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Political Work and American Political Institutions

The twentieth-century transformation of political work also had important implications for American political institutions. The growth of publicity and other tools of mass persuasion placed greater emphasis on the personal characteristics and issue positions of the candidate as opposed to (or at least in addition to) their loyalty to the party standard. The dual character of publicity—a device intended to inform and persuade—liberated politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson whose political views and aspirations cut against the grain of their party. Compared with the nineteenth century, publicity techniques also shifted greater responsibility for the conduct of campaigns onto the candidate and his immediate circle of supporters. This was a gradual process, and one that was far from uniform across the United States. Nevertheless, the upshot was to transform the career politician from one who had faithfully served the interests of the party to one who successfully managed his or her own electoral enterprise.11

The effects of this transition are most visible at the level of the president. Cantril and Lambert’s work on behalf of the FDR administration illustrates how the rise of a modern executive and a personalistic style of presidential leadership relied on the expertise of those skilled in the modern techniques of polling and media. Although the origins of this development can be seen in the government publicity of the Progressive Era, including the vast propaganda efforts of the Committee on Public Information during World War I, it was during the 1930s and 1940s that contemporary forms of presidential communication took shape amid an ambitious and much-enlarged executive branch that sought to mobilize public support through depression and war.12 One paradox of the modern presidency is that the growth of executive power focused public attention on the individual character of the president even as it fueled the growth of an institutional apparatus dedicated to the measurement and management of public opinion.13 The history of political work suggests that politics did not intrude on the modern presidency, bringing with it the unrelenting search for public approval we often associate with the institution today. Instead, polling and media found a receptive home in the executive branch before diffusing to the rest of the political system. The growth of the presidency illustrates how changes in the character of political work interacted with broader changes in the political system, jointly influencing one another in the process. In this manner, the coevolution of political institutions and political work together shaped the trajectory of twentieth-century American politics.

The institutional implications of this transformation extend well beyond the presidency. As examined in chapter 5, Whitaker and Baxter forged a new kind of professional advocacy work in California, helping well-heeled but often inchoate business interests wage successful grassroots lobbying campaigns. Whitaker and Baxter’s firm, Campaigns, Inc., enjoyed an impressive run of success during the 1940s and 1950s, helping business groups and professional associations find common cause to defeat popular referendums and legislative initiatives that threatened their political and financial interests. In their work on behalf of the California Medical Association, for example, Whitaker and Baxter defeated Republican governor Earl Warren’s proposal for universal sickness protection by touting the benefits of private health insurance while stoking fears of “socialized” medicine. Whitaker and Baxter went on to pursue a similar strategy on behalf of the American Medical Association, and their work continues to echo in national debates over health policy. More broadly, the professional management of grassroots lobbying campaigns, often waged on behalf of corporations seeking to influence policy or simply improve their public image, is widespread in American politics today. This profitable business of public affairs consulting relies on more sophisticated versions of the same tools and techniques Campaigns, Inc. first deployed more than seventy years ago.

The phenomenon of “grassroots for hire” is indicative of the heavy reliance on professional services throughout the contemporary American political system.14 Consultants work at all levels of government on behalf of candidates for federal, state, and local office, and on behalf of a myriad of interest groups, super PACs, and party committees. The professional control of political work is so nearly complete, in fact, that it can be easy to overlook how the gradual rise of the consulting industry contributed to broader trends in the character of American politics. For instance, early accounts of political consulting keyed its rise to a decline in the strength of party organizations, arguing that the growth of the profession hastened the transition to a more fully candidate-centered political system.15 In contrast, many contemporary scholars contend that political consultants serve a key function within an extended partisan network of elected officials, activists, allied groups, and national party committees. In this view, political consultants are not antithetical to partisan goals but in fact work closely with the parties in helping candidates win office.16

One way to reconcile these two views is to recognize that consultants helped to bring about both the centralizing and centrifugal tendencies in the American political system. The business of politics flourished in part because of the proliferation of individuals and groups in search of public support, including candidates for office, various interests, and often government itself. Consultants benefited from and contributed to the diffuse character of American politics by creating a market for political services that enabled various actors and interests to engage in politics independently from political parties or from one another. However, the changing character of political work, especially the increasing reliance on relatively costly techniques like media, polling, and direct mail, placed a premium on the capacity to raise large amounts of money. This had a centralizing effect on American politics as the national party committees and, more recently, Super PACs have become important brokers in the collection and distribution of campaign contributions from wealthy donors. 17

Consultants contributed to the concentration of power in the American political system by transforming political donations into valuable polls, media, and mail. As explained in chapter 7, campaign finance reform created a new political economy of influence that cemented the role of consultants in American politics by privileging professional services over traditional forms of political work. The consulting industry benefits both from the utter weakness of campaign finance regulations and from its one enduring strength: transparency in spending. Even in an age of enormous sums flowing into the political system from unknown sources, it is still possible to track exactly where and toward what purpose this “dark money” goes. To a large degree, unlimited political spending has provided a windfall for political consultants who produce the flood of ads and other forms of media, purchase television airtime, and manage the fundraising apparatus needed to raise vast amounts of campaign cash.

Critics sometimes portray consultants as parasites on the political system, but this may be the incorrect metaphor.18 Rather than feed off the host, the business of politics is more akin to the colonies of microbes that coevolved with humans over thousands of years. Like the microscopic bugs in our gut, the consulting industry is crucial to the metabolic functioning of a system of influence peddling that turns vast amounts of money into legally sanctioned political services. As a result, consultants occupy a rather successful (and profitable) niche within the broader ecology of campaigns and elections. However, the effects of this relationship are far from benign. Political consulting poses a risk to the long run health of the system by enabling the continued growth of unchecked political spending. The consulting industry makes it possible to transform limitless funds into an endless stream of ads and polls, leaving the body politic engorged yet unsatisfied in its appetite for money. The result is a concentration of power and influence, not only among the wealthy interests that finance political campaigns, but also within the handful of consulting firms and global conglomerates that control an increasingly sizable share of the business of politics itself.

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