Posts Tagged ‘Alpha Dogs’

Yesterday, I was watching a back episode of, what for me is the best newscast in American television- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The guest for the day (June 24) was James Harding, “the Business and City Editor” of “the Times” of London and former Washington bureau chief of Financial Times. Harding was on the show to talk about his recent book, “Alpha Dogs: The Americans who Turned Political Spin into a Global Business” (Macmillan Books, May 2008). The book, says the Amazon website quoting Publishers Weekly, is about “the rise and fall of the Sawyer Miller Group, a political consultancy firm,” and this story “makes for a whirlwind look at international electioneering in this thoroughly engrossing book”. “The firm”, the Publishers Weekly continues, “grew out of a partnership among the political neophytes who essentially invented the American-style of campaigning and served as backroom strategists in every presidential contest from Nixon to George W. Bush.” These consultancy people, as Americans would well know, run the elections, literally. From cutting ads to writing speeches, from deciding about what colors a candidate should wear to what kind of soda (or beer) he or she needs to drink at a particular meeting, they micro manage political campaigns, notably the presidential ones.

The book is about the internationalization of this particular practice. The domestic political consultancy group mentioned in the book shifted gears in the 1990s and sold its art of electioneering to the rest of the world, creating a global business for election consultancy, and being a significant global political player. As Harding writes in the introduction:

“…The men from the Sawyer Miller Group helped Cory Aquino to lead the People Power revolution in the Philippines and advised democrats in Chile on the removal of General Pinochet; they led their clients to victory in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as to defeat in Greece and Peru; they worked pro bono for Tibet’s Dalai Lama, and they got paid in sweaty bundles of hundred-dollar bills in Nigeria.”

I haven’t read the book but I was immediately attracted to the topic when I heard it on the Daily Show or when I read about it online. Is it not fascinating, and yet scary? Can you imagine a political campaign in Greece or Peru, or Turkey, run by American consultants? It is already a bit frightening that elections, arguably -or ideally- the most important of all political institutions is increasingly becoming a matter of expertise, professionalism and above all a matter of technique in the United States. But it is a whole different level to imagine a world where consultants from America could run an election campaign in Greece, or Peru. Granted, these consultants would /must have local collaborators, but that still does not diminish the strangeness of hiring an American consultancy firm in a non English speaking country, for elections or for any other political action.

It is a well established fact of course that Americans, not quite election consultants but high level CIA officials, took significant roles in preparing coups or regime changes in quite a few countries in the world. (The list is too long to mention here.) But we are now talking of a legal, legitimate and transparent action, at least in theory. This is what makes this phenomenon as fascinating and worthy of attention, if not more, as secret American missions around the world. It would thus be quite interesting to do research on the assumptions and modus operandi of these election consultants in foreign territories. What do they think? How do they see in themselves the authority to speak about other peoples and cultures? How do they see the societies they operate in?

We can add an infinite number of questions here. But it seems to me that these people believe, just like neoclassical economics does, that given the right methods and techniques, they can figure out how people behave in different circumstances. And just like economics claims to be able to lay out certain universal rules of behavior, election consultants believe that they can figure out essentials in getting people’s votes. In addition to universal patterns, I assume the bulk of their work is about finding out, through their local collaborators, what works in a country and what doesn’t. The revolutionary belief here is that these guys believe they can solve, in a short time span, the mysteries of a country, understand the people, and run a political campaign and get votes from the people.This is a very bold belief. This is a belief in method and empirical observation, and a further belief that empirical observation truly represents what is out there in the society. There is, lastly, a mechanism to reflect on the success of the machine. In the United States, for instance, the presidential candidates go through a long primary season and at the end of each primary, these post primary surveys are carried out to see how people behave. Consultants do look at these results to play with their strategies. This loop seems to provide an endless stream of new information to the system and the system advances by correcting its past mistakes.

Let’s, for a moment, leave aside the ethical problems in this scheme of things. We are so far away from Rousseau right now that speaking of a spirit of the people would make no sense. So let’s assume for a second that elections are, just like companies, after all, technical matters and images (as represented by consultants), rather than genuine political problems, make the elections. Let’s assume that just like bringing in consultants from Arthur Andersen is believed to solve a companies’ problems, a party can benefit from the advice of foreign consultants. The question, then, is “can this really work?”, “can election consulting achieve its desired ends?” Of course, this is partly an empirical question, we should look and see whether it does. But we have a big elephant in that room, which will be the main point of my next post: Whether it works or not is a question that is (most loudly) answered by those consultants themselves! In other words, we are facing a closed system here and -shall I say?- there is no outside to it. Or isn’t there? That, I will discuss in my next piece in which I’ll talk about a speech in the United States, by a Kurdish parliamentarian from Turkey. And hopefully, that will take us to the real meat, the real political question that is: is this –elections run by highly expert campaing teams- really “politics” anymore or is it something else?


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