Election year warning: Everything you hear and read is not necessarily true – especially when it comes to TV advertising, direct-mail campaigns and speeches. The news media help us sort through the political fog, but it is going to take some work to get to the truth.
There are, however, some highly paid people out there betting that we will not be willing to work to get to the truth. They’re convinced we will take whatever they say as true. They are paid political consultants, and they work for both political parties.
It all started with two Californians – Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker, founders of Campaigns, Inc., in 1933. Most of us have never heard of this couple, but they shaped modern political campaigning. A new article in The New Yorker titled, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” tells the story of Campaigns, Inc. Read it and you will hear its reverberations in today’s political advertising.
Baxter and Whitaker made their reputation by orchestrating the defeat of Upton Sinclair in his 1934 run for governor of California. They were hired two months before the election, devoured all of Sinclair’s writings, and then took quotes from his fiction and attributed them to Sinclair, as if they were the author’s words not the fictional character’s. The quotes ran every day on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. “Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.”
Baxter later said, ”Sure, those quotations were irrelevant. But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.”
The New Yorker story says:
“No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting, an industry unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. … Political management is now a diversified, multibillion dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from this year’s Presidential race to the campaigns of the candidates for your local school committee.”
Well, the reference to school board elections is probably a stretch on The New Yorker’s part, at least in non-metro areas, but there is no doubting the broad influence political consultants now play in American politics.
“Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book,” The New Yorker says. And see if some of that “rule book” doesn’t seem to be behind today’s political messages. Here’s the magazine’s description:
“Never lobby; woo voters instead. ‘Our conception of practical politics is that if you have a sound enough case to convince the folks back home, you don’t have to buttonhole the Senator,’ Baxter explained. Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one. … Attack, attack, attack. Whitaker said, ‘You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!’
“Never underestimate the opposition. . . . Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good. . . . Never explain anything. ‘The more you have to explain,’ Whitaker said, ‘the more difficult it is to win support.’ Say the same thing over and over again. ‘We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,’ Whitaker said. Subtlety is your enemy. . . . ‘A wall goes up,’ Whitaker warned, ‘’when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.’
“Fan flames. ‘We need more partisanship in this country,’ Whitaker said. Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. ’ The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,’ Whitaker advised. ‘But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.’ You can put on a fight (‘he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled’’), or you can put on a show (‘he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades’): ‘So if you can’t fight, Put ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.’
“Winner takes all. ‘If you launch a campaign for a new car, your client doesn’t expect you to lead the field necessarily in the first year, or even the tenth year,’ Whitaker once said. ‘But in politics, they don’t pay off for PLACE OR SHOW! You have to win, if you want to stay in business.’”
That philosophy, set forth decades ago, shows why politicians campaign as they do today and why they govern as they do. “Winner takes all.”
If these techniques are still effective, I guess it means Mr. and Mrs. Average American citizen still doesn’t want to work or think. It is, however, something that can be changed – by each of us.