The Lie Factory and the destructive power of political ‘narrative’
The presenting issue behind the article was the hysteria whipped up against Obama’s healthcare proposals in the US – something which those of us with ‘socialised’, crypto-communist medicine in the UK find hard to understand. I do realise that many on the US right are no fools, that the British NHS is far from perfect, and that there may well be many good grounds for the position(s) they took. But that’s not my point here. My main concern is how politics (left and right) throughout the West now (has to) operates. This was the object of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker investigation a couple of weeks ago, The Lie Factory.
In it, she explores the origins of the political consultancy industry in California and how it has spread (& infected) the public square. It is scary stuff. It is (like most NY articles) lengthy – but it is essential reading.
Clem Whitaker & Leone Baxter more or less created the industry when they co-founded Campaigns, Inc in 1930s California. They were definitely of the right – but in a sense, their politics were subordinated to their desire to win elections (even though the vast majority of their campaigns were for the right-leaning issues and candidates). It was their techniques that changed the process forever. And I can’t help but feeling that we are the poorer for it.
They were adamant that to win they needed to consider ‘every voter, a consumer‘. One of the article’s fascinating contentions is that far from being driven by advertising, politics actually created modern advertising. At one level they shifted power away from the Washington lobbyists by turning local voters mass lobbyists on the ground. But far from democratising, it merely seems to have served to increase the power of those who could afford such campaigns.
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.
The invention went to extraordinary lengths. To combat a democrat running for California governor, Upton Sinclair, they smeared him with quotes from his own pen – fair enough you might think. Except for the fact that the quotes were taken from the lips from one of the characters in his novels. It is a classic fallacy to assume that novels’ characters always (if ever) represent their creator’s views.
Furthermore, their view of voters though was fairly low – or rather they deliberately sought to avoid appealing to thought. This is Lepore’s summary of how they worked:
Never underestimate the opposition. The first thing Whitaker and Baxter always did, when they took on a campaign, was to “hibernate” for a week, to write a Plan of Campaign. Then they wrote an Opposition Plan of Campaign, to anticipate the moves made against them. Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good. (“For Jimmy and me, vote ‘yes’ on 3.”) 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. “Words that lean on the mind are no good,” according to Baxter. “They must dent it.” 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.”
So it’s no surprise that the new medium of TV was the perfect fit. It’s apotheosis came in the 1960 presidential election – and the left caught up with the right. There was no turning back.
“It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” Kennedy said. By now, Democrats were beginning to hire political-consulting firms, too. Everyone did. It was an arms race.
Clem Whitaker, Sr., died of emphysema in 1961. Four years later, when Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California, he hired the California firm of Spencer-Roberts. Spencer-Roberts used the Whitaker and Baxter rule book. “You know something, Stu?” Reagan said to Stuart Spencer in 1966. “Politics is just like show business. . . . You begin with a hell of an opening, you coast for a while, and you end with a hell of a closing.”
This was just the sort of thing that Neil Postman scared us about. But the most alarming thing – and this is important in the light of the current Leveson Enquiry about the Press (and the problems with self-regulation) – is how Baxter responded to the most obvious question: who mediates the mediators?
She was also asked, “Does political public relations actually transfer political power into the hands of those who exercise it?”
“It certainly could and has in some instances,” she said, carefully. “In this profession of leading men’s minds, this is the reason I feel it must be in the hands of the most ethical, principled people— people with real concern for the world around them, for people around them—or else it will erode into the hands of people who have no regard for the world around them. It could be a very, very destructive thing.”
As ever, the issue about who wields power seems to come down to the same thing: this sort of power is fine, if I’m the one wielding it.
Well, she wasn’t wrong about the destruction bit. She just didn’t seem to get Campaigns, Inc’s own collusion with it.