IMPRESSION POLITICS:



MANAGING THE MYTH OF DEMOCRACY


DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY SAN FRANCSICO STATE UNIVERSITY

Presentation

FALL FORUM, 1992

How modern campaigning manages impressions and perceptions to influence the behavior of the citizen in the voting booth.

CAMPAIGNING IN AMERICA

Campaigning has always involved influencing people and winning their confidence, admiration, respect, and most importantly, their vote. Once this was done in face to face encounters between the candidate and those he met "on the campaign trail". Those he met directly influenced their social network; those people in turn influenced others. Parties, picnics, favors, [both material and social] were all a part of the influence process from the beginning. What has changed are the participants and the techniques and technologies they use to achieve their objectives. Party loyalists have given way to professional advertising consults, who set the national agenda at the same time they manage the image of the candidate.

PR: PUBLIC RELATIONS OR PROPAGANDA

Advertising developed as a profession in the early 20th century. Like medicine, law, education, architecture, etc., the status of "profession" gave advertising the mandate to define meaning in their sphere of influence. Advertising became the arbitrator of taste, of aesthetics, of social norms about gender and class; it established standards for interpersonal attractiveness. It set the national agenda for culture with a small c. As the promotional industry grew, it expanded its sphere of influence from the marketplace to politics. The growth and influence of advertising was aided and abetted by various technological inventions of communication. Starting with the four color rotary press; continuing with radio, television, film; advancing even further with v computerized methods of information dissemination---all this new technology enhanced the human ability to capture the mind of the other and direct it in ways profitable to the self. Because these technological innovations received their ideological and financial support from the marketplace, they became tools of buying and selling. When they moved from the marketplace to the political arena, they maintained this function. Advertisers saw the political process as the same as selling a product. Candidates became commodities.


THE HERITAGE OF RICHARD NIXON

Advertising entered the political arena in the l950s, when the Republican Party selected a former WW2 General as their presidential candidate and hired a New York advertising firm to manage the image of the aging general. Using the new medium of television to project a more vital, more coherent candidate, Eisenhower won and his political victory capitulated young Richard Nixon into the White House as vice-president. Nixon had a real appreciation for the impression management, and he used those skills throughout his career, beginning in adolescence, continuing through law school, into the navy, and then into politics. Once in the White House, he recruited his executive staff from the same advertising agencies he used to organize his campaign.

With the aid of his innovative political advisor, Murry Choitner, Nixon forever changed campaigning in America. No candidate for any office, whether local, state or national, can ignore the campaign practices Nixon introduced into politics. What began as an exception to tradition was the established rule 20 years later. Parenthetically, the variety of "dirty tricks" Nixon introduced into campaigning have also becomes institutionalized campaign practices, as the backstage of competitive campaigning.



SOME CONSEQUENCES

1. WEALTH: The introduction of advertising as a routine part of campaigning escalate the costs of political campaigns. Whether broadcast over television or radio, sent via direct mail brochures or transmitted by banks of automatically dialing telephones (the last two actually electronically manipulated images of personal experience) campaigning by commercials has inflated the cost of running for office, and especially, running for the presidency.

The Washington Post [l0/27/92] estimates that Ross Perot spent $57.5 million since he first entered the presidential race in the spring, $37 million of it in the three weeks since he reentered in fall. Clinton and Bush each receive $55 million in federal funds; other money is available to them through their party resources. Most of this money goes into the various advertising agency hired to manage their campaigns, including buying air time, constructing and disseminating commercials, mailers, focus groups, polling, and various other "activities."

As a matter of practice, running for the public office has become de facto, a rich person's privilege. $2.7 Billion bought Ross Perot a place in the nationally televised debates, a place that citizen signatures alone could not acheive for the Peace and Freedom candidate, the Libertarian candidate, the American Independent candidate, etc.

2. The involvement of advertising in the political process brings the topic of IMPRESSION MANAGEMENT to the forefront of political analysis. All influence, whether face to face or mediated, involves impression management---purposeful or spontaneous actions taken to control the ideas other people have of you, your cause, your intentions, etc. However, mediated impression management, such as is represented by various forms of advertising, [or even by a telephone call as opposed to an actual face-to-face conversation] transforms interaction.

THE SILENT COUP

Once techniques of marketing were introduced into the political arena in the l950s, democracy was never the same.

*costs of campaigning escalated

*possibilities for misrepresentation escalated

*the lines between legitimate competition and sabotage blurred

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: TRUE OR FALSE?

One consequence of misrepresentation for the ideal of representative democracy, is THE LEGACY OF LIES. The substance of the democratic process changed dramatically though its appearances remained the same. Candidates still campaign; voters still make their choices. But as techniques of impression management have been used successfully to cover-up each new breech of faith between government and the governed (e.g. Watergate, Irangate, Iraqgate, on to the gates of hell), everyone in Washington became an insider to secretes about state corruption. Each in his or her own way participated in the opportunities of routine deception, fraud, etc. One or two, like representative Gonzales from Texas, try to blow the whistle; but their numbers are few and the forces for corruption widespread. No one outside of that sub-culture called "the Beltway" fully appreciates how insularity of this government. It is a social world unto itself---a sub culture--placed in a unique position of power vis-a-v-s the dominant culture. That is, it is in the position of setting the rules and defining the agenda, as well as distributing revenue, including its own remuneration.

This division between the government and the people is what I refer to as the silent coup. In the days of the first American Revolution, the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisioned government as representing the collective interests of the people; now government is understood to represent special interests, either in opposition to the interests of the people or in some relationship akin to celebrities and their hero-worshipping audiences.

This classic ideal of a representative democracy rests on a number of assumptions: it assumes the voter is capable of knowing his/her best interest; it assumes that the candidates actuality represent different interests; it assumes the candidates will, in the last analysis, be honest in presenting themselves and what the represent.

The first assumption is that of class consciousness. Regardless of whether the class in question is economic, gender, age, ethnicity or occupation, or some complex combination of all of the above plus more, the existence of class consciousness suggests that the voter can recognize his/her vested interests and can recognize the candidates' positions relevant to the these issues. Voters suffering from mild or advanced false class consciousness already make the idea of representative democracy problematic.

Another assumption is that candidates will in fact represent different interests; that the slate actually offers a choice. We do not consider one-party elections as true democracies. Yet we restrict our own system to two parties and wealthy outsiders, all of whom represent a narrow spectrum of interests.

A third assumption is that of veracity. It is to the vested interests of the candidate to present him/herself in their best light, accentuating the positive and masking the negative; it is to the vested interest of the voter to get behind the facade, expose any misrepresentation; be cognitive of lies.

Lying---misrepresenting, dissembling, fraud etc.---is as much a feature of face-to-face interaction as it is of mediated action. In face-to-face interaction there are various controls on lying, e.g. tell tale signs, like eyes that evade yours, stuttering at crucial words, even emitting a special body odor that comes with fear---here fear of being caught---as well as assessments of internal consistency and comparing the present claims against background knowledge, plus opportunities to express any and all of these suspicious and demand an accounting..

People can and do lie successfully in face to face encounters. However, people who are lied to have greater resources to protect themselves from such exploitation.

Mediated interaction seriously alters the balance of power between sender and receiver. First, the sender has an electronic arsenal to enhance, edit, modify, add positive connotations, avoid negative information and otherwise script, construct and record a "message" that is much more tightly controlled than messages in the interpersonal system.

Second, in mass communication, communication is always mediated and characteristically one way. In ordinary interpersonal communication, which is the model of human communication, turn taking occurs. The person who is the sender becomes the receiver; and vice versa. No matter how well constructed the sender's script, the receiver has an opportunity to ask for clarification, substantiation, to poke holes in the argument, bring up matters outside the fame of the communication, demand proof, assert his/her own version of reality, etc.

Mass communication is one-to-many communication with feedback loops that are truncated or non-existent. In mass communication systems. controlling the sending position puts you in the driver's seat--you have a veritable monopoly on the means to establish meaning It is easier to lie on television than it is to lie in person and if you choose to lie via the media, your chances of success are considerable.

Richard Nixon learned, early in his career, that by looking directly into the lens of the television camera he would be perceived by the viewers as looking directly at them. With such a forthright demeanor, people would be led to believe that he was forthcoming as well.







IMPRESSION MANAGEMENT

SOME EXAMPLES

IN THE 1992 ELECTION

(classroom video presentation)

1. THE FIRST BUSH AD; TWO ANTI-PROP 166 ADS: The mini-drama; using all the sophisticated techniques of film and video, the viewer gets a peek into a social world, along with some emotional experiences. The mini-drama uses actors to portray real people. It looks exactly like "People are saying..." but these are professional actors portraying ordinary people saying this that and the other thing about the candidate who is paying for the ad; or saying something to discredit the othert side. If the viewer sees these commercials 10-20 times in an evening, and as many times the next evening, sitting in the posture of relaxation before the comforting flicker of the tube, what impressions are created?

2. THE CLINTON AD uses "outtakes" of actual Bush statements and puts them together in a way that discredits Bush's character. Here the candidate is made to incriminate himself. We are led to believe that these are actual statements made by President Bush, but ad agencies frequently use celebrity look- alikes as stand-ins as well as sophisticated computer programs that allow them to completely transform any image they can digitaize, i.e., any image.

3. THE BOXER COMMERCIAL is almost a mirror image of the Herschorn commercial, using the same techniques as the Clinton commercial. Seeing Boxer's anti-Herschorn and Hershorn's own commercial on and off through the evening is likely to leave the viewer confused. Perhaps that is the intention of one candidate or the other.

4. THE DIANE FINESTEIN COMMERCIAL: she comes across as just one of the guys---the very image of a working class person. This ad is one of the few to actually portray the candidate, so there is a sense of verisimilitude. However, it is an ideal example of mystification: Diane Finestein is a very wealthy woman in her own right, married to a man even more wealthy then she. Though perhaps not as rich as Ross Perot, she is far removed from working class issues. You would never know it from this ad.

5. THE ROSS PEROT AD plays against the norm. It does not create a mini-drama, but appears as a forthright statement, albeit with a number of references to war and played against a red background that looks vaguely like the pictures of the Kuwait oil fields aflame. Mr. Perot wears the democratic blue business suit, white shirt, red tie. No hint of his enormous wealth is visible to the viewer.