The political money machine and the anger that feeds it
By Tom Baxter
Ray Strother, who died last month at the age of 81, told me a story more than three decades ago that still comes to mind nearly daily. It’s a fitting time to retell it, as we wait for this year’s election results.
In 1991, Buddy Roemer, the governor of Louisiana, switched parties from Democrat to Republican eight months before the next election. Under an agreement he worked out with the Republican National Committee, Roemer was allowed to keep Strother, his Democratic political consultant, which meant Strother, unlike any other Democrat, sat in on Robert Teeter’s focus groups for the upcoming campaign.
At that time, the Republicans held a significant advantage over the Democrats in opinion research, largely because of Teeter. He had greatly refined focus groups, a practice that began in the 1940s as a way to measure audiences’ responses to radio soap operas. Teeter keenly understood that what people might say in one group, they wouldn’t say in another. And whatever he got out of the Louisiana voters in those sessions, it struck Strother with the force of blinding insight.
Strother was a pioneer of the modern-day media-driven political campaign, with a list of Democratic clients which ranged from Roy Barnes to Gary Hart to Al Gore. He knew how to weave political messages into 30-second ads as well as anybody. But he realized he’d misunderstood something about the people he was trying to reach.
These people weren’t just mad at their politicians, he told me. They were mad at every authority figure in their lives. If they could vote out the principal of their children’s school, their preacher or certainly their boss, they would. They were as mad about their hospitals and police departments as they were about city hall. The political rancor that got all the attention was, he realized, only the public manifestation of something bigger.
I think that in those sessions, Strother glimpsed a nihilistic, “burn it all down” ethos which has taken deeper root and now announces itself more loudly than 30 years ago. Resentment, fear and anger are an undercurrent in many areas of American life, but in the field of politics, they have been monetized.
Newt Gingrich used to say that in business, the objective was to avoid controversy, while in politics the objective was to seek out and focus on controversy. That’s paraphrasing a little, but Gingrich’s political career underscores the point he was making.
Check your inbox and you’ll see how this principle has affected the way we experience politics. You’re not being asked for your vote nearly as much as you’re being asked for your money. And the quickest way to get money is to raise people’s blood pressure.
The competition to provoke outrage at a glance has ratcheted up with each election cycle so that by now most political information, which is to say fundraising information, is transmitted at the screech level. The business is rancor, and business has never been better.
“By nearly every measure, America’s political industry is thriving,” Katherine M. Gelb and Michael E. Porter wrote five years ago in Fortune magazine. “Campaigns are now seemingly endless and put to work an immense roster of canvassers, pollsters, and staff; top consultants are in high demand; media interest is bottomless; and when it comes to elections, overall spending (a normal proxy for an industry’s success) is near an all-time high.”
Those 2017 highs have long since been surpassed. If there’s anything wrong with the author’s description of the political industry, it’s that they leave out its key component — those who raise the money, whether by small-cash internet touts or big-money invitation-only fundraisers.
When the votes have all been counted this year, we need to have a larger public conversation about how we organize and pay for politics, and what effect it has on the country. And we should give some serious thought to that larger anger which so struck Ray Strother. It hasn’t lifted.