If you read just one bit of journalism to illuminate what’s going on during the current season of political campaigning in the United States, make it this one. Jill Lepore, writing for The New Yorker, incisively traces the birth and history of the political consulting industry to reveal its dramatic (and dreadful) impact on American politics, and also, by direct extension, on American society in general. The following strategically cherry-picked über-excerpts are just a small part of the whole story she lays out in her fine article, which bears a title that is at once metaphorical and literal, and also pretty wonderful: “The Lie Factory.”
Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation. It’s this kind of thing that Sinclair was talking about when he said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, “So far,” he wrote, “Big Business has won every skirmish.”
… Campaigns, Inc., the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world, was founded, in 1933, by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter … 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. “Every voter, a consumer” was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc. 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. (Campaigns, now, never end. And consultants not only run campaigns; they govern. Mitt Romney, asked by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board how he would choose his Cabinet, said that he’d probably bring in McKinsey to sort that out.) But for years Whitaker and Baxter had no competition, which is one reason that, between 1933 and 1955, they won seventy out of seventy-five campaigns. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California, and of the country. Campaigns, Inc., is shaping American politics still.
… Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead … 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 … Never underestimate the opposition … 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 … Subtlety is your enemy … Simplify, simplify, simplify. “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.”
— Jill Lepore, “The Lie Factory,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2012