A quick read of the morning papers leaves us in no doubt that this is a federal election year. Announcements, rebuttals, claims and counter-claims are starting to fill the newspaper columns. I suppose at least in the papers there is a little more substance and some reasonable analysis. On the television all we see is the usual thirty second sound bite, often taken out of context and with no supporting argument of any consequence.
Popular appeal seems to depend on a politician’s media presence and the skills of the behind-the-scenes ‘spin doctors’ more than anything else. It is no accident that an American film star became President of the United States just as currently one is governor of California. In Australia there has been a scramble to enlist celebrities, the recently demoted Minister for the Environment being a case in point. Similarly both sides of politics court sports stars because of the Australian obsession with sport.
The average voter in our democracy has his/her intelligence insulted as politicians compete to make their messages short and punchy to fit the sound bite. And then our intelligence is insulted again as they vie to impose their one-liners on us over and over again.
From what I can glean, professional PR advice first became part of election campaigns in the United States in the 1930’s. Clem Whitaker was a public relations man in California. He teamed up with his wife, Leone Baxter to start a new business. They offered a complete package of campaign management services to groups or individuals. Their first political candidate was a Republican nominee running for lieutenant governor. They mobilised a media campaign in support of the candidate that was so successful that they changed the whole way political campaigns are run in modern democracies.
They used all forms of media to propagate their campaign. The message went out to the public in radio commercials, newspaper advertisements, brochures, and leaflets. They hired an artist to draw editorial cartoons that they distributed to accommodating newspapers. In anticipation of what would happen in later times on TV, they produced a series of films using actors which were shown as newsreels in movie theatres. The movies were a part of a smear campaign impugning the character of their candidate’s opponent and typically linking some of his policies with communism.
Years later, addressing the Public Relations Society of America, Whitaker explained the underlying philosophy behind his success.
“The average American, when you catch him after hours, as we must, doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen.
But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.
Most every American likes a contest. He likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled. He likes the clash of arms! So you can interest him if you put on a fight!
No matter what you fight for, fight for something, in our business, and very soon the voters will be turning out to hear you, providing you make the fight interesting.
Then too, most every American likes to be entertained. He likes the movies; he likes fireworks and parades. He likes Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Joe E Brown.
So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr and Mrs America will come out to see it!”
Thus from such beginnings spin has been substituted for substance, drama for ideology and TV persona for character. And even more depressing, to do it well, to wage the battle and to stage the show is a tremendously expensive business. Now campaigns can be won not by who has the best policies but by who has the biggest budget. As a result very few people in today’s world can succeed in politics without the resources of a major party to back them. (And of course in the US, to become President you first need to wage a personal campaign to gain the party’s support, which is well nigh impossible without substantial personal wealth.)
In this way the route to parliament for most is through garnering party support. As a result of this another concerning trend has emerged. A growing number of politicians make their way to parliament via the party. Many join their parties at an early age, graduate from University and immediately are placed in the dubious role of “political adviser”. They work in ministers’ offices, become party officials and work earnestly to achieve party endorsement so that they too can become parliamentarians. And when they do so they take office never having had a “real job” in their lives and believing that the world revolves around the machinations of political parties! Even the celebrities and sporting stars have more relevant experience than this!
As a result we are electing people based on spurious criteria, a growing number of whom have had little experience in life outside politics. And unfortunately the world is getting more complex and governance in such a world necessarily as well.
All the while our politicians are seeking to make the messages relating to their positions simpler, more palatable and more reassuring. At the same time they seek to portray the messages of their opponents as deceptive, self-serving and down right frightening! Following Whitaker they have certainly learned how to manufacture a fight!
They have also managed to create a show. Election launches by the political parties are now widely covered events, stage managed, at large venues with crowds of the adoring faithful at hand. When the poll is finally held I wonder if it is not just another version of the TV ratings survey.
As I often say, communism must be a terrible form of government because I have it on good authority that it is even worse than participatory democracy!