages, and target supporters in ways that further their particular goals.

What is the consequence of this for our politics? Although the speed and sophistication of modern techniques may add a certain precision to the conduct of political work, they also render political conditions more fleeting as consultants continually interpret and reinterpret the public. At the same time, the steady probing and the constant bombardment of messages may contribute to a creeping cynicism as people tire of a media-intensive politics born from an unending search for more precise measures of public opinion and more effective means of political persuasion. This is perhaps an ironic result of the Progressive

Era hope for a well-informed public. Progressives valued the free flow of information as an antidote to the influence of special interests, but they failed to anticipate that the supposed revelation of “facts” would appear to most of us as highly contrived messages designed to persuade. The public knows that half of what it sees, reads, and hears about politics is often a half-truth, but we do not know which half. The incessant flow of political talk adds to a sense of ambivalence many voters share about politics; many Americans tune out altogether. It is doubly ironic that the diminishing returns from political communication may actually help consultants sell more of their wares.

The transformation of political work has also contributed to an evolving set of techniques that help define the character of democratic practice. The rise of a multi-billion-dollar business of politics has had profound consequences for the conduct of campaigns, the articulation of various interests, and the functioning of our institutions. The consolidation of the industry into larger firms and multinational holding companies points to the rise of a professionally managed public sphere in which corporations leverage their vast resources in order to improve their image or sway the electorate much the same way they would sell us a product. Over the past century, these developments have contributed to a set of practices we associate with American politics today: a media-intensive style of political campaigns funded by wealthy donors seeking influence through the provision of legally sanctioned products and services. Consultants are central to this exchange and will continue to play a significant role in American politics so long as there is an unlimited flow of money that can be spent in a limited number of ways.

Yet there is a hopeful side to this story. The thrill of political competition will always attract inspired believers willing to work long hours for little or no pay.29 Even if political work is largely the domain of the professional speculator who turns a handsome profit by controlling critical aspects of democratic practice, a place still remains for the speculative volunteer. Indeed, the relentless drive to innovate, to construct political identities anew, and to create messages and appeals that may produce a victory at the polls reflects the enduring uncertainty of politics and the actions of the public that cannot be entirely known, completely predicted, or easily reduced to the affiliations or attachments of individual voters. We should take hope in the fact that after a century of advances in mass communication, including radio, television, and the Internet, the evolution of political work continues to play out in an ongoing search for a clearer picture of the public that is stubbornly incomplete. Even with each new technological advance, our inner selves remain just out of view. It is this elusiveness that makes spontaneous expressions of collective action a durable feature of democratic politics, even as it drives further efforts to develop new and possibly more effective instruments of persuasion.

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