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The Control of Political Work

There are those who live for politics, and there are those who live from it.11 For some, politics offers a path toward personal fulfillment, a sense of meaning and purpose that comes from the devotion to a cause. For others, politics is mainly a source of income. The two are quite compatible, of course. Writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, the German sociologist Max Weber observed that the advent of mass democracy had given rise to a new kind of specialist whose job it was to secure popular support on behalf of a party or candidate. Weber argued that this cadre of “politically gifted people” was a defining feature of modern political life, although he hesitated to predict “what outward shape the business of politics ... will take” in the future.12

The rise of the political consulting industry is part of this democratic development, although the modern business of politics represents a fundamental change in the nature of political work over the last hundred years. By “political work” I mean practices designed to elicit the support or influence the views of the public on behalf of political candidates, elected officials, or interests of various kinds. This book examines how innovations in the practical work of campaigns contributed to a shift away from the party agent who mobilized armies of partisans at the local level and toward the political consultant who crafts images and messages using mass communication and social scientific techniques.

Commentators and critics often blame consultants for much that is wrong with American politics today, particularly a media-driven, personalized style that some argue undermines the quality of public debate.13 Others lament the rise of a permanent campaign in American politics as those skilled in the dark arts of political communication have acquired a privileged position in a White House constantly seeking public approval for presidential initiatives.14

Political scientists commonly take a more measured view, explaining the rise of consulting as a logical outgrowth of broader shifts in the polity such as the rise of new technology or the evolution of the national party committees into something akin to general contractors that help candidates secure campaign services like polling and media.15 These developments were critical to be sure, but broad shifts alone cannot explain exactly how political consultants transformed the practical work of campaigns. In fact, many of the practices we associate with contemporary politics such as candidate-focused appeals and even poll-tested messages predate the rise of television or changes in party organizations. In other words, the history of the consulting industry does not fit with accounts that explain its rise solely in terms of the functional needs of parties or candidates.16 Consequently, this book looks at the practical work of consultants themselves in order to understand how they became central figures in the American political system.

Consider the following puzzle: after decades of careful study, political scientists have found that television advertising often has minimal effects on the outcome of a race. Or, to put it more accurately, television ads are only effective at certain times and under certain condi- tions.17 For instance, a study of the 2012 presidential election found that early investment in advertising by the Obama team had minimal effects on voters compared with advertisements aired at the end of the campaign. This finding is consistent with other research that shows the effects of advertising to be rather short-lived.18 Television is also a blunt instrument for targeting supporters, particularly in large metropolitan areas that include multiple congressional districts and where viewers are regularly exposed to ads from candidates for whom they cannot vote.19 Moreover, research suggests that door-to-door voter contact is a more effective tool than television when it comes to increasing turn- out.20 Yet, television accounts for the largest single expenditure in most campaigns, and candidates will spend as much on advertising as their fundraising prowess will allow. The 2012 election shattered records for television advertising in federal elections.21

If the effects of advertising are somewhat limited or only partly understood, why do campaigns devote so much of their resources to media? One answer is that candidates are always “running scared” and are therefore reluctant to cede any advantage to their opponent.22

Advertising can make a difference when one candidate has a big advantage in spending.23 However, the desire to avoid being outspent on the airwaves begs another question: How did media become the core element of modern campaigns? Given the decidedly mixed evidence about the effects of television, it appears that something more is at work than candidates simply adapting to the changing conditions of twentieth-century politics. In fact, the heavy reliance on television in political campaigns makes much more sense from the perspective of a political consulting industry reliant on products and services that provide the greatest financial return.

In order to understand how techniques like polling and media became core features of American politics, it is necessary to focus on the nature of political work itself. Accordingly, this book examines how practitioners devised new methods for securing popular support, convinced would-be clients of their skills, and outcompeted other providers of political services such as party workers, journalists, and those working in allied fields like public relations and advertising.24 Over the course of the twentieth century, consultants asserted themselves as trained experts in the provision of political advice, a claim they defended by developing a new set of political tasks that they alone were uniquely qualified to perform and, they argued, were uniquely suited to the needs of a complex modern polity. The rise of the modern business of politics hinged on the creation and eventual control over new forms of political work. As a result of these innovations, it became possible to live for and extremely well from politics in the United States.

 
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