Politics today has roots in Campaigns Inc.
Most voters have never heard of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, so they can be forgiven for falling for the ploys that plague our political process.
Truth be told, I was ignorant of the impact Whitaker and Baxter’s campaign principles have on politics today until reading Theodore H. White’s 1975 text entitled, “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon.” But less than 20 pages into the second chapter, “The Politics of Manipulation,” my eyebrows likely arched noticeably as I was awakened to the reality that both parties operate from a playbook that is more than 60 years old.
I dare say democracy is the worse for Whitaker and Baxter’s lessons in political gamesmanship, which they perfected in the hardscrabble world of California politics from 1933 to 1959. However, current political campaigns use their principles because, sad to say, they work.
White outlines the Whitaker-Baxter playbook this way:
“The first of these principles was unspoken: “Politics is too important to be left to politicians.” The second is simpler: “More Americans like corn than caviar.” The third is still operational: “Either party, or any legislature, can be taken over for a specific purpose if enough muscle, enough volunteers, enough grass-roots strength can be coaxed out of the ballot boxes.”
And then White gets to hard-core plays being called today:
• “the best kind of campaign is an attack campaign;
• “in any campaign, an enemy has to be invented against whom they can be warned;
• “issues are to be few, but must be clear SEmD and must confront the voter with an emotional decision;
• “and once the party is captured by a nomination, the independent must be the target of all suasion and PR.”
Whitaker and Baxter were also the reigning royalty behind dirty tricks and taking statements out of context.
In a recent New Yorker essay, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” Jill Lepore describes an initial monumental political victory of Campaigns Inc. over Upton Sinclair’s 1933 California gubernatorial
campaign. Sinclair announced his candidacy through a fictional book entitled,” “I, Governor of California.” Immediately after winning the Democratic nomination, The Los Angeles Times began publishing little boxes on the front page with Sinclair quotations.
Lepore writes: “Upton was beaten,” Whitaker later said, “because he had written books.” And, so, those boxes in the L.A. Times:
SINCLAIR ON MARRIAGE: The sanctity of marriage. ... I have had such a belief ... I have it no longer.
In his nonfiction sequel, “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked,” Sinclair points out the quote was from a fictional character in his 1911 novel, “Love’s Pilgrimage.”
Baxter’s unabashed confession: “Sure, those quotations were irrelevant. But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.”
Politics in 1934 California was obviously a case of the ends justifying the means. And the voters seemed OK with that playbook.
Glad we don’t stand for that today. We certainly would not vote for anyone whom we found knowingly twisted the truth and took statements out of context, or allowed to let unchallenged political gunslingers do the dirty work for them. Or would we?
Maybe it’s not apathy that’s keeping voters away from the polls. Maybe they’re just following the words of P.J. O’Rourke: “Don’t Vote. It Only Encourages the Bastards.”
Frank “Buzz” Trexler is managing editor of The Daily Times. Email him at (firstname.lastname@example.org)