Don’t you see that the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?
—George Orwell, 1984
IN the aftermath of President Bush’s victory over Senator John Kerry in November 2004, an election Democrats thought they could and should have won, early postmortems stressed the lack of a narrative. Kerry’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, observed that the Republicans had “a narrative that motivated their voters.” Robert Shrum, another member of Kerry’s team regretted: “We had a narrative, but in the end, I don’t think it came through.” Top Democrat consultant, James Carville, was harsher. “They say, ‘I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.’ We say, ‘We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.’ And so there’s a Republican narrative , a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.” William Safire, a columnist with a keen eye for shifts in political language, reported the views of Jim Phelan, editor of a journal on narrative studies, that all this sounded like the development of a new Democrat narrative. “That is, they are selecting events from the campaign and abstracting from them in order to supply a coherent narrative of why Kerry lost. Their coherent narrative is that he had no coherent narrative.” He suggested that if Kerry had won he would be being congratulated for the coherence of his narrative.1
It was the case that Republicans had been paying attention for some time to the use of language to sharpen their political message. In this the key event had been the collaboration between Representative Newt Gingrich and consultant Frank Lutz to take Congress for the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections. The centerpiece of the campaign was the “Contract with America.” According to Lutz, the word contract was chosen because plan sounded insufficiently binding, promises were made to be broken, pledges went unfulfilled, platforms were too political, oaths too legal, and covenants too religious. The adjective “Republican” was left off to encourage independents to keep an open mind.2 In the actual document, a lot of effort went into talking about personal responsibility, family reinforcement, and tax cuts (“American Dream Reinforcement”). In 1995, the two men combined on a memo for the new Republican Congressmen entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” which urged that they talk of themselves using such words as “opportunity, truth, moral, courage, reform, prosperity” and portray their opponents in term of such words as “crisis, destructive, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, betray.”3
Even before the 2004 presidential election, anxious Democrats who specialized in language, notably the linguist George Lakoff, had been urging that attention be paid to the clever way that issues were being framed to put Democrats on the defensive (for example, talking about the “inheritance tax” as the “death tax”). Once the conflict was being fought in the enemy’s language, too much had been conceded. To Lakoff the great challenge was to turn these frames around so that Americans came to see the issues with new ideas. “Reframing is social change.”4 After the election, he pressed home his point, insisting that big philosophical debates were arguments over metaphors, and that impact of facts depended on the frames with which they were under- stood.5 Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist and active Democrat, expressed his frustration by writing a book urging his party to learn to appeal to voters’ emotions. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Bill Clinton and Westen appears to have been read carefully and consulted by the Democratic field during the 2008 campaign.
The problem, Westen suggested, was that Democrats wanted to believe that campaigns were about issues and that it would be possible to appeal to the rationality and better nature of voters. Unfortunately, human beings are barely rational creatures. Instead, they respond to messages which tug on their emotions and are prone to feel as much as see the world. “Most of the time, this battle for control of our minds occurs outside of awareness, leaving us as blind spectators to our own psychodrama, prisoners of the images cast on the wall of our skulls.” Republicans understood this and developed a narrative of themselves as on the side of patriotism and God. Democrats were soft and fuzzy, inattentive on crime and limp in facing the nation’s enemies, stuck with rhetoric about fighting for the working people of America as if the country was still facing the challenges of the 1930s. When persuading voters to back them, Republicans had no compunction about resorting to negativity, while Democrats continued to act as if they could rise above such aggression, dismissing the negativity as irrelevant and a turn-off for voters.
To remedy the situation, Democrats had to learn to frame issues to their advantage and go on the attack, finding ways of convincing voters that their candidate was in tune with voters’ interests and values, defining the party and its principles in ways that were emotionally compelling. This involved developing a grand narrative that was coherent, using policy positions to illustrate principles and not the other way around. Such a narrative would be simple, coherent, and accessible, not depend on too many leaps of inference or imagination. It could be understood and then told and retold. “It should have a moral, be vivid and memorable, and be moving. Its central elements should be easy to visualize, to maximize its memorability and emotional impact.” It was best to act first, before views had been fully formed, when there might be opportunities to “inoculate” against the opponent’s negativity by acknowledging minor weaknesses. Westen’s basic claim was that elections were “won and lost not primarily on the issues but on the values and emotions of the electorate including the gut feelings that summarize much of what voters think and feel about a candidate and a party.”6
Westen’s proposals, and those of Lakoff, indicated a considerable faith in the power of words and images, encouraging a belief that even the most liberal platform could be embraced by a majority of the electorate if only it was put together with sufficient emotional intelligence and professional media skills. It reflected in its own way a rather dismal view of public opinion as malleable and manipulable, tugged in one direction or another by the quality of rival narratives. The psychologist Stephen Pinker warned that this approach exaggerated the importance of metaphors, which were often used without much sense of the origins or implications, and of the role of frames. The idea that better metaphors and frames could be pounded into voters’ brains risked turning into a retreat from reason, caricaturing opposing beliefs and underestimating opponents.7 Lutz’s own guide to the use of language acknowledged the importance of framing issues, but his stress was on more basic rules of communication. He aimed for simplicity and brevity; short words and short sentences; attention to consistency, imagery, sound, and texture; and language that was aspirational and offered novelty. Only toward the end of his list did he point to the need to “provide context and explain relevance.” Credibility, he noted, was as important as philosophy. Explicitly addressing Lakoff, he observed that “language alone cannot achieve miracles. Actual policy counts at least as much as how something is framed.”8
Studies of the influence of mass communications gave little encouragement to suggestions that it was easy to shift public opinion in a direction it was not prepared to go. Partisans might be engaged, but the bulk of the target audience tended to be inattentive and distracted, so key messages did not reach many people. People could remain indifferent to issues in which they had little interest and resistant to views which contradicted those already held. Either they deliberately avoided such views or saw them as weak and riddled with error when they did confront them. One account of the relevant research recorded as a core finding that personal influence was more important than mass communication: “Political persuasion is contingent on circumstance. Persuasion grows more likely when campaigns face little opposition, when resistance is diminished, when well-placed sources provide simple and decisive cues, and when history intrudes on attentive citizens.”9
The New Politics
The issue of the political use of language emerged out of the “new politics” of the 1960s. The events of 1968 turned out to serve the American Right more than the Left. This was in part because the upheavals on the campuses and the inner cities created a strong negative reaction that Republicans were able to exploit thereafter, and they were still trying to do so four decades later. Norman Mailer observed that year, while waiting for a civil rights leader to turn up for a press conference for which he was already forty minutes late, of how he had experienced a “very unpleasant emotion: ‘he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights.’ ”10 This led him to reflect that if he felt “even a hint this way, then what immeasurable tides of rage must be loose in America?” The “backlash” was already underway, directed not only at blacks but also at unpatriotic radicals, drug-taking hippies, and protesting students. One beneficiary was Richard Nixon, who regained the White House for the Republicans. If a new politics was making an appearance, it depended less on the rejection of professional politicians as a barrier to the authentic expression of popular feelings and more on the cultivation of more professional political forms, as a way of maximizing voter turnout. The New Left’s despairing attitude to electoral politics had left the field open to the New Right.
Successful politicians always had campaign managers. By and large these were close associates of the candidates with a feel for popular moods and the sort of ruthless streak that left them with little compunction when it came to blackening the names of their opponents. By the late 1960s, the role was becoming much more professional. A series of advances in polling, advertising methods, and tactical analysis were coming together. The possibilities for shaping opinion opened up by the mass media reached a new level when television was added to newspapers and radio. The ability to disseminate a message to extraordinary numbers of potential voters was coupled with possibilities for tailoring that message to the interests and views of particular constituencies. Sophisticated forms of polling based on demographic sampling, pioneered by George Gallup in the 1930s, made it possible to monitor developing trends in opinion and identify issues of high salience.
In 1933, the campaigning socialist journalist Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle , wrote a short book entitled I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty, It was a bestseller, a history of the future. Sinclair claimed it was a unique attempt by a historian “to make his history true.” California was then a one-party Republican state, but also had 29 percent unemployment. Sinclair decided to run as a Democrat on a promise to end poverty through cooperative factories and farms and higher taxes. The first part of his story became a reality. He did get the nomination for governor and generated great national excitement. Unfortunately for him, the possibility that the script set out in his book might be followed alarmed California Republicans. Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, publicists for the “California League against Sinclairism,” adopted a simple method to head off this threat. They immersed themselves in everything he had written and found a stream of deadly quotes—for example, statements doubting the sanctity of marriage—without worrying about context or whether these were attributed to characters in his novels. They appeared on a regular basis in the Los Angeles Times. Sinclair’s nonfiction sequel was “How I Got Licked.”
Whitaker and Baxter ran Campaigns Inc., the first political consultancy to offer their services at a price. They took advantage of reforms which had been initiated by the Progressives in order to break the hold of local party bosses over state politics. These prevented parties from endorsing candidates who therefore had to engage more directly with the electorate. Whitaker and Baxter claimed that in their first two decades, they had won seventy out of the seventy-five contests in which they were involved. They only worked for Republicans, which was often the case for the first generation of consultants. They also ran campaigns against health care reforms, first in California and then nationally, helping create the bogey of socialized medicine. They pioneered techniques to influence public opinion that continue to be employed: sending rural newspapers press releases dressed up as ready-made editorials and features, focusing on personalities rather than issues, always attacking (“You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win”), taking the opponent seriously and anticipating their moves, and keeping the campaign theme simple. Subtlety was bad; repetition was good. According to Baxter, “Words that lean on the mind are no good. They must dent it.”11 Their services did not come cheap, but their clients were big businesses and the Republicans, the party of business. Republican senator Mark Hanna of Ohio, an accomplished campaign manager, remarked early in the century that “the three most important things in American politics are money, money and I forget what the other one is.” Over time, fundraising became so important that it became yet another task for which consultants were needed.12
The party bosses were undermined by the increased role of primary elections in the nominating process, which after 1968 involved the majority of the states. The complexity of the American political system, with regular timetabled elections for numerous positions at all levels of government, provided plenty of business for consultancies with credible track records of getting their people elected. One estimate in 2001 suggested that if all elected posts were included, some quite lowly, there were over five hundred thousand elected officials in the United States with about a million elections over a four-year cycle.13 This was one reason why James Thurber described campaign consultants in 2000 as being at “the core of the electoral process in the United States and in many other states.”14 As early as 1970 it was claimed that campaigns were less between candidates than between “titans of the campaign industry working on behalf of those personalities.”15
When the journalist James Perry wrote The New Politics in 1968, it was therefore not about how protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and community organizations might be shaking up the old elite, but about how polling and marketing were becoming more sophisticated. He even drew attention to the potential uses of computers.16 Yet these techniques, no more than the efforts of the New Left, did not guarantee success. Much of Perry’s book described how the moderate George Romney was taking advantage of these techniques in the race for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. By the time the book was published, Romney’s campaign had collapsed, having failed to connect with voters—a problem aggravated by Romney’s disastrous claim that his past support for the Vietnam War was the result of “brainwashing” by the Pentagon.
The importance of television had been underlined in different ways in the previous two elections. John Kennedy had famously gained an advantage over Nixon in the televised presidential debate in 1960, and then the possibilities of negative advertising had been underlined by one used by the Democrats against the hawkish Barry Goldwater in 1964. This showed a small girl counting daisies as a missile countdown began leading toward a nuclear explosion, with President Johnson in the background urging peace. This became identified as a turning point in technique. It played on an established image of Goldwater’s recklessness. The appeal of the ad was emotional. It contained no facts and Goldwater’s name was not mentioned.17
On the basis of his 1960 experience, Nixon’s attitude toward television was one of deep suspicion, but he was persuaded by television producer Roger Ailes that it could work to his advantage. His efforts in that regard were recorded by a journalist friend of Ailes, Joe McGinnis. The title of his book, Selling of the President, captured the idea that someone so unprepossessing could be turned into a marketable political product. In contrast to the later focus on negative advertising, the aim at this stage was positive. The intention was to create a Nixon image independent of his words. As McGinnis explained:
Nixon would say his same old tiresome things but no one would have to listen. The words would become Muzak. Something pleasant and lulling in the background. The flashing pictures would be carefully selected to create the impression that somehow Nixon represented competence, respect for tradition, serenity, faith that the American people were better than people anywhere else, and that all these problems others shouted about meant nothing in a land blessed with the tallest buildings, strongest armies, biggest factories, cutest children and rosiest sunsets in the world. Even better: through association with the pictures Richard Nixon could become these very things.18
Ailes was probably happier with the book’s message than Nixon.
The aim of the media campaign was to demonstrate that Nixon was more likable than supposed and could be found safely in the center ground of politics. In this respect it fit in with what was in practice a rather “old politics” campaign. This was the last Republican nomination in which the majority of delegates were chosen by the party organization rather than primaries, so Nixon was able to follow a traditional route through deals with party insiders rather than demonstrating broad appeal. His basic strategy was standard for a candidate whose core support did not command a majority: he moved to the center and sought to soften his own right-wing image. Positions were carefully formulated to draw in the maximum amount of support, even if few were left excited. His former speech writer described Nixon’s “centrism” as based on the “pragmatic splitting of differences along a line drawn through the middle of the electorate.” The aim was to find the “least assailable middle ground.” Instead of the “grand theme,” his interest was in the “small adjustment, which might provide an avenue of escape.”19 Moreover, however expertly Nixon was marketed, his cautious approach to the campaign meant that his early lead was whittled down and he became president on a surprisingly narrow margin.
The New Conservative Majority
To one commentator, who worked for Nixon in 1968, the candidate’s failure was in not recognizing the true opportunities created by the turmoil of the 1960s. Kevin Phillips, a young lawyer with an interest in ethnography, wrote a book in 1967 entitled The Emerging Republican Majority. Because the publisher had held it back to see whether it was validated in the 1968 presidential election, it was not actually published until 1969. The book was long and analytical, with 143 charts and 47 maps, but the underlying message was straightforward. The country had been dominated by a liberal establishment that was now old and out of touch, “a privileged elite, blind to the needs and interests of the large national majority,” a position of course also taken by the New Left. The elite had created “a gap between words and deeds which helped to drive racial and youthful minorities into open revolt.”
Phillips saw in the developing racial politics an opportunity for Republicans, because they could mobilize whites even as the Democrats attracted new black voters. Against the New Left’s idealism and the old progressive hope that ethnic differences could be transcended, Philips asserted that these identities were strong and enduring. While Jews and blacks might go with the Democrats, the minorities with a more Catholic background— Poles, Germans, Italians—were lining up against the liberals. Though immigrant communities once saw the Democrats as a defense against the Protestant Republican establishment in the North, now their children saw the Democrats as hostile. In New York, Phillips charted the movement of working-class Catholics to the right, mapping it by district and showing that it was safe for Republicans to oppose the urban liberal agenda of rent subsidies, equal opportunity, and community action. This agenda, he argued, was pushing whites away from the inner cities to suburbia, and this was part of a wider movement from the decaying North to the “sunbelt” of the South and West. Phillips was not arguing that the new configuration was inevitable.
It required Republicans to seize the opportunity. He argued that Richard Nixon’s majority in 1968 was so thin precisely because Republicans did not follow his ideas and tried to pretend that the candidate was something milder than was actually the case.
One objection to Phillips’s thesis was with his “grim satisfaction” in the “incorrigible meanness of the American voter” and his “undisguised scorn” for “sentimentalists” who resisted his findings.20 The fact that politics could play on human difference was anathema to many. Against this it could be argued that he was only making explicit what had long been a feature of American politics. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition had worked precisely because he found a way of keeping in the same party racists and blacks, antilabor and pro-labor groups, ardent reformers and corrupt party machines. The Depression made it possible to subsume ethnic identities under shared economic interests, but few working in city politics believed that they had gone away.21
A second objection was that it was poor political science because it required Republican Party politics to follow a path many Republicans would resist.22 There were limits to the southern strategy Nixon could follow in 1968. Governor George Wallace of Alabama was running as a third-party candidate on a segregationist platform and eventually took five southern states. Nixon’s main nod in the direction of the new political configuration was to snub the Republican Party’s liberal wing in his choice of vice president. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had fought a poor campaign, and so Nixon felt able to ignore him as a possible running mate and opt instead for the relatively unknown Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, who had a moderate past but was moving to the right. As vice president he made his name by attacking the liberal elite with some memorable alliteration (“pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativism”).
In 1970, Phillips’s message was repeated in a more careful form by two moderate Democrat pollsters, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg. The Republican majority was not yet in place but, they warned, it could be if the Democrats did not acknowledge anxiety among their natural constituents about crime and permissiveness.23 Instead, the Democrats moved to the left, with young activists pushing those issues that alarmed centrist voters, thus marginalizing the party’s former establishment. The Democratic nominee in 1972, the liberal and antiwar George McGovern, was trounced by Nixon. The administration was then rocked by scandal as first Agnew was forced to resign because of corruption and then Nixon because he was being impeached for dirty tricks during the 1972 campaign and an attempted cover-up. The accidental president Gerald Ford and his vice president Nelson Rockefeller, neither of whom had been on the ticket in 1972, lost in 1976. The conservative theme was then picked up with a vengeance by Ronald Reagan.
After his Hollywood career came to an end, Ronald Reagan had made his political name as a right-wing speaker. In 1954, he was hired as official public spokesman for General Electric Corporation—which meant he spoke at GE plants around the country, lauding the virtues of free enterprise and warning of the dangers of big government and communism. Reagan was telegenic with an easy, affable style that helped him link with people who might otherwise recoil from his politics. Reagan also had an ability to drift in and out of the fictional and nonfictional worlds which he inhabited, which made his claims credible even when they were fanciful. His biographer described a mind occupied by “stories, a make-believe world in which heroic deeds had the capacity to transform reality.” The make-believe and real worlds coalesced in his mind. He always sounded sincere because he said what he believed, even if it did not correspond to the facts. In any conflict between feelings and fact, feelings won. “He believed in the power of stories, sincerely told.”24
When he ran for governor of California in 1966, he followed the traditional route by edging sufficiently to the center to ensure that voters were not put off by his reputation. He avoided replying to attacks that he was right wing and inexperienced, toned down his speeches, and put together supporting committees which included known moderates. One of his managers later explained that they dealt with the inexperience charge by agreeing that “Reagan was not a professional politician. He was citizen politician. There, we had an automatic defense. He didn’t have to have the experience. A citizen’s politician’s not expected to know all the answers to all of the issues.” It even put his opponent, long-time governor Pat Brown, on the defensive for being a professional. This became a theme in many American elections thereafter. Reagan’s team relied on question and answer sessions to address the charge that he was no more than an actor who knew how to memorize and deliver a good speech. While the campaign managers had not intended to dwell on the unrest of the Berkeley campus, they also noted that it worked in their favor.25
Once elected as governor, Reagan was seen as a potential conservative candidate for the presidency. His hat was tentatively in the ring in 1968 but his real preparation did not begin until after he had finished his second term as governor in 1974. He used a nationally syndicated column and radio program to keep himself in the public eye and also as a means of refining his messages, identifying the words and themes that got the best response from his audiences. By this time, more than twice as many Americans (38%) described themselves as conservative rather than liberal (15%). This still left a majority describing themselves as middle of the road (43%).26 In 1976, Reagan’s bid for the Republican nomination against Ford made sufficient headway to set him up for a successful campaign in 1980. In this he was helped by Jimmy Carter’s doleful presidency as he struggled to cope with the economic and international crises of the late 1970s. Reagan’s message began by noting the distinction between the social conservatism associated with the Democratic Party and the economic conservatism, opposed to deficit spending and big government, associated with the Republican Party. He then insisted that “the old lines that once clearly divided these two kinds of conservatism are disappearing.” He envisioned “not simply a melding together of the two branches of American conservatism into a temporary uneasy alliance, but the creation of a new lasting majority.”27 The second strand was to claim that not only could these two traditions be combined, but that this would lead to a bountiful future. In this respect he offered a traditional politician’s promise of more of everything, an America both stronger and wealthier, a sunny optimism in sharp contrast to Carter’s melancholy. When he debated Carter as the Republican nominee, Reagan sought to present himself as the mainstream and sealed his bid by asking the pointed question of whether people were better off than they were four years earlier.
In two areas Reagan demonstrated the importance of getting messages across that cemented his support among groups that were essential to his new Republican majority. One part of this was his appeal to Southern voters, who had to be weaned away from Jimmy Carter—one of their own. While carefully avoiding overt racism, Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town notorious for the murder of three civil rights workers in the 1960s. Standing beside a known segregationist, Reagan stressed his belief in “states’ rights,” an evident code for the obstruction of black advances. The second area in which Reagan made a definite appeal for a particular constituency was in his pitch to the religious right.
Reagan, who was not known to be a regular churchgoer, concluded his acceptance speech in 1980 with a moment that was apparently spontaneous although actually carefully prepared. He had been wondering, he said, whether to include some thoughts as an addition to the distributed version of his speech. “Can we doubt,” he then asked, “that only a divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely.” Carefully he turned his presidential campaign into a religious crusade. He asked for a moment of silent prayer and concluded with what became his customary “God bless America.” A new religious politics was born. This was in part because of the positive reaction Reagan’s ploy elicited among two-thirds of Americans. More importantly, it was because he knew before he stood up that if he could send the right message he would get the support of an increasingly powerful evangelical bloc.
Although Carter was clearly deeply religious and regularly spoke of his faith, in no sense could he be said to be following a particularly religious agenda in his presidency. The landmark January 1973 Supreme Court vote on abortion, Roe v. Wade, galvanized evangelicals and Catholics. The radical claim that the personal was the political was now embraced by conservatives as they looked to politics to reverse what they saw as a deep moral decline, marked by drugs, crime, and sexual permissiveness. Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist with his own television show, published a sermon in 1979 entitled America Can Be Saved. The gravamen was that the secular and the sacred could not be separated. Therefore, men of God needed to be trained to “go on to be directors in the largest corporations, who can become the lawyers and the businessmen and those important people in tomorrow’s United States. If we are going to turn this country around we must have God’s people mobilized in the right direction and we must do it quickly.” The aim was to establish a moral majority with an agenda that opposed abortion, supported prayer in school, and favored traditional notions of sexuality and gender. “If all the fundamentalists knew who to vote for and did it together, we could elect anybody.” He formed the Moral Majority, and if Reagan offered an exciting platform that it could support he promised three to four million votes. Another leader of the Moral Majority, Paul Weyrich, described the organization as “radicals working to overturn the present power structures in this country.”28 Reagan’s speech and the appearance of a proposal for a constitutional amendment to “protect the unborn child” did the trick for Reagan. He got the votes.
The man who came to be credited as ensuring that the new conservative majority survived the 1980s was Lee Atwater. He made his name as a Republican political activist in the South during the 1970s and then was a leading figure in Reagan’s 1984 campaign before managing Vice President Bush’s successful campaign of 1988. He was then promoted to chair the Republican National Committee before being struck down suddenly by a brain tumor in 1991, at the age of 40.
Atwater was an intriguing figure. He was charming and charismatic, but also devious and manipulative, with people notionally on his side as well as obvious opponents. With his existentialism and casual lifestyle he appeared to be at one with other student radicals of his generation. He also had a musical affinity with black culture. In his case, being rebellious and antiestablishment led to Republicanism. “The young Democrats were all the guys running around in three-piece suits, smoking cigars and cutting deals,” he later observed, “so I said ‘Hell, I’m a Republican.’ ” He added that this was also “a response to what was going on in the early ’70s. I resented the way the left wing claimed to have captured the hearts and minds of American youth. They certainly hadn’t captured mine.” Being a Republican in the South put him in the position of insurgent. Victory could not be based on the issues, so it had to be based on character. “You had to make the case that the other candidate was a bad guy.” Atwater marketed himself as “a Machiavellian political warrior, skilful at using ad hominem strategies and tactics, characterized by personal attacks, dirty tricks, and accentuating the negative.”29
Atwater’s timing was significant in another respect, as he entered politics when opportunities were opening up for professional strategists. The structure of American politics, with its numerous elections and constant campaigning, created opportunities for those who combined an understanding of the mechanics of getting out the vote with the possibilities of modern communications and a flair for campaigning. His reputation was as a maestro of negative campaigning, manipulating the “wedge” issues connected with race and crime. This reputation was confirmed by the ruthlessness with which he disposed of the Democratic nominee in 1988, Michael Dukakis. A driven outsider, he understood that he was in a profession where a single slip could abruptly end a career, yet he enjoyed the limelight and was constantly telling a story about himself as well as his clients. He understood the needs of the media and played upon them. As a creature of the television age, he grasped how a carefully contrived stunt or a hard-hitting advertisement could become a talking point for days and reframe the voters’ views of a candidate.
He was also an intense student of strategy, who was said to be a regular reader of Machiavelli and always liked to have at hand Clausewitz’s On War. Sun Tzu was his favorite. He claimed to have read it at least twenty times. Quotes from The Art of War were included in the program for his memorial service. “There’s a whole set of prescriptions for success,” he observed in 1988, “that includes such notions as concentration, tactical flexibility, the difference between strategy and tactics, and the idea of command focus.”30
He considered Lyndon Johnson to be a master of the political art and took Robert Caro’s biography of the Texan politician’s rise as a sort of bible.31 He studied the battles of the Civil War, acknowledging that it was the Union’s Sherman who best understood the merciless logic of total war.
The only sport that interested Atwater was wrestling. Here was a tussle between two tough men who were expected to use deception and tricks in their fights, in a setting that was knowingly phony. This helps explain the appeal of Sun Tzu. He was operating in a context where craftiness could reap dividends, especially if the opponent was playing a less imaginative game. Atwater insisted on thorough research of the opponent (“know the enemy”), so that he could target weakness. Likewise, awareness of his own candidate’s vulnerabilities was important for defensive purposes. In helping Bush gain the Republican nomination, he exploited Senator Robert Dole’s known temper and managed to get under his skin (“anger his general and confuse him”), and then confounded Dukakis by attacking him in his home state Massachusetts on one of his preferred issues, the environment. Dukakis was forced to devote resources to an area in which he had felt safe (“move swiftly where he does not expect you”).32
As the traditional ideological element, and party discipline, waned in American campaigns, more depended on the qualities of individual candidates. Strategy for elections was like that of battles in being geared to one-off, climactic duels. Elections were zero-sum games, so that what one gained the other must lose. This gave the contest its intensity. Given the size of the electorates, personal contact with the voters was impossible and so campaigns had to be conducted through the mass media. They were competitions of character as much as policy. Atwater was considered the master of spin, providing each situation with its own logic, so that everything that happened could be explained in a way that served a larger narrative. Through spin, innocent candidates could be tarnished with an undeserved label, while guilty parties could escape untainted; the fake and the true could be muddled; and the accidental could become deliberate, while the planned became happenstance. Even though he spoke on his deathbed about the Bible and sent apologetic notes to some of his victims, there remained a question mark as to whether this was sincere or just the latest way of managing his own image. According to Mary Matalin, one of his protégés, he wanted to apologize to people to whom he had been personally rude, but there was “no deathbed recantation” of his political methods.33
Atwater worked hard on the media, playing to the desire of individual reporters to have their own stories. He developed his techniques from his early days as a campaigner, with press releases hand delivered—never mailed—to increase reporters’ “feelings of importance and help them feel appreciated and taken into confidence.” The delivery would be an hour before deadline so that reporters could work the “news” into their day’s work without necessarily having time for checks. A release would rarely run longer than one page, with no more than twenty-five words at the head, so they could be read at a glance. “The average reporter is lazy, as the rest of us are,” he observed, “and sufficiently harassed by deadlines that he will want to use material as filler without need for an extensive rewrite.”34 The media beats can “only be chewing on one ankle at the time.” Matalin described his talent as having “the pulse of the press.”35
Behind all of this was a shrewd analysis of American politics and society. In the early 1980s, Atwater came across the memo sent by Clark Clifford to Harry Truman in November 1947 on “The Politics of 1948,” which accurately predicted the nominees for the next year’s election and also that Truman would win. By looking at the Electoral College, he realized that Truman could lose some of the big eastern states, normally assumed to be essential to victory, so long as he held the “Solid South” and those western states carried by the Democrats in 1944. Atwater picked this up in a memo of March 1983 entitled the “South in 1984,” which described how Reagan could get reelected on the same basis. “The South’s gut instincts are still Democratic,” he observed. Southerners would “only vote Republican when they feel they must.” But he noted that Reagan had managed to persuade southerners to vote against one of their own (Jimmy Carter) in 1980. He identified as the key a swing constituency which he described as the “populists.” This group could go either with the Republican “country clubbers” or else the Democratic blacks.36 Another memo the next year emphasized the South as the key to victory and urged driving “a wedge between the liberal (national) Democrats and traditional southern Democrats.”
What interested him about populism was that, unlike conservatism, it was not so much an ideology as a set of largely negative attitudes. “They are anti-Big Government, anti-Big Business, and anti-Big Labor. They are also hostile to the media, to the rich and to the poor.” This negativity meant that it was difficult to mobilize them. “When they do get mobilized, it is just about as likely that they will support a liberal, or a Democratic, cause as a conservative or Republican cause.”37 To the populists he added the libertarians. This group he considered to be as important as liberals or conservatives. This philosophy he associated with the baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) who would come to represent about 60 percent of the electorate. They had been born into the television age and were into “selfactualization” and “inner-direction,” with an interest in values and lifestyles.
They therefore opposed government intervention in their personal lives as well as in economic affairs. In all this, Atwater was exploring prevailing attitudes, which he saw as more deeply ingrained than opinions, emotional as much as intellectual. All this resulted in a more fluid political context than in the past and challenged campaigns to engage with voters’ attitudes. The logic was “to find the specific example, the outrageous abuse, the easy-to- digest take that made listeners feel—usually repulsion—rather than think.” For Bush’s presidential campaign of 1988, the election had to be about Dukakis rather than Bush, who was assumed to suffer from his privileged background and his association with some of the less savory moments of the Reagan presidency. Initially the polls went against him. Rescue came in the form of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts prison inmate, who committed armed robbery and rape after being let out on a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had supported as governor. While sparring for the Democratic nomination, Al Gore had mentioned that Dukakis had handed out “weekend passes for convicted criminals.” Nothing more came of this, but Atwater’s team took note, researched the issue, and saw how badly it could damage Dukakis. “Willie Horton has star quality,” exclaimed Atwater, “Willie’s going to be politically furloughed to terrorize again. It’s a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.”38Ronald Reagan had established a similar plan in California, and the one in Massachusetts was set up by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor. Although Dukakis did not want to abandon the policy, he had agreed to tighten it when it involved first-degree murderers. Yet this was turned into a story about Dukakis as a weak liberal making a habit of releasing rapists and murders to commit crimes. The main ad introducing Horton was not an official part of the Bush campaign, but Republicans followed it up remorselessly (Illinois Republicans: “All the murderers and rapists and drug pushers and child molesters in Massachusetts vote for Michael Dukakis.” Maryland Republicans had a flier showing Dukakis with a fearsome-looking Horton: “Is This Your Pro-Family Team for 1988?”). Horton was used to address issues of crime and race, the latter more subliminally. Dukakis’s image of being indifferent to crime was reinforced when he answered a question in a presidential debate about how he would respond to his wife being raped and murdered by restating his opposition to capital punishment. Although by the time the ad appeared, Bush was already ahead of Dukakis, the Democrat later said that the failure to respond was “the biggest mistake of my political career.”39
The Bush team also played the religion card effectively. The movement of southern evangelicals toward the Republicans continued. They might support Carter but not Mondale, Reagan’s opponent in 1984, or Dukakis. Bush, also an unlikely evangelical, picked his moment when during a debate he was asked which thinker had influenced him the most. “Christ,” he replied “because he changed my heart.” Evangelist Billy Graham described this as a “wonderful answer.” Bush then habitually spoke of an almost intimate relationship with God—keeping a straight face while he did so—and got the support he needed.40 These, however, were not the only reasons why Dukakis was defeated in 1988. He was complicit in his own downfall because he ran a lackluster campaign. The Clinton campaign in 1992 noted well the consequences of failing to respond to negative, personal attacks, as if it would be undignified to offer more than a disdainful silence.
The Permanent Campaign
The Democrats made their own contributions to political strategy. One of the more important, which pre-dated Atwater, was to recognize that elections were only one moment in a stream of activity. A period of intensive campaigning might culminate in an election, but that did not mean that the candidate could get on with the business of governing, the ostensible purpose of all this effort. It was Jimmy Carter who stretched the campaigning season at both ends. His campaign manager Hamilton Jordan advised him to start as early as possible to get name recognition, which required early fundraising so that he could get involved in the early state primaries. This was described by journalist Arthur Hadley as the “Invisible Primary,” the period between the end of one election campaign and the formal start of the next with the first state primaries, during which time prospective candidates need to prepare themselves, in particular by raising funds. For the same reason the period has also been referred to as the “money primary.”
It was a natural step from the invisible primary to the “permanent campaign,” a concept introduced by Pat Caddell (Carter’s pollster) in a memo written in December 1976, during the transition, when he observed that: “Too many good people have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style; they forgot to give the public the kind of visible signals that it needs to understand what is happening.” According to Caddell, “governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” The concept was developed by Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who later became an advisor to Bill Clinton.41 One imperative behind the permanent campaign was the intensity of the daily news cycle and evidence of the costs of failure to deal with negative material as soon as it first appeared. The sense that the daily narrative mattered at least as much as and possibly more than the business of policy formation and government pushed short-termism to its limits.
In 1992, the lesson the Clinton campaign drew from the Willie Horton episode and the general ease with which the Democratic nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis had been blown aside in the previous two elections was that there must be an immediate and aggressive riposte to any negative campaigning from the opposition. As soon as stories of Clinton’s infidelity surfaced during the primaries, the team was able to swing into action and deflect attention away from them. Campaign manager James Carville told Hillary Clinton that the campaign needed a “focal point . . . It’s gotta look like a military campaign. I want some maps up there, some signs, anything to project a sense of urgency. I almost wish we could get some big electronic color-coded map.” Clinton’s response was that this was “a war room.” There were similarities between elections and war as a battle between two opposing camps in which there could only be one winner. Carville admitted that while he began by trying to “look at things in an analytical, calculating way and not let my own emotions get in there,” in practice “it never works. I end up hating the opposition, I hate the media, I hate everybody who is not completely swept up in getting my candidate elected. If you’re not in a campaign, if you’re not living it every day, if you’re not working eighteen hours a day, you’re not part of this.” On the same basis, he added: “And, it almost never fails, I always fall in love with my candidate.” Staying with the war metaphor, it was much more satisfying to be on the offensive. It was much more “psychically rewarding” to “slash the opposition than to cobble together another round of gushy, flag-waving, isn’t-our-guy-great ads.”42 In 2012, Carville provided an enthusiastic commentary on a guide to electioneering in ancient Rome, noting the advice to go negative early (“smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves”).43
In a book written with another veteran of the 1992 campaign, Carville explained his philosophy by linking it to the demands of the media. The starting point was an observation he attributed to Ailes. If a politician called the media to announce a cure for cancer and then fell into the orchestra pit, the headline would be “Politician Falls into Orchestra Pit.” As the media were only interested in scandals, gaffes, polls, and attacks, the only hope of controlling the agenda was going on the attack.44 Attacks could be prepared over time, waiting for the right moment to pounce, but timing was still essential, linked to both the progressive contraction of the news cycle, which created a media appetite for a new story even before the last one had fully worked its way through, and to the small chunks of time allowed by broadcasters for any story. In 1968, each candidate could be heard without interruption on network news for 42.3 seconds; by 2000, the length of a sound bite was 7.8 seconds.
This led to a stress on the importance of speed, which in turn put a premium on accuracy, agility, and flexibility. There was no time for the “paralysis of analysis” and no “second chance to make a first impression.” The original media take was the one that would last, so it was important to be the first in the news cycle and not the follow-up. Once a judgment was made and acted upon, there could be no second thoughts; hesitation would be fatal. To frame the debate, the core message must be simple and repeated relentlessly. Communication required memorable stories: “Facts tell, but stories sell.” Carville’s team worked the media continually, making sure that the right messages were received after the debates and that nothing negative about the Bush campaign was missed. Having noted Dukakis’s fate, a rapid-response team was set up to respond to any challenge to the candidate. Even as Bush was delivering his acceptance speech in 1992, point-by-point rebuttals were being sent out. By the time of the candidates’ debates, knowledge of Bush’s stances and his record in office was leading to “prebuttals,” countering his claims before he actually made them.45Whether or not they were aware of each other, Carville was following Boyd’s OODA loop by seeking to keep the opponent disoriented. At the final meeting of the aptly named war room, the slogan on his T-shirt read “Speed Killed . . . Bush.”
The steady domination of negative campaigning at all levels of American politics reflected the conviction of candidates and campaign strategists that it worked, especially when races were tight and money was not a major con- straint.46 The reason why it could work was that people tended to be more attentive to negative than positive information, in part because it raised issues of risk (Can this person be trusted with my security and standard of living?). Positive messages extolling the virtues of the candidate were less likely to elicit a strong response. Negative messages would not work so well either, if they were too shrill, came into the crude “mud-slinging” category, or appeared irrelevant to current concerns. A riotous youth or past infidelities were likely to be seen as irrelevant, unless the candidate appeared incompetent or devious when allegations were made.47Rebuttal was therefore important not only to deny allegations but also to demonstrate that the targeted candidate posed no risk. In addition, as with all messages, there would be multiple audiences. A constant problem in national campaigns was that the claims that might inspire the base could turn off moderate opinion.
This was one of the important lessons of 1992. Aware of the danger, Clinton was well placed to neutralize attacks from Bush. He could focus on the tough economic conditions and the need for change by regular references to twelve Reagan/Bush years. As a southerner, he could also play the populist role identified by Atwater, skillfully adopting religious themes but giving them a more liberal twist, by speaking of a “new covenant” and “one nation under God.” In this he was helped by Bush believing that he could continue to play to the religious right without alarming the more secular center.48
Bush, having so effectively used religion in 1988, found it did not work so well for him this time. Part of his problem was that the persistent push from the Moral Majority had led to the Republican Party taking minority positions on matters that might have been considered more social than political. The evangelicals, now joined by Catholics, compared themselves to the abolitionists by presenting abortion as the equivalent of slavery. They not only opposed same-sex marriage but condemned homosexuality. Paul Weyrich declared that “if you’re for gay rights, you’re violating a specifically articulated tenet of Holy Scripture.”49 The target then became the Supreme Court, for it had banned school prayer, permitted legal abortion, and tolerated same-sex relationships. Meanwhile, as they sought constitutional amendments and challenged judicial nominees on these issues, they were urging the Republican Party away from an equal-rights amendment. At the Republican Convention in 1992, the Christian Coalition hosted a “God and Country” rally, Jerry Falwell had a prominent seat in the hall, and the Republican platform—along with many of the convention speeches— was full of religious language. In his acceptance speech, Bush criticized the Democrats for leaving three letters out of their platform: “G-O-D.”
The move backfired. There was no post-convention “bounce” for Bush in the polls. The pollsters recorded anxiety at divisive attempts to suggest that the opposition was irreligious, and the extremity of some of the positions being taken by Bush’s Christian supporters. “The feminist agenda,” observed Pat Robertson, “is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”50 The associations damaged Bush; he was putting himself outside mainstream social values and ducking the main issue, the economy.
The Republicans were at risk of missing the significance of changes taking place in American society. Dan Quayle, Bush’s running mate in both elections, had sought to identify the Republican Party with traditional values. “The gap between ourselves and our opponents,” he had declared in 1988, “is a cultural divide.” At the 1992 convention he wanted to demonstrate the importance of the family. To do so, he picked on Murphy Brown, a fictional character played by Candace Bergen in a television comedy series.
The latest plotline had her deciding to become a single mother. Quayle complained this ignored “the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone.” It illustrated the challenge being posed to the American family, connected with the rise in divorce, sexual permissiveness, crime, and a general moral decline. This was soon shown to be a muddled line of attack. Would she have been a better model if she had gotten an abortion instead? It was also unwise to attack single mothers, working women, and the divorced—a substantial segment of the American electorate. By 1990, only about a quarter of American families approximated the nuclear family ideal. The percentage of mothers in the workforce with children under 18 was 27 percent in 1955; by 1992, it was 76.2 percent. Women, who were also often uncomfortable with the Republican anti-abortion stance, were soon moving into Clinton’s camp.51
Given Bill Clinton’s success in the 1990s, it was a surprise that in 2008 his wife Hillary lost an intense battle for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party to an outsider, Barack Obama, who had apparent disadvantages of being of mixed race and liberal. Both offered “firsts” if elected— either the first female president or the first black president. In other respects, the intensity of the struggle reflected the similarities of the candidates. Both were senators who had trained as lawyers. Clinton was more senior, could claim broader experience, and—as the former first lady—came out of the party establishment. Obama was the insurgent, who had only recently achieved a national profile and had been an early opponent of the unpopular Iraq War. Beyond that, their policy differences were not huge. Obama was a gifted orator, and it was tempting to attribute his success to his way with words. He also symbolized the American dream, for he had overcome many disadvantages to aspire to the country’s top job.
It was not just in oratory (he was bested in many of the debates by Clinton) but in basic organization that Obama scored. His strategy was set out clearly enough in June 2007, when his campaign had yet to make much headway in the polls. It was going to be a “classic insurgent’s campaign,” relying on a “surge of momentum from early-state victories.” He was already winning the fundraising race in terms of the number of contributors and the amount raised. David Axelrod, his chief strategist, explained that they were not running a national campaign but focusing hard on the early states with an aim of getting a “sequential series” of victories. There was, it was noted, nothing new in the script. Reform candidates would always try to combine grassroots energy with media momentum, and they normally failed.52
Looking back on the victory against Clinton, Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, observed that what made the difference was the combination of a clear message—which was an amalgam of “vision, issues and biography”—and identifying the “most accessible path to a winning vote margin.” Part of the strategy was not to change the strategy. There would be no dithering or second-guessing. They stuck with a core slogan and allocated time and resources strictly by reference to the chosen approach through the many caucuses and primaries. Plouffe quoted Obama as saying he was not going “to cast about for a political identity,” and one of George W. Bush’s advisors who observed that he would “rather have one flawed strategy than seven different strategies.” A key factor was using technology, in particular becoming the dominant Internet presence. Having started in early 2007 with ten thousand email addresses, the Obama campaign had over five million by June 2008. Of these, 40 percent had either volunteered or contributed. The people they needed to attract were already immersed in social networking and the Internet, and this made it easier for them to engage with the campaign. They did not rely solely on digital communications but also on traditional media, direct mail, and personal conversations.
The principle underlying this was fairly simple: we live in a busy and fractured world in which people are bombarded with pleas for their attention. Given this, you have to try extra hard to reach them. You need to be everywhere. And for people you reach multiple times through different mediums, you need to be sure your message is consistent.53
Obama’s campaign also benefited from wider demographic shifts. America was becoming a more diverse society, racially and culturally, and the Republicans risked being seen as the party of a white, male middle-class elite that had once been dominant but was now on the defensive. The underlying coalitions behind the American parties were shifting again. For three decades the Republicans had benefited from the reaction to the cultural shifts foreshadowed in the 1960s; now these shifts were starting to make themselves felt in turn.
In somewhat unfortunate timing, a book published in 2002 promised an emerging Democrat majority based on the fact that those sections of the population most inclined to vote for the Democrats were growing: upper-class professionals, working women, blacks, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics.54 The problem was not with the trends but with the framing. From September 2001, the issue was national security and George W. Bush worked hard to use his status as commander in chief to forge a winning coalition. By 2006, as a result of events in Iraq, this was wearing thin. By 2008, it completely failed to work for a Republican candidate in the face of developing economic crisis, which reached crisis proportions during the closing stages of the campaign and for which the Republican Party was taking the blame.
There was therefore nothing automatic about a new political realignment in the United States. It required an ability to relate to the shifting demographic and socioeconomic trends with messages that were both appealing and credible. In this respect, the Republican Party did face a problem if its main appeal continued to be to white voters, particularly from rural areas and without higher education. The themes that worked in the 1970s and 1980s were increasingly turning off new voters while at the same time continuing to motivate Republican Party activists, especially those associated with the Tea Party movement, whose prime motivation was to defend a way of life and set of values they saw as threatened.
The two candidates who battled it out for the Democratic nomination in 2008 illustrated the shifts in attitudes that had taken place since the 1960s. They both had a Chicago link. It was Clinton’s home town and it was where Obama settled and learned his political trade. Chicago provided another link: Saul Alinsky.55 Clinton, the former student radical, had written her senior year thesis about Alinsky while a student at Wellesley College in 1969, in which she described him as “that rare specimen, the successful radical.”56 He had even offered her a job. Obama, who was castigated during the campaign for his connections to Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weathermen, worked in the mid-1980s in the community organization established by Alinsky in Chicago. Once Obama had secured the nomination in 2008, a number of his Republican opponents sought to use the Alinsky connection to discredit him, portraying him as a replica of this Marxist firebrand who preferred direct action to democratic politics. Obama’s rise could be seen as a vindication of Rustin’s belief that black political advancement would most likely come through working the system. Both represented the triumph of an ethic of responsibility over one of ultimate ends.
The ethic of responsibility was intended by Weber to undermine those prepared to risk calamity in the pursuit of utopian goals. Had he lived he would have found grim vindication in the onset of totalitarianism. This represented the victories of those revolutionary utopians of both left and right who formed vanguard parties to seize power. The few who were successful (Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Castro) came to be idolized as heroic strategists. They were celebrated for their foresight, grasp of theory, resolve, and dedication as they saw and took opportunities for power missed by lesser mortals, playing down the extent to which they might have been helped by circumstances or the errors of their opponents. Western liberal democracies rejected this model. They came to define themselves in opposition to totalitarianism by asserting a commitment to the rule of law and rejection of cults of personality.
The corollary of limits to arbitrary power was limits to what political strategy could be expected to achieve. Constitutions must be respected, terms of office honored, spurious reasons to eliminate opponents or muzzle the media resisted. This reduced possibilities for one-party rule—domination of one group over another—but also the definitive resolution of disputes. The result was constant but inconclusive and restrained political struggle. Strategy was in regular demand, even as its scope was restricted. No sooner was one election over than preparations had to be made for the next. Legislative programs were subject to attempted influence, challenge, and potential repeal. Social movements generated divisions within their ranks as well as counter movements. All this could keep numerous amateur and professional strategists very busy but offered few definitive victories. Only on occasion, when political efforts combined with broad social and economic changes, could new ways of thinking be institutionalized, transformational policies implemented, or new constitutional provisions enacted to the point where it came to be forgotten that these were once contentious. This is what happened, for example, with the civil rights movement or the introduction of the welfare state. The normal political experience was of more modest advances and regular frustration. Not all campaigns were winnable, resources imposed constraints on what could be achieved, the most compelling narratives were temporary, coalitions were fragile, and overpromising created hostages to fortune. The best causes could be misunderstood, the best legislation could be misinterpreted, and the best candidates could make stupid mistakes. When the going got tough, there would always be temptations to focus on personalities, usually negatively, rather than issues. This was perhaps not what the progressive proponents of pragmatism had in mind, because they hoped that it would provide a means to transcend social divisions. Instead, political life could at times appear irresponsible and even outrageous in its practices. Yet, in another sense, this was the logic of eschewing an ethic of ultimate ends. This messy, infuriating, unceasing political activity reflected the limiting logic of an ethic of responsibility.