A new book chronicles the adventures of the Americans who sold spin to the world.
Have a Coke and a smile
On January 20, 2005, George W Bush delivered his second inaugural address, following a remarkably nasty campaign in which foreign policy had been a key issue. The core of his speech was the announcement of what would come to be known as his "Freedom Agenda." The US, Bush said, would "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
As he spoke, the most prominent example of America's attempt to spread freedom was the fiasco in Iraq, where chaos and bloodshed were fuelling unprecedented levels of anti-American sentiment. And despite Bush's lofty rhetoric, many critics observed that American support for democracy remains rather selective, and the US counts a number of despotic regimes as close allies. There may be valid arguments in favour of this double standard. But Bush's effort to dress up calculated realpolitik as revolutionary idealism was brazenly dishonest. His speech didn't offer the world the best of American democracy, but the very worst. Repackaging political calculation as a bold new idea wasn't visionary leadership: it was pure spin.
It wasn't the first time a group of supremely confident Americans had conflated salesmanship and democracy and asked the rest of the world to play along. Long before the "Freedom Agenda," political consultants were selling democracy American-style to anyone with the chequebook to buy it. Marshalling the power of television and techniques from consumer market research, these masters of political imagecraft had thoroughly transformed American political culture by the mid-1970s, hastening the triumph of style over substance, message discipline over genuine debate, and personality over policy. And as the competition for clients and influence grew fierce back home, they began to seek new markets abroad.
In Alpha Dogs, the editor-in-chief of The Times, James Harding, chronicles the rise and fall of the Sawyer Miller Group, one of the most successful exporters of American spin. Harding brings plenty of humour and keen insight to this tale of globe-trotting Yankees motivated by an uneasy mixture of good-natured idealism and cynical profiteering. But he is also after something more profound: the story of how, partly as a result of the enormous influence of American consultants, politics has become homogenised, and societies all over the world have seen their democratic traditions and institutions fall victim to the trivialisation and polarisation that have so tarnished American politics.
David Sawyer, the scion of a wealthy Boston family, set out to become an actor and ended up a documentary filmmaker. After some initial success, he was drawn to more lucrative work in politics. By the mid-1970s, he had established himself as an expert producer of the candidate "biopic" - the gauzy, syrupy clip reels still popular at political conventions. Around the same time, a young copywriter named Scott Miller was making a name for himself in New York. "These were the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate years," Harding reminds us, "when Madison Avenue was trying to remind the nation of its strength and its positive values." It was a task well suited to Miller, a former college football star from the Midwest who is responsible for some of advertising's most enduring pitches. For Coca-Cola: "Have a Coke and a smile!" For Converse All-Stars: "Limousines for the feet." Impressed by Miller's work, Sawyer persuaded him to collaborate on a series of campaigns for Democratic candidates.
The pair often teamed up with an Israeli-American pollster named Ned Kennan. Kennan was part of a vanguard of opinion researchers who sought to draw on insights from psychology to better understand and influence the public. Kennan viewed the voting public "much the way a psychologist judged a human individual, as a mixture of competing sexual impulses and social prejudices, emotional needs and value judgments," Harding writes. Kennan was less interested in what voters thought than in how they thought - and, perhaps more importantly, what they felt.
Sawyer and Miller, informed by Kennan's views about the powerful role of emotional factors in decision-making, became champions of "going negative". "Fear is at the heart of voting motivation," they wrote. "Make people afraid, then provide the alternative." They also rhapsodised television's potential to foster democratic change. "Give us choices; we want more," they wrote. "Give us information; we want more. Give us dialogue; we want more." Never mind that what television generally offered the public was the illusion of choice, information, and dialogue.
By 1984, with the landslide re-election of Ronald Reagan - "the Great Communicator" - the primacy of the political consultant in American politics was cemented, and the playing field had been levelled; consultants proliferated and shamelessly stole each other's techniques. But American expertise could still help swing an election in less-developed countries with less-saturated media landscapes. The appeal of such work was obvious, as one Sawyer Miller alumnus explains: "Arrive at any government's doorstep you want with the mumbo jumbo that you have something to sell and that you have the magic potion that is going to create power."
Sawyer Miller became one of the most prolific global purveyors of American political expertise. In the Philippines, they enlisted a British journalist named Mark Malloch Brown to rescue the "People Power" movement of Corazon Aquino from its leader's own lack of experience. Malloch Brown devised a savvy media strategy built around a technique called "the backboard shot": feed a negative story about the ruling government of Ferdinand Marcos to an American journalist; rely upon the conscientious journalist to offer Marcos the chance to respond; and then wait for the Filipino media to dutifully report on whatever Marcos said. Voila: Sawyer Miller had just placed negative information about Marcos in the usually timid local media.
Sawyer Miller and their competitors altered the political DNA of the countries in which they plied their trade, infusing it with American traits. The most dramatic example might be Israel, where Sawyer Miller worked closely with the perennial loser Shimon Peres, who was outfoxed time and again by the Likud - armed with its own American hired guns. The Americans and the techniques they imported, Harding argues, hastened the demise of an Israeli political culture defined by intense, cerebral debates about ideology and identity, and ushered in a divisive new style of politics focused on personality and driven by appeals to fear and hatred.
While foreign election work was lucrative, the real payoff came from labour for foreign clients the firm had helped put in power. As voters around the world began to lament the effect of American-style campaigning on their democracies, Sawyer Miller was put on the defensive at home for its lobbying work on behalf of foreign governments whose policies and practices often did not quite match the firm's avowed idealism. Their work for the government of Colombia earned them the distinction of being named part of the "Torturers' Lobby" in a 1992 report by the Center for Public Integrity that exposed American firms that represented regimes with miserable human rights records.
According to Harding, the alpha dogs "do not fit neatly into a moral category". But when a firm ostensibly committed to empowering people through participatory democracy gets in bed with Sudan's dictatorial regime and Panama's Manuel Noriega, the moral category commonly referred to as "hypocrisy" seems like a pretty comfortable fit. Indeed, many Sawyer Miller veterans ultimately came to the dispiriting conclusion that even their most well-intentioned efforts had not led to the spread of enlightened "electronic democracy," but to the global triumph of a polarising, divisive style of electioneering. "Their intention was to engage voters," Harding writes. "The irony is that they helped to usher in a political culture that has turned off ordinary people in droves."
Even Scott Miller came to see things this way. The man who once told Americans to "Have a Coke and a smile!" now told his colleagues: "Quit and move." As he explains to Harding, "I felt this sense of guilt that we had helped make politics more crass." Malloch Brown, who went on to a career as a consigliere for men like Kofi Annan, sounds a similar note: "I am appalled by our legacy," he admits. But if there is a major flaw in this otherwise excellent book, it is that Harding is a bit too credulous when it comes to the true extent of his subjects' influence. For one thing, he shows too little scepticism for the dubious pseudoscience behind many of the tools of the consulting trade. More importantly, Harding too readily accepts the version of events offered to him by the alpha dogs, in which they represent the leading edge of historical change, for better or for worse.
Such grandiose self-regard strongly connects the Sawyer Miller Group and their contemporaries with the neoconservatives behind the so-called Freedom Agenda, and it's a pity that Harding leaves this connection unexplored. By showing how Sawyer Miller's legacy long outlived the firm, Alpha Dogs suggests that a beguiling vision of a world remade in America's image can live on long after hubris and overreach have brought down its creators.
Justin Vogt works at the New Yorker.