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The Politics of Business

The system of campaign finance raises troubling questions about political influence in the United States, especially the role of powerful corporate interests. Through their control of political work, consultants serve as a critical intermediary between wealthy contributors and candidates seeking office. In fact, the relationship between the consulting industry and American business goes beyond political campaigns. As described in chapter 8, consultants are in great demand by large multinational holding companies like WPP and Omnicom that offer a package of integrated corporate communications and public affairs services to its clients. This recent consolidation of the industry is part of a longer history of political work that is closely tied to the rise of public relations in the United States. Ivy Lee, working on behalf of railroads and other industrial interests, articulated a vision of corporate publicity that saw the public image of the corporation as an important line of defense against the encroaching powers of the government. Edward Bernays endeavored to make public relations a profession and insert the public relations counsel in business and politics alike. Whitaker and Baxter employed the tools of public relations to defend corporate interests in California and wage political battles on behalf of physicians wary of public health insurance. Close ties between American business and allied fields such as public relations and advertising made the transition from corporate communication to political campaigns a relatively easy one.

In fact, the transformation of political work points to an important affinity between the conduct of business and the business of politics in the United States. Publicity, advertising, public relations, and political consulting all share a common goal: public persuasion. It is not surprising, therefore, that commercial tools designed to tout the merits of a product would find their way into politics. As Michael McGerr so perceptively described, an advertised style of American politics emerged at the turn of the twentieth century that focused on the image and personality of the candidates.19 During the 1920s and 1930s, the academic study of marketing and the development of commercial survey research gave rise to a new science of selling that shaped the practical conduct of campaigns and provided new tools to measure public opinion on a range of social and political subjects.20 With the advent of polling, voting became like other consumer acts made legible through social scientific technique. For Paul Lazarsfeld, in particular, elections provided an opportunity to study the psychology of choice during what was, in effect, a one-day sale. This rough equivalence between voting and buying contributed to a broader transformation in the character of political work by treating individual voters as a bundle of affinities and allegiances that could be measured and managed, as well as bought and sold, in the form of polls and surveys.21 Likening the act of voting to a matter of consumer choice facilitated the commercialization of political work and the creation of a market for products and services such as polls, media, and direct mail.

Looked at this way, the business /politics also served as a key conduit for the influence of business in politics. Political consultants are key actors in politics today because they transform campaign contributions into a variety of services valued by candidates. This is only one channel of business influence, however. Consultants are also carriers of business methods in the form of coordinated selling campaigns that use tools derived from marketing and advertising to target individual preferences and attachments. With the twentieth century rise of a business of politics in the United States, American democracy increasingly depends on the art (and science) of the sale.

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