Understanding our political system: the how-to guide by its builders
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.
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.
… 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
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For all post on this topic see these FM Reference Pages:
Other posts about political propaganda:
- Successful propaganda as a characteristic of 21st century America, 1 February 2010
- Can Obama turn America into something like Zimbabwe?, 22 February 2010
- Dumbest headline of the week, 1 March 2010 — Where are the good political smear artists?
- A note about practical propaganda, 22 March 2010
- About the political significance of the conservatives’ health care propaganda, 23 March 2010
- Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
- Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 15 September 2010
- The easy way to rule: leading a weak people by feeding them disinformation, 13 April 2011
- Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
- Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
- Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda, 28 December 2011
- More use of the big lie: shifting the blame for the housing crisis, 29 December 2011