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Understanding our political system: the how-to guide by its builders

7 October 2012

Summary: Rarely does the news media run an article about our history that explains much about today’s America. Here’s the exception, from The New Yorker, about the origins of political consulting — and the formation of our current political system.  It was built by people who understand our weaknesses. We must understand it before planning reforms, and strengthen our minds in order to succeed.

The Founders, from The New Yorker, 9/24/2012

Excerpt from “The Lie Factory – How politics became a business” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 24 September 2012.  These are just snippets from the exhaustively researched, well-written, and timely article (the quality of article that built The New Yorker’s reputation).

The opening section describes Upton Sinclair, the Democratic Party’s candidate for Governor of California in 1934, running on the slogan EPIC: “End Poverty in California”. Afterwards he wrote I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked.

In it, Sinclair described how, immediately after the Democratic Convention, the Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it, a practice that the paper continued, every day, for six weeks, until the opening of the polls. “Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.”

Sinclair got licked, he said, because the opposition ran what he called a Lie Factory. “I was told they had a dozen men searching the libraries and reading every word I had ever published.” They’d find lines he’d written, speeches of fictional characters in novels, and stick them in the paper, as if Sinclair had said them. “They had a staff of political chemists at work, preparing poisons to be let loose in the California atmosphere on every one of a hundred mornings.”

Actually, they had, at the time, a staff of only two, and the company wasn’t called the Lie Factory. It was called Campaigns, Inc …  the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world, founded in 1933 by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter.

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… 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.

… 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.

… The first thing Whitaker and Baxter always did when they took on a campaign was to write a Plan of Campaign. … 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, the more difficult it is to win support.” Say the same thing over and over again. … Subtlety is your enemy. “Words that lean on the mind are no good. They must dent it.” Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”

Fan flames. “We need more partisanship in this country.”

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. 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.”

… “Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we’re talking about,” the Nixon adviser William Gavin wrote in a memo. “Reason requires a higher degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier,” he wrote in another memo. “Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand. . . . When we argue with him we demand that he make the effort of replying. We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.”

The article has a long section about the battle which began to bring health coverage to all Americans, started in January 1945 by Earl Warren, Governor of California. American politics has rotated around this issue since then, and still does. For more about this first great battle, so similar to the many that followed, see “Impeding Earl Warren: California’s health insurance plan that wasn’t and what might have been“, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, December 2002

For More Information

For all post on this topic see these FM Reference Pages:

Other posts about political propaganda:

  1. Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
  2. Can Obama turn America into something like Zimbabwe?, 22 February 2010
  3. Dumbest headline of the week, 1 March 2010 — Where are the good political smear artists?
  4. A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
  5. About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
  6. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  7. Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 15 September 2010
  8. The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
  9. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
  10. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  11. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
  12. More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Gaiasrequite permalink
    7 October 2012 8:23 pm

    FM

    In today’s world of inaccurately interpreted doomsday prophecies, and the followers they seem to command, one might arrive at the belief that there is a sense among people of an impending doom to humanity. Yet, when presented with scientifically supported facts about these major issues which could indeed have detrimental effects on civilization as we have come to know it; these same people seem to retreat into an absolute delusional state of denial. Then there within their comfortable, shallow, superfluous life styles, begin grasping for the web of misinformation which will relieve them of the guilt that might otherwise drive them to make life style changes.

    You post many articles and writings which inform those willing to hear, of the many issues we are faced with today. It begins to create a feeling of hopelessness with in ones soul when looking at the scope of these issues. You have stated many times through out these postings, an idea of America reborn or rediscovered.

    Do you believe we have passed the point in which such a thing could occur without an absolute fall of our current society? Or, are there still things we could do to relieve the pressures, which we as a spices are putting on so many of the systems and resources that not only we but the planet depend upon?

    If the latter, which steps do you believe would need to be taken to achieve such ends?

    Thanks

    Like

    • 7 October 2012 9:12 pm

      Gaiasrequite’s questions go to the very heart of our situation. I have no answers, just drafts, which I’ll share FWIW.

      (1) “Do you believe we have passed the point in which such a thing could occur without an absolute fall of our current society?”

      Our Christian heritage teaches me that redemption is always possible. But even should the Second Republic fall, the Third Republic lies in our future, build on the lessons learned from the failures of the first two. That’s faith, not logic.

      (2) Or, are there still things we could do to relieve the pressures, which we as a spices are putting on so many of the systems and resources that not only we but the planet depend upon? If the latter, which steps do you believe would need to be taken to achieve such ends?”

      I’ve written over three dozen posts about solutions (the best listed here). They represent several generations of my thinking. It’s not an evolution; more of trial – recognition of error — trial again. Now I wonder if we want to govern ourselves, and if so if we’re capable of it.

      In other words, perhaps reform requires a change of spirit in America. If so, developing solutions requires someone at a higher paygrade than I. In the absence of that I have adopted a simple solution: attempting to shock readers into an awareness of our decay — what we were, what we have become, and what we could be.

      “An experience of profound contempt is necessary in order to grasp our situation, and our capacity for contempt is vanishing.”
      — From The Closing of the American Mind, chapter “Values”, Allan Bloom (1987)

      Like

  2. Gaiasrequite permalink
    7 October 2012 9:56 pm

    “solution: attempting to shock readers into an awareness of our decay — what we were, what we have become, and what we could be.”

    Is shocking the American people even possible? I am shocked everyday by what I read, hear and obsereve in and about our society. Yet so many seem to have grown numb to the very things that just a generation ago would have caused riots in the streets of DC.

    But, if one could awaken the American people, have our rights been so limited by The “Patriot” Act, we would simply ignite a flame that would lead to complete marshall law and leave us worse off then we are now?

    Like

  3. Bitusa permalink
    8 October 2012 9:48 pm

    Excellent comments here.

    “Do you believe we have passed the point in which such a thing could occur without an absolute fall of our current society? Or, are there still things we could do to relieve the pressures, which we as a spices are putting on so many of the systems and resources that not only we but the planet depend upon?”

    I keep flip-flopping on that point where the society must collapse in order to bring about a new society. Too many Americans simply don’t either know about how serious things really are or are kept distracted by the plethora of distractions available over the TV (endless sports, stupid TV shows, dumb movies, etc.). Those that fall prey to the distractions, don’t know and don’t care IMO. Those that do know and do care are still way too small in number, it seems to me.

    I also get the sense that there really is a very disturbing logic behind it all. Meaning that our mass media driven culture has been made that way by people who over time just figured out how to manipulate how the public thinks and reacts in ever more effective ways (the disturbing logic to it all). So this logic carries into the realm of political consulting, special interest domination of the “peoples’ government”, advertising and entertainment.

    So when you add in the DAA (Defense Authorization Act) to the Patriot Act (DAA is worse) and couple that with people like us who take it upon themselves to understand more and let’s just say that all of us have a collective fire lit under our butts and get out there and try to do something about it, then everything on the legal side (and the law enforcement and imprisonment side) is all pretty much in place already to quickly snuff out our voices.

    So I must admit that although I try to stay away from what you could call “destroy and then rebuild” thinking, that I keep coming to the conclusion that we must as a society first feel the pain to a much greater extent than the already painful reality that is today, and then there would be real hope. I try to come up with a smoother scenario for the right change to happen, it just seems like that smooth scenario is being systematically denied to us, in a sense.

    Kind of depressing, isn’t it?

    Like

    • 8 October 2012 11:34 pm

      “I keep flip-flopping on that point where the society must collapse in order to bring about a new society.”

      I don’t see any signs of collapse. The opposite, in fact. Like a docile horse, we are adjusting quite easily to our new plutocratic overlords.

      Their massive expansion of domestic security forces (police, intel, paramilitary) so far looks an unnecessary precaution. But their actions show them to be patient and cautious.

      Like

    • Gaiasrequite permalink
      9 October 2012 2:08 am

      “then everything on the legal side (and the law enforcement and imprisonment side) is all pretty much in place already to quickly snuff out our voices.”

      Yes, so where does that leave change? Do we simply sit back and enjoy the ride into a new age?

      Questions questions so many questions! And it would seem as soon as one arrives at a possible solution to any one problem, two or three new problems arise from the solution.

      As a hobby I read alternative history and find the Ancient Alien progam on H2 to be amusing. Perhaps it is time to join the trekies, and simply wait for the return of the aliens; who will undoubtedly restore a line of kings capable of leading our rather primitive species, to a much higgher standard of living….if only. (that was of course a joke)

      Like

    • 9 October 2012 2:40 am

      “Perhaps it is time to join the trekies, and simply wait for the return of the aliens; who will undoubtedly restore a line of kings capable of leading our rather primitive species, to a much higgher standard of living”

      Our species has not had much luck. The explosion of Toba circa 70,000 years ago. The ice age and little ice age. My guess is that alien visitors will be like those in “To Serve Man“, a science fiction short story written by Damon Knight First published in the November 1950 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction.

      Here’s a summary of the Twilight Zone version.
      .

      Like

    • Bitusa permalink
      9 October 2012 5:30 pm

      “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.”

      Tend to agree with this, but it’s too critical. OWS movement certainly represents a portion, at least, of average Americans trying to bring about change, and thus trying to be good citizens.

      “This quote, I feel, does a wonderful job of explaing why not only Americans, but all of humanity, has reached a point of inert decay in our social evolution.”

      Totally disagree with this statement.

      Hey I thought this section was related to exchanging thoughts on how to bring about the needed changes! So here goes:

      We are at the point where a viable 3rd party is becoming really necessary as a means to bring about change in a way that works within the system. Republicans and Democrats are much too much like two peas in the same pod. So the viable 3rd party would take the form of a true Labor Party where rejection of any special interests (except one) is a foundation principle of the party.

      Much like Obama received millions of small donations back in the last election (certainly not this one!), this Labor Party would be funded on a permanent basis by millions of small donations from average citizens donating completely outside the context of any special interest, except the one that the party represents, namely themselves.

      This Labor Party would then fund its own small army of lobbyists, who would operate along the same lines that the special interest funded lobbyists operate. Labor Party lobbyists also vying for the politicians attention to their concerns – operating in basically the same way that the other type of lobbyists operate.

      In this way, the needed change could eventually come about. The key would be that this new Labor Party would have to remain in existence for a long time (hopefully forever) because the reality would be that they would experience very modest percentages in the elections, but over time, as things get worse and worse let’s assume, the percentage of the votes they would receive in subsequent elections would just keep rising.

      Anyhow, just wanted to throw that out here for now, have to run.

      Like

    • 9 October 2012 5:33 pm

      Thanks for sharing your vision! We definitely need more of this if we are to find a viable path to a good future!

      Like

    • Gaiasrequite permalink
      9 October 2012 3:46 am

      WONDERFUL! Thanks for that share, it will have me laughing for days. “From dust to dessert”.

      Like

  4. Thomas More permalink
    9 October 2012 2:31 am

    Gaiasrequite gives us a typically overwrought example of the species Homo Americano flummoxed and poleaxed to discover that America is not in fact exceptional. The world must therefore end, we are informed, in tones of punitive hysteria.

    Get over it.

    America is not “special,” not the light of the world, not some fabulous savior of the human race. America is just another country made up of people who are, for the most part, just like people everywhere else in the world — just as prone to act with generosity, just as selfish, just as ambitious, and just as petty. The main difference twixt America and the other countries in the world is that Americans have been coddled and have heretofore enjoyed fabulous good fortune. (Our ancestors arrived in a country rich with natural resources and occupied by a low-tech nomadic civilization which we proceeded to slaughter with abandon. Americans have no significant enemies on our borders: can anyone imagine fleeing in terror of the bloodthirsty Canadians? Or the rapaciously savage Mexicans? No American city has ever been bombed from the air by an enemy, no American population has been forcibly displaced by an invading army, no Americans have been rounded up and slaughtered en masse. Horrors like the siege of Stalingrad or the Battle of Paschendale or the London Blitz or the Thirty Years War simply never occurred in America.)

    As a result, your Americano is a spoiled infantile self-indulgent self-pitying whiner who loves to play the victim while bullying much poorer and weaker nations from afar. Americans regularly do things to other countries (like blowing up wedding parties with unmanned drones, or kidnapping their people and torturing them, or placing sanctions on their economy which produces mass starvation) which if any other nation did these things to America, would cause the kind of bloodthirsty hysteria seen only in Star Trek movies about Klingons.

    The decline of American power is not the end of all beauty and excellence in the world. Get over it. Many other nations have proclaimed themselves the light of the world; they weren’t. The world got on perfectly well without them running it. The Roman Empire boasted that it brought civilization to the world; no one today seems to miss their mass crucifixions of slaves. The Ottoman Empire swaggered about how it brought law to the near east; today, no one much misses their public impalement of dissidents. The British Empire strutted with egotistic delight about how it had gifted the alleged savages of India and Haiti and Africa and China with the culture of the Enlightenment. Today, these countries seem to have done well enough without (for example) being forced to import opium to support a thriving drug addiction business (as in China). America is just another in a long procession of empires which glosses over its travesties and greed by telling tall tales about how “exceptional” and “special” and “chosen by god” (or by the gods) it is.

    In the 1890s, the Germans boasted Im deutschen wesen ist die Welt genesen (literally, “the German way will cure the world”). The French under Napolean claimed they would civilized Europe. America claims to want to bring the light of freedom to the world.

    All these nations had some virtues to boast about — Germany had the finest science on earth and the best scholar in the late 19th century, and had produced the most equitable and enlightened welfare state in the world, as well as an industrial economy second to none; Britain by the 18th century had a larger and more prosperous middle class than any other country, and the best sicentific minds, as well as arguably the parliament most zealously committed to the preservation of basic freedoms for its middle class; the Romans under Augustus produced some of the world’s greatest literature and art, and brought laws to peoples who had formerly practiced human sacrifice. The Mongol empire was famous for hundreds of years for the fairness and justice of its laws, and it was said of Genghis Khan that under his rule “a woman could walk naked with a pot of gold on her head from one end of the empire to the other without being molested.”

    America is just another entrant in the self-aggrandizement sweepstakes. Americanos have some virtues and many faults; and, in time, we demonstrated that we’re nothing special, just like all the rest.

    The world will survive. America will lose its self-delusions and eventually our pretensions of being Masters of the Universe will leak away. We’ll stop deluding ourselves that history pivtos around us. America will become just another nation, as Spain did after it temporarily became fabulously rich with gold from PIzarro’s conquest, as Frenace did after Napoleon’s wild run, as Britain did after WW II. The world won’t end. History won’t collapse.

    Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

    Like

    • Gaiasrequite permalink
      9 October 2012 3:38 am

      WOW, Thomas Less seems to have missed the part at the end of my last post (that was of course a joke).
      I don’t believe my post had much to do with having woke up one morning to find out, “OH SHIT IM NOT PERFECT AND NEITHER IS MY COUNTRY”! I think the point of this, as well as many other disscussion bords, is exactly the opposite of your rather long rant above. People here are well aware that their country is experiancing “technical” difficulty, if you will, and simply want a place to read and voice their concerns with like minded people.

      By the way, have read lots of history my self, so your lesson was some what wasted professer slack jaw.

      Like

    • Gaiasrequite permalink
      9 October 2012 4:31 am

      Mr. Thomas Less, gives us a rather insightful lecture on the rise and fall of previous empirical powers. However, I believe that the issues we are faced with today far out weigh those that the peoples of previous fallen nations were faced. In today’s technological age we have created several issues that may well spell out disaster for future generations. Now, for some 60 year old history buff, who has never been laid, these issues are mute. But, for those individuals who have genuine reasons to be concerned not only for America’s future, but the future of the planet. These issues become important, and are not simply the flummoxed ramblings of one who has come to realize their nation is not the center of the universe.

      1) OIL, not only is every industrialized nation dependant on it to sustain there economic growth and development; 7 billion people could not and will not continue to survive without it.

      2) 7 Billion. Yes, I would say that counts as over population and not an issue that seems to be going away any time in the near future.

      3) Pollution. Billions of tons of literally shit, we as a species are pouring into the oceans and forgotten hillsides of not only this nation but many others as well. Now there are those who are naïve enough to think that these actions will have no permanent effects on the planet. But, there are scientists who say other wise. (don’t bother asking me to site my sources, I’m not your god damned secretary! Look it up your self) And, if we homo Americano’s, don’t start considering the long term effects our current way of life is having on this planet; those who are to follow, will have a dire existence indeed.

      Like

    • 9 October 2012 4:46 am

      Oil (energy). Pollution. Overpopulation. I agree, these are the big three among world problems.

      Interestingly, all are probably temporary problems. But then life itself (for an individual, or even a nation) is only temporary. All three are likely to be fixed by the end middle of the 21st century. New tech fixing the first two, the ongoing fertility collapse fixing the last one. But the pain and suffering — and the damage to the world’s ecosystem — might be severe before these fixes are complete.

      These transitions can be mitigated with effort, if we start now (ten years ago would have been better). But we’re going through a stupid phase, so my guess is that we’ll do too little until action becomes necessary.

      Like

  5. Thomas More permalink
    9 October 2012 5:14 am

    Oil is just another energy source. Nuclear power, particularly thorium breeder reactors, promise at least 100,000 years of energy at the earth’s current energy usage for centuries to come. See “Extracting uranium from seawater,” phys.org, 21 August, 2012:

    “Although dissolved uranium exists in concentrations of just 3.2 parts per billion, the sheer volume means there would be enough to fuel the world’s nuclear reactors for centuries.” (op. cit.)

    7 billion people are beyond the earth’s current carrying capacity, and so, as Thomas Malthus explained in 1798, there will be a reduction in the earth’s population. This will occur either through famine or disease or war, or because of the drop in birth rates that takes place whenever a nation reaches the living standards of the first world. For comparison, note that in the developed world, birth rates in some nations like Japan and Germany have dropped so low that these countries are now experiencing a demographic implosion. See “Europe’s population implosion Europe’s population is shrinking and greying—with grim consequences,” 17 July 2003, The Economist. FM has already written about the demographic issues facing Japan as its birthrate plummets and its population ages.

    Pollution is of course a result of overpopulation. As global population stabilizes and begins to drop, the pollution problem will ebb as well. Too, exponentiating research into genetic engineering, like “Pollution eating bacteria give new hope to future” (Mikrolife, 2 October 2007) promises to accelerate the process.

    In the same way that the world doesn’t become poisoned by bacteria in a Petri dish that grow beyond their food supply, the earth won’t be poisoned by humans. If homo sapiens refuses to recognize our limitations and our dependency upon the biosphere, the biosphere will see to it that homo sapiens is culled until we no longer endanger the biosphere.

    People like to think that we’re the masters of the earth. The sobering reality is that if all insects on earth disappeared tomorrow, much life on the planet would vanish as well, since many plants depend upon insects for fertilization, and birds and other mammals couldn’t exist without plants — and the rest of the plants depend on birds eatings and excreting their seeds.

    By contrast, if all humans on earth disappeared tomorrow, the rest of the biosphere would continue untroubled. One way or the other, the problems of overpopulation and pollution will solve themselves.

    Like

    • 9 October 2012 5:37 am

      Those are quite the rose-colored glasses. As I said, these are all temporary problems. But More’s reply shows a somewhat inhuman detachment.

      None of those solutions are relevant on any timescale relevant to us.

      (1) Thorium reactors fueled by minerals from seawater? Commercial use of seawater extraction of such trace elements is decades away. The rollout of that combination of technologies on a large will take another few decades.

      (2) The population will increase until some disaster(s) halt it or the fertility crash stops it at roughly ten billion sometime after 2050. The ecological damage done during those generations might be severe. Possible geopolitical instability as well.

      (3) “In the same way that the world doesn’t become poisoned by bacteria in a Petri dish”

      Can anyone explain to More the difference between people’s industrialization and bacteria in a dish?

      (4) “One way or the other, the problems of overpopulation and pollution will solve themselves.”

      God or a philosopher can dismiss all of human history with such words. They’re cold comfort for the rest of us, whose lives — and children’s lives — are affected by these things.

      Can we now return to the subject of this post?

      Like

    • Gaiasrequite permalink
      9 October 2012 3:41 pm

      FM, perhaps the following quote from the above post, can turn the somewhat off subject debate above, full circle. Returning our thoughts to how our current political issues are worth diccusion and thought, as they are a pice of the larger picture.

      “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.”

      This quote, I feel, does a wonderful job of explaing why not only Americans, but all of humanity, has reached a point of inert decay in our social evolution.

      Like

    • 9 October 2012 5:26 pm

      It looks true of America today. But it was not true of past Americans. And is it true of all other nations today? I wouldn’t assume so (although that’s a commonplace assumption of Americans’ analysis, that we are the world, and the entire world is like us).

      Like

  6. Gaiasrequite permalink
    10 October 2012 2:40 am

    “It looks true of America today. But it was not true of past Americans. ”

    Absolutly agree. I feel there is a lack of both intellectual and educational drive among Americans today. I place partial blame for this on the American education system. While a great and functioning system at its invention and for several generations that followed, for todays America it is failing.

    To futher the statement of “not only Americans, but all of humanity, has reached a point of inert decay in our social evolution.” (which was made as a diversionary tactic and perhaps not well thought out) I have an idea that seperates “humanity” from the human being so to speak. So speaking of humanity on a spiritual level and not nation to nation country to country. I think we somtimes forget that though are cultures vary dramatically our “humanity” is always shared.

    “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
    — Albert Einstein

    This was running though my mind at the same time…..need to ride one thought train at a time I often offend and or confuse people with that particular tic.

    Like

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