Americans own the greatest political system in the world. It works wonderfully well for everyone involved, except two groups of people:
Voters. And candidates.
Political parties, pollsters, political consultants, fundraisers, media mavens, junk mailers, spammers, special interest groups, lobbyists, and various other meretricious sorts all profit handsomely from our current political system.
Who pays for it? You. And me. And, of course, any candidate brave enough to run for public office.
After over a dozen years trying to upgrade political communications, I have come to understand that some of the most fearsome obstacles our candidates face are their own political parties and Washington, D.C.-based political consultants.
Most political consultants and both major political parties treat candidates with disdain. They see candidates as virtually interchangeable: wind-up bad actors who would all be president if they could only follow the party's or the consultant's simple (but brilliant!) instructions, stand in the right place and recite their lines without drooling, tripping, or peeing in their pants.
They represent our politics at its worst: from party operatives to pollsters to direct mail merchants to media consultants to general strategists, the overwhelming majority of political consultants are a craven and narrow-minded bunch who would be failures in nearly every other field. They are hired guns with no soul and an inability to shoot straight (both ethically and functionally). They are disloyal to a fault, as quick to turn on a candidate or a cause as they are to be hired by one.
They give hucksterism a bad name.
Collectively, I call this monolith "Election Industry, Inc." Like the infamous "military-industrial complex" (but not nearly as productive), it is an inside-the-Beltway collective of toadies, fakes, crooks, character assassins, racketeers, party apologists, false scientists, phony experts, self-aggrandizers, backscratchers and backstabbers (often embodied in the same person). Election Industry, Inc. drives up the cost of our elections and drives down the number of people who participate in them. The people who populate it concern themselves with only two things: their own self-preservation, and money.
Election Industry, Inc. has killed some of our best candidates and kept many, many more of our best and brightest people from ever considering a run for office or a stint in public service. It owns and runs the two-party oligarchy that controls our country and refuses to let anyone outside its dominion near the levers of power. It makes the rules and legislates against new people, new political parties, new ideas, and new points of view.
The idiot wind blowing out of Washington is so manifest and so out-of-touch with the rest of the country that it is no wonder Election Industry, Inc.'s political advice is of little use to anyone but incumbents already ingratiated to their system. And with the advantages for incumbents that Election Industry, Inc. -- and the incumbents themselves -- have built into the system, perhaps it should be called ReElection Industry, Inc. Given their money and news media advantages, a consultant would have to give egregiously bad advice to ever have an incumbent lose.
Election Industry, Inc. likes to see its incumbents reelected, because they are already subordinated to the system. Elected officials who are used to being treated like royalty in Washington have little incentive to disturb the system that rewards them.
Political consultants and the other members of Election Industry, Inc. almost always align themselves exclusively with one party or the other. They brag about won/loss ratios, never stopping to consider that in elections with only two candidates that must have a victor, even a coin-flipper on a hot streak can do somewhat better than 50 percent. If you think the revolving door between Congress and lobbyists is confusing, try to track the back-and-forthing among the two major political parties and the denizens of Election Industry, Inc. Pollsters recommend political consultants and vice-versa. Political party operatives refer pollsters and political consultants to candidates, then turn around and go to work for the polling firms and consultants, or vice-versa.
Election Industry, Inc. is the chief reason why so little of value gets done in Washington to solve our most pressing problems, and why few people outside this one-industry town feel connected to our federal government. Social Security? Health care? Child hunger? Budget deficits? Fixing our schools? All of these are little more than political and rhetorical footballs for the players of the system.
Perhaps most frightening of all is that Election Industry, Inc. is intent on becoming one of our biggest exports. Like an old-time tonic salesman finished with the fleecing of one town and moving on to the next, Election Industry, Inc. has set its sights on other countries, hoping to control their elections the way they control ours in America and using the same bag of tricks: phony polls, expensive media campaigns, negative and dishonest advertising, and other tactics designed intentionally to hold down voter turnout.
Is it any wonder people outside our borders are less than enchanted with America?
In American politics, winning is everything. It is the ultimate zero-sum, winner-take-all game. As far as Election Industry, Inc. is concerned, to win is to survive, and winning automatically validates whatever tactics you used to get there.
Election Industry, Inc. is a vast and mendacious enterprise that has fooled all but the smartest and bravest candidates into believing that their way is the only way. Using the power of money and media, it is debasing our democracy and aligns itself against the best parts of our nature. Election Industry, Inc. is an enemy of the people, with colossal advantages and odds that are overwhelmingly in its favor.
This is how we beat it.
Copyright © 2004 by William G. Hillsman
These are notes from the underground of American politics.
As much as I love Aaron Sorkin's televised portrayal of politics, The West Wing, it presents an unrealistic, idealized picture of our government. The reality is much closer to The Sopranos -- escapades in raw ambition, with professional political hit men operating in the shadows and out of the public's view to maintain a vise-like grip on political power and to eliminate any threats to the two political parties' profitable business territories.
When you work for rebel, underdog candidates, like I do, even the occasional victory is one success too many as far as the established political firmament is concerned. By telling the truth about the current state of our politics, I've managed to antagonize both major political parties and make enemies of practically all the practitioners of politics in Washington, D.C.
For nearly fifteen years now, what I call Election Industry, Inc. has tried to put me out of commission. Beyond the whisper campaigns, the character assassinations, and the political backstabbings, I've put up with hate mail, broken windows, and menaces to my personal safety. As many of the candidates I've worked with realize, when you threaten the system, you get threatened.
Maybe a smarter person would just give up.
But you and I and those few brave candidates willing to challenge the existing system can't afford to give up. If we check out of the system (to slightly alter the phrase heard often from America's commander in chief), the political terrorists win.
This book is not just a memoir from memory. It is also a handbook for the new, developing political landscape, full of ways and means by which we still can win.
Within these pages, you'll discover:
• How political parties control candidates, and why it's hard for good people to run for office anymore
• How big money negatively influences our politics, and how to win without it
• What political advertising can learn from commercial advertising, and how campaigns can more effectively develop messages and communicate with citizens
• How political professionals use negative advertising to intentionally hold down voter turnout, and the best ways to respond
• Why the two major political parties persist in shutting out new candidates, new parties, new viewpoints, and new ideas -- despite the fact that Americans are clearly looking for more choices and that America has a long-standing tradition of multiparty elections
• How to analyze and evaluate (the mostly worthless) political polls
If a Paul Wellstone or a Russ Feingold can still be elected to the United States Senate, then eliminating child poverty in America or providing comprehensive health care to all our citizens is not an impossible dream. If a former professional wrestler can prove that the American Dream is still alive by becoming governor of our 21st-most-populated state, then getting elected is not beyond any citizen's grasp.
We have to keep challenging our own political system in order to make it all that it can be. That is the essence of participative democracy. We can't do what the power brokers of Election Industry, Inc. want us to do -- grow discouraged, give up, and drop out.
After more than 225 years as a nation, it's too late to stop now.
Copyright © 2004 by William G. Hillsman
Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time
Run the Other Way
Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time
Hillsman first rocked the political establishment during Wellstone's 1990 Senate bid, with witty, sharp political ads that had audiences glued to their television sets and talking about the commercials for weeks afterward. In the end, he helped Wellstone overcome a $7 million campaign spending disadvantage to win the election. And the risk taking continued when he ran Jesse Ventura's Reform Party gubernatorial and Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaigns. In one Nader ad, a child looks out at the viewer and says, "When I grow up, I want politicians to ignore me." In an ad from Ventura's campaign, a boy playing with a Jesse Ventura action figure ("New, from the Reform Party!") takes on Ventura's voice to growl, "I don't want your stupid money!" With bold and brilliant ads like these, Hillsman helped two underdog candidates become senator and governor, transformed Minnesota politics, and showed the country that it has viable and appealing options outside of the two major parties.
Run the Other Way offers fascinating and disturbing insights into the shadowy, cronyistic world of political consulting: the grossly overpaid consultants, incompetent and inaccurate pollsters, fundraisers who take a dollar for every dollar they raise, and strategists who use negative advertising to intentionally keep people from voting. But it also gives us a from-the-trenches look at how Americans can turn the weapons trained on us back against the master propagandists, and in so doing revitalize our badly damaged democracy. Fleshing out his case with real-life stories from his involvement in numerous campaigns, Hillsman takes us behind the electioneering scenes of old Washington hands and trouble-making independents, including Ross Perot, Warren Beatty, John McCain, Arianna Huffington, and Colin Powell.
An outsider with an insider's vantage point, Hillsman sees America at a crucial historical moment defined by the continuing decline of both major political parties and the rise of independent voters. Edgy, controversial, and often humorous, his political ads have energized voters and revolutionized election campaigning over the last fifteen years. This is a book for everyone who's ever run for office, thought about running for office, or voted for someone running for office. Run the Other Way investigates the many imperfections in the greatest system of government in the world and challenges all of us to make it better.