Home Business & Finance Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy
In a career together that spanned the middle third of the twentieth century, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter showed one could live exclusively from politics as well as for it. In doing so, Whitaker and Baxter built considerably on the innovations that preceded them. Like Edward Bernays, for example, Whitaker and Baxter communicated to their clients the professional nature of political work as they nurtured public relations’ “precocious baby.”134 Like Charles Michelson, Whitaker and Baxter exploited the political advantages of attacking an opponent at a time when the personal qualities of candidates were increasingly important. And like Hadley Cantril and Gerard Lambert, Whitaker and Baxter understood that polls afforded much more than a simple barometer of public sentiment; survey research offered a way to target and trim their message, enabling one to construct majorities out of a highly differentiated public. What truly set Whitaker and Baxter apart from these early innovators was their ability to place professional campaign management on a sounder financial footing.
California presented distinct opportunities in this regard, but the state also foreshadowed the kind of issue-focused campaigns and the partisan networks of candidates, activists, and allied groups that characterize American politics today. Whitaker and Baxter illustrate how the professional control of political work contributed to these changes in the character of American politics. For-profit firms like Campaigns, Inc. performed the critical task of building electoral coalitions out of groups motivated by discrete issues and demands, turning diffuse and inchoate interests into organized blocs of support for a particular policy goal or on behalf of a specific candidate. Whitaker and Baxter anticipated this new form of issue-driven politics in which professional consultants play a central role in the constitution of political interests.135
Whitaker and Baxter reveal another critical component in the rise of political consulting. Money matters. The early appearance of a consulting industry in California depended in part on the extraordinary financial resources available, especially from a business community anxious about the encroachments of an activist government. Absent this ability to tap into a rich and largely unregulated vein of campaign spending, it is unlikely that Whitaker and Baxter or those who emulated them could have stayed in business for long. In the words of the California pol Jesse Unruh, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”136 Consulting became a viable enterprise, first in California and eventually elsewhere throughout the country, once two conditions held: a steady demand for professional campaign services and a large supply of cash to acquire them.
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