Not Your (Founding) Father’s Democracy
Another gut-wrenching presidential campaign season screams into full gear. What a process! Why on Earth did the founders ever craft such a system?
Actually, they didn’t. The process we are in the middle of bears little resemblance to the one that put George Washington in office. For better or for worse, huge innovations have entered the system. Here (as I see it) are the ten of hte biggest changes. I wrote this column two elections ago, so I don’t include here the impact of social media and the Internet in general. That’s material for a whole other column to come.
1. Today we have a popular vote.
In the first 34 years of our republic (spanning the terms of five presidents) we had no popular vote to speak of. Then as now, presidents were chosen by the electoral college, as mandated by the constitution, but at first, the electors in many states were simply appointed by state lawmakers. So, in California, for example, the state assembly would assemble behind closed doors and pick some delegation to send to Washington, and that delegation would decide who Californians wanted for president. Gradually, however, states came around to letting voters pick electors, the system we have today. The first time enough states did this to make a popular vote even worth recording was 1824. (A total of 356,035 ballots were cast for president that year.)
2. Today we have political parties.
The constitution never mentions political parties. The founders thought they would be divisive and hoped to prevent any from forming. In their vision, the nation’s top leader would be chosen from amongst eminent personalities who had proven themselves above all special interests. The process would simply entail selecting the most capable of all the available sages. The founders thought such a lineup existed and always would.
They were naïve, of course. Today, no one can seriously run for president unless they belong to a party; and political parties by nature represent subsets of the nation, not the nation as a whole. A presidential election today represents a struggle between conglomerations of interest groups—rural vs. urban, oil interests vs. environment, and so on.
3. Today we have presidential campaigns.
This wasn’t part of the original plan. The founders considered “vote-chasing” undignified. Of course, supporters of early presidential hopefuls did write diatribes and polemics on behalf of their heroes, but George Washington held no campaign rallies. That I Like Tom button you’ve been hoarding probably references Tom Arnold, not Thomas Jefferson. Vote-chasing did not come into full bloom until the election of 1840. Not coincidentally, that was the first year a nationwide popular vote existed.
4. It now takes money to win the presidency.
Washington spent virtually nothing to become president. The next few candidates incurred only small costs—small enough to handle out of their own and their friends’ pockets. Really big money didn’t pour into presidential campaigns until after the Civil War. A crucial turning point came in 1896, when William McKinley’s campaign manager basically invented systematic fundraising. That year, McKinley raised and spent about seven million dollars to his opponent’s piddly $650,000. This year, according to the Financial Times of London, the two presidential candidates have spent over $1.2 billion dollars between them. Whatever else a presidential election may be, it’s now a contest between fundraising honchos.
5. Persuasive techniques developed for business are used in politics now.
In the distant past, advertisers were in charge of herding existing demand toward their client’s products. The advent of television, and the rise of “Madison Avenue,” brought a subtle change. Now advertising professionals took on the task of creating demand. In the 1950s, advertisers made the heady discovery that they could actually do this—motivate people to buy things they did not start out wanting. Political campaign professionals were quick to draw on the expertise of Madison Avenue to create, shape, mold, and herd public opinion. This tends to blur the boundary between what we think and what political professionals want us to think–whatever else it may be, a presidential election is now a contest between marketing teams.
6. Today, candidates come to us in “bite-sized” portions.
It’s part of the effect of advertising in politics, but I think this one deserves separate mention. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaign hired ad whiz Rosser Reeves straight out of Madison Avenue. Reeves had invented the slogan
“melts in your mouth, not in your hand” for M&M (one of the century’s 15 greatest ad slogans according to many advertising experts), and Eisenhower’s team thought Reeves might do for Ike what he had done for candy. Reeves happened upon a seminal idea called “spot advertising.” Reeves saw that moments of time were for sale between hit shows on television. He could buy those “spots” for small bucks and thereby reach the huge audiences built at a cost of millions by the big companies that sponsored the shows. The only catch: he had to deliver a message in 30 seconds or less. Rosser made a series of “spot ads” for Ike that compressed a town-hall meeting feeling into a 30-second clip. Today’s presidential campaigns consist largely of “spot ads,” “sound bites,” and the like.
7. Today the candidates interact with voters through mass media.
About sixty years ago, technology made it possible for candidates to speak to millions at one time through radio and television. Frank Merriam, who ran for governor of California in 1934, was the first to really exploit the political potential of mass media—he used radio advertising (and fake newsreels) to squash populist Upton Sinclair.
Today, the bulk of the money raised by presidential candidates goes into mass media buys. One consequence of addressing millions at once is that candidates have to deliver least-common-denominator messages. However…
8. Mass media appeals are now filtered through “narrowcasting.”
Mass media still rules, but so many forms of media now exist that campaigns can deliver tailored messages to different target audiences. Viewers experience these ads as mass appeals—as what the candidates is broadcasting to everybody. Actually, different demographic segments see slightly different messages. What’s more, the direct-mail industry has databases from which it can assemble lists of individuals fitting particular profiles based on the products they buy, the television shows they watch, the work they do, etc. By mail and phone, therefore, particularized messages can be delivered to each individual appropriate to his or her opinions and leanings. The Internet will undoubtedly promote this trend.
9. Polling has come to permeate the election process.
Scientific polling was invented in the 1920s as an instrument of business, but it didn’t enter politics until the late 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt began using a private polling service. At that point, polling was still a one-way process: the president would give a speech and then see how it went over.
In the election of 1960, however, the Kennedy campaign began running polls in a given area before a candidate’s appearances and use the results to write the speeches he would give there—which changes the function of polling. By 1976, Jimmy Carter’s key campaign advisors included a pollster, Pat Caddell. Reagan followed suit and brought his pollster into the White House to help him govern. All these precedents have endured.
Meanwhile, pollsters have refined their techniques through the use of “focus groups.” These are small groups of people selected to mirror a particular demographic profile. Campaign professionals sit down for in-depth discussions with a focus group to get behind mere numbers and root out people’s underlying emotions and unconscious leanings. In 1984, for example, focus group research helped Mondale discover that Gary Hart’s supporters felt uneasy about Hart’s ability to handle an international crisis. Ads based on that research stopped Hart’s momentum.
Polling enables candidates to tell the voters what they want to hear. As a result, voter cannot tell what the candidates really think. Yet the opinions politicians glean from voters may be the very ones their own campaigns have planted out there, through advertising. In combination, then, polling and opinion management create a hall of mirrors in which no one knows what anyone really thinks.
10. Today political consultants run presidential campaigns.
Once upon a time, people who wanted to be president gathered a group of supporters and molded them into a staff of loyalists who did the tasks needed to get their man elected.
Then in the early 1930s, a husband-and-wife team in California, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, set up the first political consulting firm. They offered clients a complete package of campaign services, from developing strategy to writing speeches to catering fundraising dinners—in short, they turned campaigning into a paid service separable from any particular candidate or cause, just like lawyering or advertising.
Political consultants now dominate elections at every level. At this point, they still remain vaguely associated with one side or the other of the political spectrum, but when the fiercest Democratic hired-gun James Carville can marry his fiercest Republican counterpart Mary Matalin, you know that electing a candidate exists today as a content-free abstraction, a craft in itself, independent of any particular worldly goal.
And yes, there is a Society of Political Consultants, and yes, they are holding an awards banquet in 2005 to hand out “Pollies” for the best political consulting of the past year. Whatever else it might be, a presidential election is now a race to win a Pollie.