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The Art and Science of Politics

for edward bernays, a characteristic feature of modern life was the almost universal competition for public favor. Whether in politics, government, or business, leaders “must win and obtain public approval if they are to survive in the welter of competing forces.”1 Popular support was as vital to winning an election as it was to selling a product. Yet the complexity of society and the quickened pace of communication made it difficult to know precisely what the public wanted or how to reach them effectively. This was the role of the public relations counsel: “to interpret his client to the public, and the public to his client.” Communication between leaders and the led required the skills of a trained professional.2

As Bernays understood, technological change helped to create a vital opening for the emergence of the modern political professional. In 1921, the first licensed radio station began broadcasting in the United States. Five years later, there were more than 500 stations. Over the same period, the number of households with radio sets grew from 60,000 to 4.5 million. By the time of FDR’s inauguration in 1933, 19 million homes had radio. By the time the United States entered the Second World War, this number had grown to 29 million homes, or 82 percent of all households.3

Radio ushered in a profound transformation in the conduct of American politics, but its influence was neither automatic nor immediate. Rather, the diffusion of radio sparked a period of trial and error as actors worked through initial experiments and failures in search of effective techniques. What counted for political skill changed for politicians as the characteristic bombast of nineteenth-century public speech confronted a new medium that favored a cool and conversational style. At the same time, mass communication replaced older forms of face-to- face contact. A political stump speech offered immediate feedback; whether in the form of catcalls or cheers, a speaker knew immediately if a particular turn of phrase had the desired effect. Broadcasting, by contrast, was a one-way relationship between the speaker and listener that provided no easy way to measure the effectiveness of political communication. Indeed, it became difficult to know even the size of an audience, something otherwise ascertained by a simple glance.4

In other words, radio created a new kind of distance between politicians and the public. Bernays captured this change in a 1947 essay in which he wrote how in the past, “a leader was known to his followers personally; there was a visual relationship between them.”5 The development of modern communication destroyed these personal relationships, but in a paradoxical way. “The world has grown both smaller and very much larger,” Bernays observed. “Today’s leaders have become more remote physically from the public; yet at the same time, the public has much greater familiarity with these leaders through the system of modern communications.”6 Radio created a different kind of political space; leaders were now closer to the public, yet also more remote. It was this space that Bernays, and others like him, sought to fill.

In particular, the mass-communicated politics of the radio age created opportunities for two new sources of expertise that would come to occupy a critical position in American politics and American political consulting: the media expert skilled in the crafting of political messages and the pollster trained in the brand new tools of survey research. In order to reach audiences over the airwaves, politicians sought help from those trained in the “techniques of radio showmanship and salesmanship.”7 Advertising and radio industry executives brought technical know-how, an appreciation of audience listening habits, and a familiarity with the business of radio to the refinement of political messages. At the same time, market researchers, commercial pollsters, and social scientists found common purpose in the development of techniques that could reliably map the opinions of the electorate. Gradually, these experts in survey research became valuable interpreters of public sentiment, lending their skills to government agencies, presidents, and political candidates.

Together, radio experts and pollsters offered a new way to craft political communication and gather information about its effects. Their work during the 1930s and 1940s was a creative blending of the art and science of politics, marrying political messages to a new science of survey research in a union that would eventually form the core of the modern business of politics.

 
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