Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting, by Dennis W. Johnson

Kori Schake praises a forensic examination of the US political system

March 30, 2017
Capitol Hill
Source: iStockPhoto

Early this century, major league baseball was overrun by statisticians. Old-school scouts were elbowed aside by number crunchers mining data for anomalous patterns, as dramatised in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign ushered in the same fashion in political consulting, wagering that precise voter targeting could stimulate turnout. One of the upsides of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 has been the debunking of that myth. Bismarck was right: politics isn’t a science, it’s an art.

With Democracy for Hire, Dennis Johnson has proven himself a modern Vasari, writing the biographies of great campaigns and art criticism of the business of political consulting. The book commences at the dawn of American political consulting in the 1930s (although a solid case can be made that Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton had pretty good form: hiring journalists to malign each other; ruthless machinations in the House of Representatives to tilt elections) and runs comprehensively through to 2016. At 470 pages (with another 100 of annotation), it isn’t a quick read but will be an exceptionally rewarding one for scholars and politicians alike.

Johnson makes a strong argument that the decline in party loyalty spawned the business of political consulting. Among the many fine attributes of Democracy for Hire is the balanced way he illustrates that political consultants are not merely barnacles encrusting the ship of state, they also bring systemic advantages: candidates left to fend for themselves take refuge in specialists that can replicate what parties once provided.

It is dispiriting to read how much campaign finance law, designed in 1971 to strengthen political parties and ensure access, has driven American democracy into a bacchanalia of dark money (predominantly spent to oppose rather than support candidates) and monster political action committees. Paradoxically, the trend has weakened actual candidates, strengthening organisations instead, and impeding compromises once elected. If you wondered how US politics got to its current parlous state, this book will show you.

I would have liked more detail on the collapse of polling as a reliable indicator of voter preference. Its reputation has been badly dented in recent years. Technology bears some of the blame (the transition from landline phones and introduction of online polling), as does the wilful misrepresentation of accuracy by pollsters themselves and by voters (the “Bradley effect” does appear to have affected some Trump voters). While much is in transition, elemental design characteristics, such as polls that capture no information unless the entire 25-minute enquiry is completed, suggest that consultants dramatically oversell the value of their analytics.

Johnson’s chapter on the 2016 campaign shows just how murky a business political consulting is. For all its grandstanding, it failed spectacularly in 2016. Trump violated practically every rule of political consultancy: grass-roots advocacy didn’t matter, money didn’t matter, “super PACs” (political action committees) didn’t matter. His campaign messages and themes weren’t field-tested. He had no PAC and no mega-donors. All he had was a pungent, direct communication that brilliantly capitalised on voter disaffection with candidates who are expertly coached by political consultants and sustained by large donations of unaccountable donations. The great baseball man Branch Rickey once said of a player: “He can’t run, he can’t hit, and he can’t throw; all he can do is beat you.” Last year proved that, despite all their tools and modern techniques, political consultants still haven’t figured out how to reliably win championships.

Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting
By Dennis W. Johnson
Oxford University Press, 616pp, £25.99
ISBN 9780190272692
Published 15 December 2016

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