Posts Tagged ‘elections’

This is the final piece on elections consulting as an overly instrumentalized technology. I briefly (yes very briefly indeed!) explained in the previous two posts how I came to this issue and what I think is fascinating, yet alarming, about it. I ended my last post with Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “if elections really mattered, they’d make it illegal”, suggesting that elections consulting is a technology that makes sure that, among other things, important things are not discussed and thrown out of the mainstream discourse. Let me elaborate on this point.

My point, finally, is that election consulting or campaign management is part of a larger elections machine, which is run by experts such as campaign managers, but also, less visibly by media people, and also, not surprisingly by the people (voters) who participate in this system. Sınmazdemir is right on point in his recent intervention: election consulting, or campaign management technology cannot work without people’s active participation. In this sense, we are part of a larger system (of power). But that doesn’t mean that some people’s words are not more important than others. They are. In this sense, for instance there is a class of people, pundits, managers, etc. who are out there making money out of this endeavor. This is their market, so to speak and they have the power to run, influence, shape, or shake the market they are working in. Similarly, they have a power to set the agenda. By claiming the power to represent what people think (and by claiming that they are doing this as neutral experts) these people in fact contribute to the shaping of the very preferences they argue they are representing. The medium, so to speak, constitutes the message.

They have specific tools to do their craft. In this last primary season, for instance, they relied heavily on polling, electronic representation of the primary results. These tools, if we follow Foucault, are not just neutral tools but they do participate in the making of the power they are used in. In this sense we are faced with a fully computerized system presenting itself as cutting edge, exact and predictable. Statistics is similarly devised to further strengthen the scientificty, or scientific appeal, of the election coverage. (ABC is now ready to predict XXX as the winner of this primary, please log on to www.abcnews.com to learn about how we predict the outcome.) The whole system revolves around prediction yet an informed prediction, appearing very scientific. Calculability, and prediction appear to be the essential selling points of the system. 

Most importantly, there is no where outside of this system. There is no place to evaluate whether this system is a successful representation of the reality out there. (That place does not exist for anything, anyway).  But we can see that this is a closed system where evaluation of the system is also being done by the people who earn their living from this system. So eventually, even though there may be problems with individual campaigns, the system works well. Not to mention, of course, that this system is closely related to the dominant two party system of the country. It makes sure that debates are framed according to the logic of that system. It makes sure to downplay the importance of radical politics, makes sure to picture Ralph Nader as a grumpy old man who stole the election from Gore, etc.

The comparison between Turkey and Sebahat Tuncel’s visit was important because it showed  that election consulting machine, or basically elections machine in the United States, cannot work elsewhere if this market, or this machine is not set up as it is set up here in the US. Of course there are great many differences between nations and the first rule of comparative politics is that nothing works the same in another country. But that’s exactly the interesting thing about elections consulting people going global. Normally, they are not supposed to be masters of politics in other countries, but I assume thanks to technology, globalization and the exporting of everything American to the rest of the world, now the idea that American style elections consulting can work in other parts of the globe is being exported elsewhere. So we can say that the campaign consulting people contribute to the creation of the individual subjects and politics they are supposed to find. They are, in other words, institutional entrepreneurs who not only find the demand, but create the demand. Certainly, this is a much more complex process but we see the beginnings of process of homogenization of the language in which politics is being talked about. We will see how far this new trend will continue, but it is apparent that one of the many influences that create such homogenization is the elections consulting people.

Lastly, following Foucault, I can say that this is a system of power with no real sovereign.  Sınmazdemir is right again: none of this is a conspiracy. I’m not suggesting that, “they” are running everything. They, the ones at the commanding heights of this system, are part of the machine, too. But they are more equal, so to speak and their discourses more authoritative. But, in response to Sınmazdemir’s point, I still think that there is a “they” out there. Not in the technological sense, these pundits, journalists, etc. are not the “real power” and yes we are all in this system and we all participate in the creation of this visual democracy. But I think due to reading too much rational choice, Sınmazdemir seems to have forgotten all those great things he mentioned he had read before. 

At the very least, we know that elections have lost their meaning in the post 1980 period. (Even Fareed Zakaria, himself one of those from the “pundit class” wrote about these things –Democracy without Democrats, etc.). Except for maybe a couple of places such as Venezuela, or Bolivia, elections do not mean much anymore. In Turkey for instance the governing party got an overwhelming support from the poor and lower middle class. Yet it is the party that is following, most ruthlessly, the neoliberal agenda that further impoverished the already poor segments of the population. In the United States, it is claimed that a majority of the population is against the war and Obama started his campaign with a promise to end the war in Iraq. But recently it is becoming all too clear that his withdrawal from Iraq would not mean much because he plans to expand the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (http://www.alternet.org/story/91645/) This is yet another story in which elections do not seem to change things and things are going back to things as usual.

The point is, and I will finish with this, elections become about appearances, flagpins, etc. more than anything else. Unimportant issues, little problems… Scandals, juicy stories about politicians sell, and while they are sold by the election people that I was talking about, “real” issues are not discussed. Now you can say of course that what is real is what is manufactured by those people in the media, etc. So if there is no outside to this system, then there is no criticism of what’s being discussed on media because it is the reality. I disagree. The fact that this system does not have clear sovereigns does not mean that it is beyond criticism, and if social science is about anything, it is about changing something (next to understanding of course). Even the recent mortgage crisis is discussed in a very distant way as if it does not touch people’s lives and this is a problem, a big problem. I’m not even talking about the lack of any deliberate discussion on the problems with this whole economic system and how it drains life out of people. There is no language even for important things. Now this is the wonderfully elusive but very explanatory and strong notion of “ideology”. And election consultants as well as the elections industry (maybe this is the name) contribute to the construction of this ideological hegemony systematically.  




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Couple months ago, on February 29th 2008 to be exact, Sebahat Tuncel, a Kurdish deputy from the Democratic Society Party of Turkey, delivered a speech entitled “the Condition of Struggle for Democratic Rights and Liberties in Turkey” at the City University of New York. Ms. Tuncel  is one of the active names of the Democratic Society Party and its efforts to bring about a just and peaceful settlement to the Kurdish issue of Turkey and the war between Turkish army and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK as it is known with the Turkish acronym).

I was present in the well attended talk and so was my fellow blogger Sınmazdemir. After the talk, I remember exchanging with him my disappointment about the speech. My disappointment, which was shared by my neighbor blogger, was twofold: on the one hand, the big ideals that were voiced (and naturally applauded by almost all the people- including myself of course) by Tuncel seemed to be only that, grand ideals –such as peace, solidarity, women’s rights, protection of the planet, etc. How we could get to those ideals was not problematized by her (at least in the speech). This, I/we took to be the continuation of old style of politics in a new era. Turkey lived with what is now called “the grand narratives”, projects of changing the society, etc. in the pre 1980 era, and part of Tuncel’s speech seemed to take its inspiration and energy from such a rhetoric of politics. The second disappointment, on the other hand, was that her speech seemed a bit messy (and disorganized, shall I say). We could not exactly understand what the point of her giving a speech at CUNY was. Who was her target audience? Why was she giving that speech at all? What would the speech do for her party and political cause? Probably the speech was part of a larger political tour of the United States, she had programs such as visiting deputies in the Congress here in the United States and telling them about their plans as a party. I do not know what she talked with those people of course, but I had a feeling that if she talked as she talked to us that night, it would be strange, because her points did not flow from what she said. She had to be assisted by a translator and indeed this complicated things quite a bit.

Granted, of course, she cannot say “everything” because of potential legal issues she would face in Turkey for saying those things. You cannot, for instance, argue for the separation of the Kurdish region from Turkey or even talk about a possible federative system. But is it not election /campaign consulting that would help you with just that: to design your speeches and other actions so that you avoid landmines but still get your message across…  These landmines sometimes could be legal issues, and sometimes they are potential problems with parts of the electorate. Of course the two are categorically different, just like the political process in Turkey and the US is different. But if there is such a thing as expert election or campaign consulting, you would expect them to help you with all the problems on the way, including legal issues.    

This point about election consultants take me to the main issue here: Looking back, I realize how much of my perspective has been shaped by the campaigning style I internalized here in the United States. I reconsider my “disappointments” and ask myself whether those disappointments arose because of being subjected to a massive coverage of the presidential primaries by the so called political pundits in the United States. The heavy campaigning days for the 2008 elections certainly left their mark on my thinking. I saw Hillary Clinton declaring her affection for the “gun lovers” of the United States, I saw her drink beer with lower income workers. I saw Barack Obama eat Philly Cheese stakes or carefully distinguish himself from his (former) pastor in nice words. All was designed by the election campaigns of course. All these actions and speeches had, in my mind, a target audience and they were carefully crafted to reach to those parts of the electorate without alienating different parts. Every move seemed pre planned by a team of brainstormers. In turn, political pundits, every day in their columns or on the weekends on TV programs such as Meet the Press discussed whether such campaign work actually works.

I’m not going to go into details, suffice it to say that there is a whole world of politics organized around the belief that political campaigning is an expertise and my approach to Sebahat Tuncel’s talk was shaped through my exposure to such campaigning here. Whether or not such political campaigning could succeed or not in the US context, I’m not going to go into here because the question of whether or not it could succeed is the wrong question indeed. Sebahat Tuncel’s visit and reactions it triggered in me indeed point to the right question. What kind of a system is this and how is it enabled? How does it work, so to speak and what are its conditions of existence? This system, it seems, is not yet rooted in the minds of the Turkish deputies and I would argue of many people in Turkey. So what kind of an animal are we looking at?

I will continue next week with these questions. To give a hint about my position however, I could cite Emma Goldman. This is a system which makes sure that stability and status quo wins and which makes sure that voting is in fact, utterly meaningless for the masses. After all, as Goldman said, “If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal”  

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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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