Sunday November 18, 2018
The Never-Ending Campaigns, Inc.
In case you were wondering why the world is the way it is, here's part of the answer via Jill Lepore's “These Truths: A History of the United States.”
We‘re up to the 1930s now, and Lepore is describing the effect mass communication and propaganda—from Edward Bernays to Josef Goebbels—have had upon democracy. Then she gets into a topic she wrote about in The New Yorker a few years back: CAMPAIGNS, INC., “the first political consulting firm in the history of the world, founded by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter in California in 1933.” It mostly ran campaigns for big businesses, such as Standard Oil and Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Critics called it “the Lie Factory.”
Here’s where they really broke through. The 1934 California campaign for governor involved the former muckraker Upton Sinclair, who was—initially—hugley popular:
Two months before the election, they began working for George Hatfield, a candidate for lieutenant governor on a Republican ticket headed by the incumbent governor, Frank Merriam. They locked themselves in a room for three days with everything Sinclair had ever written. “Upton was beaten,” Whitaker later said, “because he had written books” ...
The Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it, a practice the paper continued every day for six weeks, right up until Election Day. For instance: SINCLAIR ON MARRIAGE: THE SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE. . . . I HAVE HAD SUCH A BELIEF . . . I HAVE IT NO LONGER. The passage, as Sinclair explained in a book called “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked,” was taken from his novel “Love's Pilgrimage” (1911), in which a fictional character writes a heartbroken letter to a man having an affair with his wife.
“Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.” ...
“Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter later said. “But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.” They succeeded. The final vote was Merriam, 1,138,000; Sinclair, 879,000.81 No single development altered the workings of American democracy so wholly as the industry Whitaker and Baxter founded.
They basically set the stage for everything that's been ruining politics, and thus our lives, ever since:
Whitaker and Baxter won nearly every campaign they waged. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California and of the country. They drafted the rules by which campaigns would be waged for decades afterward.
The first thing they 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.”
Make it personal, Whitaker and Baxter always advised: 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. Once, when fighting an attempt to recall the mayor of San Francisco, Whitaker and Baxter waged a campaign against the Faceless Man—the idea was Baxter‘s—who might end up replacing him. Baxter drew a picture, on a tablecloth, of a fat man with a cigar poking out from beneath a face hidden by a hat, and then had him plastered on billboards all over the city, with the question “Who’s Behind the Recall?” Pretend that you are the Voice of the People. Whitaker and Baxter bought radio ads, sponsored by “the Citizens Committee Against the Recall,” in which an ominous voice said: “The real issue is whether the City Hall is to be turned over, lock, stock, and barrel, to an unholy alliance fronting for a faceless man.” (The recall was defeated.)
Attack, attack, attack. Said Whitaker: “You can't wage a defensive campaign and win!” Never underestimate the opposition. Never shy from controversy, they advised; instead, win the controversy.
This is still the Republican model. It was Trump's model.
The key to the success of CAMPAIGNS, INC. is also in this ominous line:
They succeeded best by being noticed least.
Make sure you get Lepore's book. It's essentially about how our truths became less than self-evident.