One can hardly fail to notice the growing “cornflake-ification” of politics in the midst of the 2012 Republican primaries. Ideology has become irrelevant; the focus is now on personality. A candidate’s hairstyle counts as much as his views on immigration – or on, say, Libya. The voter is the consumer, the candidate the product. Behind this growing business lurk some of the most powerful men of the modern era: political consultants. Political consultants do and undo our politicians; their duties range from the noble quest of taking candidates shopping to orchestrating politicians’ political statements. Relying on databases and polls, political consultants try to convert the undecided middle, not the hardliners. Today, the ad wars between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich reveal just one of the numerous aspects of political consultants’ strategy: namely, negative advertising.
These “Made in the USA” manufacturers also operate far from home, and their track record is no ode to democratic “American” values. American political consultants have learned what corporate America learned thirty years ago: there are lucrative opportunities for growth offshore. During the off years in American elections, consultants disperse to almost every country and are often on both sides of international elections. In the words of reporter Walter Shapiro, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a nation in possession of an upcoming election must be in want of an American political consultant.”
The movement goes back to Sawyer Miller, one of the first political consulting firms to offer international services. As James Harding described, the firm was formed by “three drop-outs who changed the world’s politics: David Sawyer, Scott Miller, and Ned Kennan.” Sawyer was in documentary filmmaking, Miller and Kennan in advertising. The three were remarkably apolitical, which is why it may be puzzling that they steered most of our contemporary leaders’ statements and appearances. Yet, steeped in American culture, these consultants knew which emotions, slogans, and attitudes would turn candidates into winners. A former Mossad intelligence analyst and psychology student, Kennan analyzed popular opinion, emphasizing focus groups and polling. From Kennan’s insights, Sawyer emotionalized filmmaking and Miller perfected the art of the slogan. Drawing on American symbols, the firm launched a new profession when they helped Kevin White win reelection as the mayor of Boston. But could the models developed in the United States find success abroad?
American political consultants initially trickled down from the United States to Latin America, a region the “experts” knew virtually nothing about. They knew no Spanish and had neither cultural links to the country nor knowledge of its historical background. They tried to drive the election motor of Latin American elections as if it were a John Deere tractor. David Sawyer went to work for candidate Lorenzo Fernández in the 1973 Venezuelan presidential election. In his campaign strategy, Sawyer attempted to spin the patriarchal figure as a “Tiger,” much to the dismay of voters who had seen the old man as nothing more than a calm, purring cat. “You can only spin so much,” Sawyer’s ex-wife remarked in retrospect. On the other side of the race, American consultants Bob Squier and Joseph Napolitan coordinated the ad campaign of the eventual winner, Carlos Andrés Pérez. Pérez himself took the time to traverse the country and meet his electorate in person. The political consultant’s work abroad, it seems, can often operate in a vacuum. Is it possible to prevent a culture clash between unilingual, American-bred consultants? Indeed, traveling consultants spend most of their time in the smoky backrooms of political negotiations and high-end hotels, learning more about pool temperature than the day-to-day life of an ordinary voter.
While the United States believes it has found the ideal political model, political consultants also believe in the universality of voters and that a single, “right” solution should also be sold across the globe. As former Sawyer Miller consultant Marc McKinnon mentioned, “The things that drive elections are the same in Nebraska as they are in Ghana.” Peruvian politician Miguel Cruchaga would disagree. “One thing is Britain and another thing is Peru,” he said. “Bring a British comedian to Peru and see if he can make anyone laugh here – it doesn’t work that way.” Can cultural values really be treated as exportable commodities?
Cultural barriers are abundant. Walter Shapiro described how in post-Soviet Hungary, a Republican consultant told his Hungarian campaign manager that he should set a goal for the number of seats his candidates needed to win. The campaign manager argued that such quantification would lead the candidates to think they were losing, to which the American consultant happily objected: “All candidates are optimists.” He was told, “That may be true for the Americans. But the Hungarian people are not used to being winners.” Similarly, negative campaigning, a strategy that has become accepted as a necessary evil in the United States, can be very detrimental in international politics. Boston University Professor Taylor Boas, an expert on political consulting, said that the spectrum of acceptable questions and topics varies by country. For example, religious questions, while essential on the American stage, would be frowned upon in Western Europe. Thus, how can the United States’ political model serve as a universally applicable ideal for nations with globally varying histories, political development, and economic landscapes? The techniques, themes, and questions of the election process vary overwhelmingly from nation to nation.
A fragmented notion of a population’s technology and demographics makes it difficult for a consultant to gain any real knowledge of a country. In the Peruvian elections of 1990, Sawyer Miller’s pollsters deemed the candidate they supported, writer Mario Vargas Llosa, to be a favorite among the people. However, he lost to a relative unknown, Alberto Fujimori. Sawyer Miller had not realized that it had failed to target an entire segment of the population; those who had no phones or television were completely disconnected from the campaign’s marketing efforts.
To that effect, the role and responsibilities of political consultants often appear amorphous and obscure. Three years ago in Guatemala, for example, a series of murders led lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg to investigate the death of his mistress and her father. Evidence pointed to President Alvaro Colom as the orchestrator of the murder. Suspecting that he, too, would be assassinated, Rosenberg recorded himself denouncing the president. Moments later, Rosenberg was found dead and the video was released by his friends. As the footage spread, anger gripped the country and huge revolts mounted against President Colom.
In desperation, Colom called upon Roberto Izurieta, a bilingual political consultant and director of Latin American Projects at the Graduate School of Management at George Washington University. Though Izurieta came in to see if the situation could still be saved for Colom, he had incredibly nebulous responsibilities. He asked for full access to the presidential palace, saying that nothing should be unknown to him. Other than organizing an interview on CNN, a network where he served as a contributor, Izurieta’s only action to resolve the crisis was to bus supporters into the main plaza to film a staged rally for Colom – the political consultant here was simply a propaganda agent.
The fiasco only ended when the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala discovered that Rosenberg had, bizarrely, plotted his own assassination by hiring his own assassins. Rosenberg had hoped that his “murder” would cause a larger stir and spread awareness of Colom’s alleged involvement in the two deaths. Though Izurieta did not help Colom much, he certainly helped CNN manufacture a nice interview. In any case, lack of transparency and shady methods of advertisement are worrisome elements of such a crucial enterprise.
Having American consultants abroad can, moreover, be interpreted as an attempt to usurp elections, as it was in the case of the 1988 Israeli election, the first time that Sawyer Miller came in to assist Shimon Peres of the Labor Party. The fact that foreign consultants were impinging on Israeli politics initially created a scandal in the nation’s press, despite the consultants’ remarkable lack of influence in their first election. Many thought outside influence trivialized the national political debate and frowned upon the Americanization of Israeli politics. Ultimately, however, the issue died down: a few years after the controversy erupted, the rival Likud Party paradoxically hired its very own American consultants. The protectionist uprising was short-lived, and the fact that American consultants were dipping their noses in Israeli politics was quickly forgotten. As James Harding put it, “Israel’s arms race in American advisers was under way.”
Furthermore, political consultants – almost exclusively American, European, or Russian – can serve shadier purposes than the purely lucrative. Consultants have often been accused of acting in a post-Cold War imperialist effort to influence elections abroad. As mentioned by Professor Taylor Boas, political consultants can and did at times serve the same purposes as covert CIA operations and coups during the Cold War. In 1994, for instance, Sawyer Miller received money from the US government to advance Russia’s privatization programs and, according to the Wall Street Journal, pocketed 50 to 90 percent of the aid contract. Apart from this story, little has been written on the work of American consultants abroad, while much more information is available on Russia’s export of consulting techniques. The fact that American scholars seem to be more interested in Russian consulting than American use of similar methods is a demonstration of the lingering traces of Red Scare politics. The supposed interference of the Russian political consultant is contrasted with a comparatively uncontested belief in the American political consultant’s noble mission of sowing democracy abroad.
The Russian model, nonetheless, gives much insight into the consulting business. As Andrew Wilson explained, Russian political consultants – eerily renamed “political technologists” – bring forth a style of “politics-as-performance.” In a move that many believe was orchestrated by the Kremlin itself, Vladmir Putin’s adviser, Gleb Pavlosky, as well as Russian political technologists Marat Gelman and Igor Shuvalov, worked on the political scene for the Social Democratic Party in Ukraine in 1999 and pushed for the presidency of Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma won the election and helped significantly improve the Russian-Ukrainian relationship. However, a clear struggle for power emerged when Russian political technologists accused Viktor Yushchenko, Kuchma’s then-prime minister, of being an anti-Russian nationalist funded by American organizations like Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which were instrumental in developing campaign efforts abroad. According to journalist Gerald Sussman, the NDI and the IRI contributed millions to Yushchenko’s campaign in 2004. The struggle between Russia and the US in their attempts to influence the Ukrainian elections reveals the tensions of “camperialism” – the art of softly spreading imperialist influence through political campaigning. Here, the two Cold War giants were once again facing off, indirectly seeking to extend their influence on the political scene – their fighters were political consultants. Political consulting is not the only tool in these modern struggles for influence; funding political movements remains, of course, a crucial tool to influence politics abroad. In 2004 Ukraine, for instance, the student movement Pora was funded by the NDI and the IRI. It successfully led uprisings calling for a new election after the victory of the Russian-backed candidate Viktor Yakunovych, bringing the American favorite to power.
Political consultants have also shown themselves willing to work for candidates that openly opposed their own countries interests or values. Sawyer Miller, for example, assisted military governor Manuel Noriega in Panama and Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. At other times, a consultant’s list of clients reveals interesting linkages. Tim Bell, Margaret Thatcher’s political consultant, went on to work for Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. It can be hard to tell whether consultants work to sell an ideology or only to bring in a paycheck.
In this broader vein and under a more scintillating name, the US indeed influences elections and campaigns worldwide. Created in 1983, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is directly funded by the United States Congress within the budget of the US Agency for International Development. This money goes to four organizations, two of which are the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. The NED prides itself on spreading of democracy abroad, but it is worth asking to whom democracy is being sold. The NED indeed ultimately operates a distant manipulation of crowds and opinion that is consistently overlooked. As brilliantly described by journalist William Blum while writing for the International Endowment for Democracy, “the idea was that the NED would do somewhat overtly what the CIA had been doing covertly for decades, and thus, hopefully, eliminate the stigma associated with CIA covert activities.”
NED has funded movements that have countered leftist candidates and opposition movements. Their targets range from Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez to leftist professor unions in France. Some of this funding went to pay for political consultants and advertising campaigns meant to spread pro-American political sentiment in countries worldwide. $550,000 was given to the IRI for use in Guatemala in 2005. The IRI used this money to allocate political consultants to various approved political parties to “strengthen political parties and civil society youth leadership while increasing sensitivity to democracy and governability issues,” and to fund efforts to “encourage the media to report on the debate about the economic reform.” In Nicaragua, the NED paid the National Democratic Institute $430,000 to “help publicize citizen concerns about the political system.” Similar political spin was funded by US taxpayers in Peru (IRI, $300,000), in Venezuela (IRI, $200,000), and for regional action (NDI, $395,000). Funding was also allocated to other organizations and media groups that were crucially influential during campaign season, but were not political parties.
Political spin is a global market. Subtle manipulation conducted by the US worldwide is called “spreading democracy.” This is a business with enormous means: Congress’s annual budget for the NDI was $118 million in 2009, most of which was spent in the unclear category of “democracy support” worldwide. The budget for the Middle East alone was $30 million. Similarly, the IRI had a budget of $85 million, most of which was spent on projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. As mentioned by former House member Dante Fascell, one of the congressional leaders behind the creation of the NED, the organization’s nonpartisan structure was intended to give each group “a piece of the pie.” Moreover, despite being “democratic,” the NED is not required to report any of its actions to Congress.
Organizations that are part of similar efforts, such as the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), have 1,500 consultants in 35 countries and work with big names such as Stanley Greenberg, the consulting firm dedicated to “spreading democracy” that helped Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Similarly, Joseph Napolitan, who worked on John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960, is also attached to IFES. Ties between the government of a consultant’s country of origin and the consultant are at times undeniable. For instance, by instilling fear amongst Russian voters and broadening Boris Yeltsin’s appeal to Russian youth by having him appear at rock concerts, the three American campaign consultants who worked for Yeltsin were said to have saved Russia from a Communist resurgence. Political consultants often come laden with the agenda of their previous domestic clients.
The possible encroachment of the NED on a country’s political independence was exemplified in Egypt last December. NED had been operating in the country and reaching out to different parties, even though they were not granted official authorization. They did so openly, according to their own account. However, on December 29, 2011, the Egyptian Military Forces, in a manifestation of their disagreement with the NED’s attempts to influence Egyptian elections, raided NED offices and confiscated their materials. Three of the employees of the NED have now relocated to the American embassy to wait for their travel permits. President Obama labeled the raid “an attack on democracy,” but the Egyptian government justified it as an attempt to remove forces that “destabilized” elections in the country. If NED is seen on US soil as a group that spreads democracy abroad, it is clear that the ‘beneficiaries’ of their services do not necessarily agree.
But the situation also has, at times, been reversed, as political consultants have acted as for-hire diplomats on behalf of foreign interests, creating ties between the USA and foreign governments. An established American consultant already comes prepared with a contact list, and can be a useful partner in building alliances with his country of origin. The Sawyer Miller Group was paid by the Philippine government to “monitor developments in the US of interest to the Philippines,” as denounced in “The Torturer’s Lobby,” a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity. The firm contracted a US lobbyist to interact with Congress on behalf of the Philippines. Similarly, the Colombian government in 1991 hired the same firm to help better its image in the USA and be its “eyes and ears” on America’s perceptions of Colombia. Political consultants can change public opinion and affect foreign policy. It is not surprising that US consultants are the most effective, it seems, in influencing the politics of their own country, even if they are being paid to act on the behalf of another. The political consultant is not a mere image enhancer – he has become a crucial political agent, and one whose power is not kept in check by any judiciary means.
Yet the obvious limitation of political consulting remains its ineffectiveness outside of well-known territory, especially in an era when digital media, which can limit a consultant’s control over the candidate’s message, has rapidly emerged in many countries. Ultimately, there seem to be two breeds of political consultants: those interested in their own bottom line and those attached to state-funded institutions. Are all consultants operating in cultural vacuums? If so, cultural incomprehension might be the tool to quell political consulting’s problematic influence. Given the differences between American or European political consultants and the voters they are seeking to conquer abroad, one might hope that the power of political consulting self-regulates through its own ineptitude. Yet this is unlikely to be a long-lasting situation. To many, it remains frightening that that foreign workers tied to the highest governmental figures of their country of origin have access to particularly sensitive sociopolitical and demographic information.
Globalization may have made political consulting a more fallible industry; perhaps the most positive aspect of exporting the business model of American politics is that as one political consultant faces another abroad, the two may cancel each other out. But consulting is only one of the many tools of American influence abroad through NED and its many subsidiaries. Funding organizations, supporting groups, conducting polling, giving media support, and granting access to data and incredible financial influence – Western consultants have their fingerprints on every aspect of the political process. Campaigns are no longer a local business (if they ever were). This trend used to be imperialism – is it now camperialism?