About Those Alarmed But Unnamed Strategists

We are now seeing the political consulting complex operating in real time.

I was once lucky enough to teach a course at Yale on the history of presidential campaign reporting. One of my best students was the son of a former congressman. As the seminar moved from 1960 to the 21st century, he noticed a pattern arising.

“My dad used to talk about the political consulting complex,” he said. “Politicians are so busy raising money, they can’t work. But they can’t work unless they raise money.”

“Political consulting complex” is a phrase riffing off Dwight Eisenhower’s famous neologism. During a farewell address to the nation, Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence” on democracy by the “military-industrial complex.” He meant the mutual dependence forming in the postwar years between America’s industrial base and the Pentagon, a dynamic that could foment conflict and erode freedoms.

“Political consulting complex” works is a similar way. There is a deep mutual dependence between strategists and politicians. Elected officials spend two thirds of their time talking to donors, not constituents, so they can pay strategists to tell them to raise more money. The demands of normal Americans end up de-prioritized.

I share this anecdote, because we have entered a new phase in the “invisible primary” in which we can see the political consulting complex operating in real time.

In this new phase, we can see strategists, advisors and consultants feeding reporters bits of gossip, polling data and viewpoints that may go in all sorts of directions, that may not make any sense, but that’s OK, because the point isn’t to inform, enlighten or empower. The point is protecting the status quo, guarding against competitors; or the point is drumming up new business. The result is a subliminal war of propaganda playing out in the political press in which anonymous sources peddling access to power and insider information compete for resources, prestige, status and jobs.

This dynamic wouldn’t be possible without political reporters who themselves have professional reputations to maintain. If your reputation as a “neutral analyst” is challenged by the parties moving in clear, meaningful and different directions, you might do what you can to demonstrate the parties are not moving in clear, meaningful and different directions. Or you might do what you can to demonstrate that they shouldn’t. But the real magic happens when a consultant’s interests line up with yours.

Take Josh Kraushaar for instance. He’s the politics editor for National Journal. He has a big-deal job. What he thinks matters, as what he thinks about politics is probably what elite Washington thinks. Kraushaar’s Twitter profile tells the rest: “Political reporting & analysis, without fear or favor. Part political tip sheet, part BS detector.”

As someone “without fear or favor,” Kraushaar has a stake in elite consensus. Elite consensus is bipartisan and thus implicitly “without fear or favor.” One of the pillars of elite consensus is that both parties must protect against marginal voices who might derail them, especially when it comes to presidential politics. In light of “socialism” being debated among Democrats, Kraushaar wrote this: “Their top 2020 presidential hopefuls are embracing socialist-minded economic policy, from a Green New Deal to single-payer health insurance. It’s playing right into the president’s hands.”

Who said this? We don’t know. Kraushaar does not name the source. But we can surmise he or she has an interest in the parties not listening to marginal voices, because marginal voices so often upturn the gravy train. The most we know is that it is a “top liberal Dem strategist alarmed by rise of socialism in the party.” The source: “We are on an out-of-control roller coaster going 100 miles-per-hour, and we have no functioning brake. No one is leading and that void could not be more clear.”

Pro-tip: whenever a strategist is both unnamed and “alarmed,” please take whatever he or she says with a large grain of salt. Odds are that person isn’t really providing insight into what’s happening in his or her respective party. Odds are that person is, as I said, engaging in a subliminal war of propaganda strictly for his or her own benefit.

This is not to say that such propaganda can’t be truthful. Sometimes it is. This is to say, be skeptical. Socialism, for instance, might be a marginal voice right now, but fact is, lots of things arising from the debate over socialism, such as Medicare for all, also happen to be popular among voting Americans. If something is popular, it is by definition no longer marginal. You’d think people with reputations for political acumen would know that. Many don’t, because for many, acumen isn’t the point.

—John Stoehr


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