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Democracy Incorporated


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Democracy incorporated
The business of democracy is getting expensive. Today computers
and television pull out the vote. Canadian writer Joyce Nelson examines
how this high tech industry affects our ‘right to choose’.

Computers are an important tool in the business of campaigns.
Photo: Felix Aeberli / Camera Press

At Christmas time, I received a lovely card and letter from the Conservative candidate who had run for election (and lost) in the Toronto riding where I live. The letter was addressed to me personally, thanked me for my support during the race and especially thanked me for displaying his campaign poster on my lawn. The Christmas card was signed, in blue ink, with his first name: ‘Jim’. What was interesting about this missive was (a) I own no lawn, nor did my landlord display any campaign posters during the election: (b) I had quite explicitly told ‘Jim’s’ canvasser that I would never think of voting for his Party, and (c) my name was spelled wrong on the mailing envelope.

Dispensing with the possibility of intentional irony on the part of ’Jim’, I must assume that I have somehow quite mistakenly become part of the data base in his political machinery: some massive computer complex which spews out voter lists, mailing lists, polling results cross-indexed with contributors lists, and for all I know the signature of ’Jim’ in blue ink. Through such ‘personal touches’ I am meant to feel connected with the political process and even with ‘Jim’ himself.

Here in the mid-1980s, we would do well to consider the words of Richard Wirthlin quoted above. Most North Americans would be surprised to learn that, as Wirthlin states, democracy is more a’romantic’ notion than a form of government. Indeed, most North Americans might consider such a statement shocking and blasphemous: the kind of utterance attributable to someone from the ‘evil empire’ of the USSR. In fact Richard Wirthlin is the personal pollster for Ronald Reagan - a key aide.

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‘American democracy is less a form of government than a romantic preference for a particular value structure.’

Richard Wirthlin

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Wirthlin’s statement appears in the 1980 ‘campaign Bible’ which he co-authored to engineer Reagan’s presidential election. In other words, the passage was intended to be read only by the team of experts who would execute the campaign strategies he had designed, and by Reagan himself. As such, it reveals the operational and philosophical baseline of the new set of political powers that have converged over the last fifteen years: an elite class of technocrats whose expertise combines technological efficiency with in-depth market research techniques. Through this convergence the political process is managed, engineered, and transformed into ‘democracy’ - a facade which reflects our ‘romantic preferences’. It may look like, sound like, even feel like the real thing but it is not.

The belief in the free election of representatives of the people is, in some senses, the epitome of North American democracy, the hallmark of everything its citizenry holds dear. And it is precisely here that the new political technocracy functions most superbly. No political campaign is complete without its team of media analysts, media advisors, media time-buyers, pollsters, market researchers, computer programmers, video/film specialists, advertising experts, image-consultants and speechwriters to create their product (the candidate), launch it in the marketplace, monitor its progress and fine-tune its performance through the ups and downs of daily reality. Such expert management would be impossible without the technologies of television and the computer: tools which facilitate the engineering of both politicians and public opinion.

Much of the current state-of-the-art in political engineering is attributable to Richard Wirthlin, who joined Reagan’s team of experts in 1970 during the race in which Reagan was re-elected as Governor of California. At that time, Wirthlin began perfecting his ‘Political Information System’ - a mass of complex demographic data which could be analyzed and correlated by computer to yield specific ‘target groups’ of voters likely to support his candidate. In 1970, this use of computer techniques for designing campaign strategies was innovative and seen to be extremely useful for shaping specific political ads to match the concerns of individual audiences.

This practice, known as ‘targeting’, has since been perfected and refined within the polling profession at large. Its latest form is psychographics’: in-depth research into the lifestyles, opinions, hopes and fears, fantasies, personality traits, emotional needs, prejudices, beliefs and dreams of ‘target groups as specific as individual city neighbourhoods, Such information allows other members of the team of technocrats to tailor speeches and ads to key targets and place those ads in the appropriate TV time-slots and publications. The data further allows the politician (or more likely, his/her speechwriter) to incorporate the ‘buzzwords’, clichés, catch-phrases and allusions which speak to the population’s notions of ‘democracy’.

Hal Evry, one of the more outspoken political media advisors and one who has worked for Canadian and American politicians alike, summarizes what election campaigning in North America has become:

‘It’s simply a marketing job. Research is the tool that lets us find out what’s in the consumer’s mind - in this case, the voter’s mind ... Party support is a mirage ... What has the real effect today is television, not party support ... If you appear to be all things to all people, get on television and don’t say anything but make it sound good, you can get three out of four to like what they read into you.

‘Reading into’ politicians what one wants to see and hear is perhaps the key to current ‘democracy’. Reagan, with his soothing voice, his fatherly demeanour, his jokes and ‘aw shucks’ delivery, his allusions to some vague and nostalgic American past, is perceived by the masses as trustworthy and likeable - factors that, in a time when television imagery reigns supreme, count more than actual decisions he has made.

The current state-of-the-art deployment of technocratic expertise is phenomenally expensive for any aspiring candidate. And it is precisely here - at the point of financing campaigns - that another recent factor has emerged to coalesce with the new political technocracy. In the US, that factor is a change in legislation regarding campaign contributions.

In the post-Watergate days of 1974, Congress amended the election laws to try to limit the extent to which wealthy individuals and corporations could (most often secretly) finance a candidate.

Then in 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that candidates may use as much of their own personal money as they desire for their own campaigns, and that ’unaffiliated groups’ can spend an unlimited amount in their own advocacy of a candidate - as long as their activity is not authorized by that candidate’s official organization.

The results of such legislation are, in retrospect, not surprising. Special-interest groups began forming their own ‘political action committees’ (PACs) at a rapid rate, and by 1982, there were 3,149 PACs contributing $240 million to political campaigns. Some of these PACs are small and less influential - the Concerned Rumanians for a Stronger America PAC, for example, or the Hawaiian Golfers for Good Government PAC - but others are extremely powerful. Well over one-third of all PACs represent the interests of huge American corporations and they outnumber labour PACs by at least five to one.

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Photo: James Pickerell / Camera Press

The average political candidate for office receives three times as much money from PACs as from a political party. In 1974, $12.5 million of special-interest monies went towards Congressional campaigns. In 1976, the figure had risen to $22.6 million; and by 1982, $80 million. As Joseph Fanelli, president of the powerful Business-Industry PAC, has stated: ‘We’re interested in electing people with the right philosophy.’

Once candidates are in office, these special-interest PACs also work effectively to see that pending legislation does not adversely affect their ways of doing business. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, with its membership of over 13,000 manufacturers and a staff of at least 200, often leads the opposition to environment and consumer-protection legislation.

Such a lobbying organization or its PAC need only alert its massive and influential membership to pending legislation and guide them in their response: or more usually, spell out their response in mass-produced forms to mail to Congress members or specific Congressional committees.

By 1980, corporations and trade associations were spending nearly $1 billion annually on this form of special-interest grass roots lobbying. By contrast, consumer lobbying organizations like the Consumer Federation of America, Ralph Nader’s Congress Watch, and the National Consumers’ League together spent, in 1980, just $352,000 on all forms of lobbying. The Consumers’ Union estimates that in 1980, the total spent by all consumer lobbying organizations was about $3 million, or ‘roughly three-tenths of 1 per cent of what business is spending on grass-roots lobbying alone’.

Traditional boundaries have been blurred: not only in the notion of constituencies - the lynch-pin of representational democracy - but also in ideological allegiances to a traditional party structure. A member of the House or Senate is supposed to represent the interests of a particular party and the people back in the ‘home state’. This has been altered through changes in campaign financing whereby PACs contribute more than political parties. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

The battery of technologies and techniques combined with the new system of PAC-financing and lobbying legislation, are moving the political process beyond ‘representational democracy.’ The tools and techniques are obviously business-derived (especially from marketing, advertising , public relations and data processing), and the real power for determining political campaigns and legislation resides with business-interested. Democracy is now becoming a Big Business. And yet, in order for such a system to function – given our ‘ romantic preference for a particular value structure’ – it must disguise itself as something else. It must maintain a careful façade which promises and pretends that ‘democracy’ is government of the people, by the people, for the people. The mainstream media, themselves owned by large corporations with their own special interests, are the best means for maintaining this façade.. Not surprisingly, television is the most important of them all for such management, maintenance and smooth engineering. Like the computer, its power derives in large part from the fact that people perceive it to be apolitical, merely a servant to their own pleasure. The Manages Democracy depends on just this naivete.

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