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The Evolution of Political Work

over the course of the twentieth century, a new industry secured a pivotal role in the American political system. Today, few candidates for office lack the services of a professional consultant; even fewer can succeed without one. Across the political spectrum and at various levels of government, consultants provide products and services considered essential to political competition and electoral success. Pollsters measure the depth of candidate support and help to select the issues of the campaign. Media consultants present the candidate to the public and craft the narrative of the race. Digital tools leverage data analytics to identify and target key groups of voters. Direct mail specialists raise the vast sums of money needed to keep the machine running. Culminating a process that began almost a hundred years earlier, the conduct of political work is now largely a matter of professional control. A full-fledged business of politics has taken shape.

The process by which this occurred was neither inevitable nor automatic. The business of politics arose through a series of innovations that changed how candidates campaigned for office and, more broadly, how elected officials, political parties, and private interests sought to understand and influence public sentiments. Technological advances certainly mattered, as did broader changes in the character of American politics. However, the rise of a political consulting profession was the work of many individual practitioners. Television, for example, created opportunities for those skilled in the use of the new medium, but consultants figured out how to render spot advertisements politically effective and economically viable. Advances in computing, long-distance telephones, and video production lowered the entry barriers to political work, but it was the consultants who turned these low-cost technologies into a profitable niche in media, polling, or direct mail. More recently, specialists in digital campaigning have taken innovations in the political use of the Internet and big data and turned them into proprietary software that is widely used in political campaigns.

These innovations are part of a much longer transformation in the character of political work. Beginning in the early twentieth century, advocates of publicity began to promote the idea that planned campaigns of persuasion and direct appeals to the public were the most effective means to secure popular support. In the 1920s and 1930s, advances in the political use of radio and scientific polling afforded new ways to reach mass publics, creating a new kind of expert in the collection of political intelligence and the interpretation of public sentiment. In California, a recognizable consulting industry began to take shape as early as the 1940s as business interests embraced professional campaign services in the pursuit of political ends. With the advent of television, commercial ad agencies handled much of the advertising for presidential campaigns until the 1960s, when many firms withdrew from political work. In the 1970s, aided by campaign finance rules that privileged professional services, the political consulting industry took off, occupying a critical position in the circuits of capital that connect donors and candidates in the American political system. If the nineteenth-century alchemists of American politics turned whiskey into votes, modern-day consultants transform political contributions into the ubiquitous advertisements and polls of contemporary campaigns.

The consulting profession is firmly established in the political system, but the evolution of political work continues. This ongoing process offers several insights into the character of American politics, past and present. First, consultants continue the search for more effective instruments of persuasion and more reliable sources of information about the attachments and affiliations of individual voters. Running through the entire twentieth-century history of political work, in fact, is an effort to combine a social scientific rendering of the electorate with a personalized style of communication. Just as the invention of radio spurred the twin developments of commercial polling and political broadcasts, advances in data analytics and the development of the Internet as a platform for targeted communication continue the creative blending of science and art in the conduct of political work.1

Second, the growth of consulting is both a cause and a consequence of broader changes in the character of American political institutions. As the unimpeded and virtually unlimited flow of campaign contributions makes the economic rewards of political work even greater, the industry continues to benefit from a regulatory structure that privileges consultants as a legal way to spend money. Recent Supreme Court decisions have not altered the basic requirement that campaigns and political committees submit detailed lists of expenditures. However, campaign finance rules are just one example of how government contributed to the development of the consulting industry. From the early days of publicity, the federal executive has fostered experiments in eliciting popular support.2 During the New Deal, especially, innovations in polling and media contributed simultaneously to the evolution of the modern presidency and the development of professional political work.

Third, alongside the helping hand of government, the consulting industry has long benefited from a close alliance with business, both as a client for professional services and as an incubator of tools and techniques. In the early twentieth century, corporate publicity illustrated the value of public opinion in the pursuit of private interest. In the 1920s and 1930s, public relations experts touted the advantages of modern business methods, including early forms of polling, in the conduct of campaigns. Beginning with Whitaker and Baxter in California and continuing through the consolidation of a national industry in the 1970s, corporate clients helped consultants establish a solid financial footing, compensating for the uneven and uncertain nature of political campaigns. These trends continue as the consulting industry consolidates into larger firms and global conglomerates that provide a menu of services to a wide array of political and corporate clients.

In sum, the origins and evolution of the consulting industry are to be found at the nexus of advances in communication and information technology, the system of campaign finance, and the political awakening of American business. This is not to suggest that the business of politics followed some inevitable logic dictated by technological change or features of the broader political system. Rather, practitioners exploited political opportunities to develop new techniques of persuasion and crafted communication, touting their inventions as essential tools of political competition. Through a process of discovery, trial, and error, the consulting profession changed the conduct of political work and the character of American democracy. This process continues.

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