issue 314 - July 1999
MARTIN ARGLES / CAMERA PRESS
Joel Bleifuss probes the ‘Third Way’ approach to politics
pioneered by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
The art of politics has come a long way since the 1960 US Presidential election when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy met in the first televised debate. Kennedy handily won the exchange, his powdered face more than a match for Nixon’s sweaty, in-need-of-a-shave visage. Electoral politics would never be the same again. With the US leading the way and the rest of the world quick to follow, image manipulation replaced policy formation as the key ingredient of political success.
In 1992, the 46-year-old candidate Bill Clinton dyed his hair gray in order to appear more statesman-like. In 1997 in Britain, Tony Blair exploited his youth to lead ‘New Labour’ to victory over the ossified Tories. Last year in Germany, Gerhard Schroder, the 1960s radical retooled as a 1990s pragmatist, beat out the veteran Helmut Kohl.
Appearances, of course, aren’t everything. In today’s political world, elected officials also rely on opinion management to craft their agendas and mold an electoral majority. In effect, successful politicians have stopped being leaders and become followers, adherents to the spinmeisters, polls, political consultants, focus groups, television ads, psychographics and make-up artists that shape the candidate and the message. These gambits succeed best when the politicians eschew ideology and position themselves in a nebulous center. Such electoral engineering may not produce leaders who challenge conventional wisdom. But it does win elections.
President Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996 after reminding the voters that, among other things, he ‘ended welfare as we know it’. That August he had cravenly signed the Republican Congress’ welfare reform bill. The American public wanted something done about welfare, and Clinton did what was politically expedient. Most of his advisors opposed his action. In an internal White House debate Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros put it this way: ‘The objective reality is that people are going to get hurt.’ But in politics objective reality takes a back seat to perceived reality.
In signing the bill, Clinton was following the advice of the master image manipulator and political consultant Dick Morris. Morris counseled him in 1996 to aim for the center and adopt conservative policies, taking the initiative from the Republicans and isolating liberal Democrats. In The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the 21st Century, Morris writes: ‘To win and to govern successfully, a candidate of either party must take care not to be captured, branded and held hostage by the extremists and ideologues in his own party. He must transcend party and appeal to the middle.’
Morris’s own ‘New Prince’ has taken this lesson to heart. Soon after his re-election, speaking to a gathering of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) – an organization of conservative ‘New Democrats’ – Clinton explained that what the country needed was ‘a vital American center where there is co-operation across the lines of party and philosophy’. Last June, again speaking to the DLC, Clinton explained: ‘We have called our approach “the Third Way”– with a government that is more active, more effective, less expensive; one that can bring us together and move us forward, not drive us apart and set us back.’
Clinton’s words are echoed in Britain by the ‘New Labour’ Prime Minister Tony Blair. In September 1998, Blair heralded the Third Way as ‘the route to renewal and success for modern social democracy’ that is ‘free from outdated ideology’. ‘There’s change in our economic and social reality,’ he said. ‘It would be strange if it didn’t make a difference in the way we look at our political realities.’ But as media critic Morris Wolfe has observed: ‘It is easier and less costly to change the way people think about reality than it is to change reality.’
Before the Information Age, before spinning, there was shilling. In gambling lingo, a shill infects others with his betting fever, priming them to be fleeced by the house. In the days of medicine shows, a shill helped establish the credibility of the huckster who promoted dubious products or services. As times changed so did the shills. Thirty years ago, PR men were employed in the business world to present the company’s viewpoint on a particular issue. Since then practitioners of the shilling arts have expanded their client base to include politicians, political parties and governments. To further their clients’ political fortunes, ‘communications professionals’ employ lobbyists, fund their own media, develop ad campaigns and create instant grass-root constituencies.
One of the most successful examples of this manipulation of public perception took place during the Gulf War. In the fall of 1990 stories were published everywhere detailing the barbarism of the Iraqi invaders, specifically how Iraqi soldiers had looted hospitals, stealing incubators and leaving their infant occupants to die. These allegations were detailed in a firsthand report by a young Kuwaiti woman, Nayirah, to a hearing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Only later was it revealed that the eyewitness was Nayirah al-Sabah, the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and that the story was concocted by Hill and Knowlton, the Washington PR firm to which the al-Sabahs, Kuwait’s royal family, paid $10 million to build public support for US intervention in the Gulf.
In building public support for candidates in electoral campaigns, image engineers perform a similar sleight of hand. According to Dick Morris, ten or so consultants from each political party run most of the major campaigns. These consultants ‘focus entirely on tactics, ads and strategies and learn little about the substance of public policy’. Until recently, political consultants advised politicians on how to garner support from particular constituencies. Nowadays, the consultant recreates the politician to match the constituents’ desires – as indicated by focus-group data and scientific opinion polls – and then markets the finished candidate back to that constituency. Without experts adept in scientific polling and analyzing demographic data today’s politician would have hardly any idea what to say.
In Alexandria, Virginia, the marketing firm Claritas Inc has divided the 260 million US residents into 62 ‘clusters’ and then mapped out where these clusters live, postal code by postal code. In the élite suburbs, Claritas has discerned the ‘winner’s circle’, a group of people with a median household income of $80,630 who ‘use a maid’ and ‘eat brie cheese’. They have also mapped out the haunts of urban-dwelling ‘young literati’ who, with a median household income of $52,145, ‘buy expensive pens’ and ‘read fashion magazines’. The ‘family scramble’ subset, on the other hand, get by on a median household income of $19,441 and ‘smoke regular cigarettes’ and ‘buy children’s frozen dinners’.
These colorful maps make entertaining coffee-table reading, courtesy of Harper Perennial. But political consulting firms and well-heeled conservative groups are compiling similar maps charting precinct-by-precinct voting patterns and hot-button issues. The Chicago Tribune explained their rationale this way: ‘Fewer products today are aimed at everyone. Instead, the goal often is to fit a product, whether it be a dog food, a wristwatch or a political candidate, into a market niche.’
Dick Morris in The New Prince underlines the importance of a focused message the politician can use to ‘translate the public’s grief into the system’s issues’. The next step is ‘media play’ for the message. ‘It is the one-paragraph sound-bite on which the story lives or dies.’ Visuals are also key. ‘In handling television, bear in mind that the medium cannot help itself. It needs pretty pictures,’ he writes. ‘Backdrops matter. The candidate should stand in front of an assemblage of American flags or a bevy of uniformed police with medals.’ Sex can’t hurt either. In the fall of 1990, as George Bush exhorted a rally in Minnesota to support the looming Gulf War, a row of cheerleaders kicked their legs in the background.
Should anything go wrong, the candidate’s handlers are there with the right ‘spin’. The exact derivation of this word is a little obscure. One spins a yarn, making up a story that deviates from the truth. In the world of politics, spin-meisters use spin to cast their client in the best possible light and their opponent in the worst. Spinning is well suited for the New Information Age with its reliance on electronic media.
During the age of print it was the journalists’ job to interpret the utterances of civic leaders. But television relies on effervescent bites of sound that allow public figures to tell the TV audience whatever they want. No journalist stands between the politician and their audience. Ron Arnold, the far-right propagandist and founder of the Wise Use Movement who describes himself as the ‘Darth Vader for the Capitalist revolution’, put it bluntly: ‘Facts don’t matter; in politics, perception is reality.’
Governments employ legions of specialists to shape public perceptions. In Britain more than 1,000 civil servants work in the Government Information and Communication Service. Tony Blair’s Government in its first year replaced 25 of the 44 heads or deputy-heads of information. The ousted head at social security, Steve Reardon, charged the Government with repeatedly trying to politicize departmental press releases. In addition the Blair Government established a ‘strategic communications unit’ to respond to events rapidly and with one voice.
C Wright Mills, in his 1951 classic White Collar: The American Middle Class, wrote: ‘Under the system of explicit authority, in the round, solid nineteenth century, the victims knew they were being victimized; the misery and the discontent of the powerless were explicit. In the amorphous twentieth-century world, where manipulation replaces authority, the victim does not recognize his status.’ The dangers to democracy posed by the shills, flacks and spin-meisters who engineer consent are difficult for citizens to comprehend. It’s hard to fight what you don’t see. But what you don’t see can hurt you.
The shills of today concede nothing. They micro-manage human perceptions on a macro-scale. They obfuscate the past. And they appropriate the future, skillfully shaping people’s expectations, desires and dreams with the best communication science money can buy. Orwell wrote in 1984: ‘Those who control the present control the past.’ Today, those who control the present also control the future. Unless we recognize this threat and fight for spaces in our public and private spheres that are free from the influence peddlers, all signs point to an ugly future on which the spin doctors have put a happy face.
Joel Bleifuss is managing editor of the Chicago-based bi-weekly In These Times.