A dentist at work. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Show Hide image

We wouldn’t go to an amateur dentist so why are we suspicious of professional politicians?

There's a fear that politicians are merely polishing the surface, allowing the decay to spread.

Last week’s programme for Archive on Four on Radio 4 – Read My Lips: Why Politicians Speak the Way They Do – was subtly provocative. In purporting to answer the question posed in its title, the discussion developed into a skilful defence of the professionalisation of politics. The three principal guests – Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s head of communications), Daniel Finkelstein (political adviser to William Hague before becoming a Times columnist) and Frank Luntz (a pollster and consultant) – have all worked professionally with politicians to improve their ability to communicate. The presenter, Jonathan Powell, was Blair’s chief of staff. Only the satirist Rory Bremner stood outside the profession.

The programme responded to the popular perception that the political class is paralysed by spin doctors, “out of touch”, and unable to connect naturally and authentically with voters. Not so, apparently. Finkel­stein argued that politicians “are much more in touch than they were”, possessing an “acuter understanding of what the electorate can follow”. Campbell believes that, in response to the 24-hour media, “politicians had to force themselves to become clearer, sharper, more focused and on-message”.

Luntz paid tribute to a technology known as “the worm” or “dials”. As a politician speaks in public, a focus group provides feedback in real time, instantly converted into a graph that captures the popularity of each phrase. “Up or down, second by second, like or dislike,” Luntz explained, “it is a precise way to measure any communication by politicians.” This is the political equivalent of the stats now flashed on screen during televised sport: distance covered, passes completed, yards advanced, tackles made.

But does this kind of approach capture what it means to be a good politician? Or do the obsession with quantification, and the risk aversion that follows, encase politicians in a linguistic and conceptual prison, rendering them passive and inauthentic, simply churning out soundbites to tickle their audience’s prejudices, like bored but savvy GCSE students writing exam scripts merely to elicit the necessary ticks?

Luntz takes the opposite position: the problem with modern politics is that it remains too amateurish, not too professional. “If politicians spent more time, more care, thinking about the language they use, they would have a longer shelf life.” What Luntz means, surely, is that if politicians spoke more carefully, they would have a longer shelf life if (and only if) their opponents did not follow suit. In a zero-sum game – which captures the business of winning elections but not the art of government – if two opposing parties simultaneously develop the same set of communication skills and tactical tools, it does not increase anyone’s shelf life. Two political machines – each of them increasingly sophisticated, cautious and precise in its tactical pursuit of the votes it might win (and only those votes) – essentially cancel each other out.

This model offers a partial explanation of the current political stalemate in this country. The parties are so effective at defensive ploys, undermining any positive but potentially risky move by their opponents, that everyone is, in effect, playing for a nil-nil draw, perhaps hoping to nick a result in the penalty shoot-out (the election campaign).

Rugby union perhaps offers a more apt parallel. I am now resigned to the fact that old-fashioned line-breaks, in which attacking players evade the first line of tacklers – the moment when the pitch opens up, speed enters the equation and this fan feels as if he has been injected intravenously with champagne – are very rarely possible in today’s game. Defences are too good. The professional evolution of rugby – the drift defence, the choke tackle, the defensive hit in contact – have conspired against the sport’s most ecstatic spectacle: freedom in space. The teams are probably “better”. But is the show? I’m not so sure.

In one crucial respect the analogy with sport, introduced by Alastair Campbell, does not apply to politics at all. The purpose of sport, strategically speaking, is so simple that the term strategy is almost a tautology for an older, simpler word: winning. So the professionalisation of sport, though sometimes counterproductive to the spectacle, has unarguably raised the overall standard of performance. Today’s teams, broadly speaking, would beat the teams of the past. Sport is straightforward: everyone knows what winning looks like.

In politics, the notion of winning is much less obvious. The concept of victory can be divided into two spheres, not quite separate but certainly importantly different. First, there is the business of winning elections; second, there is the question of governing well. Although you can’t do the latter without first achieving the former, you can certainly excel at winning elections without being equally good at running the country. Given that focus, attention and talent are always finite, the decision to concentrate on one goal inevitably leads to there being less energy to lavish elsewhere. When we talk about the professionalisation of politics, usually we mean the professionalisation of the political message. But has there been a corresponding evolution and advance in delivering political fundamentals?

Read My Lips referred to the idea that we like professionalism in dentistry, so why not in our politicians? To take on the metaphor, perhaps we feel reassured that dentists are professional in the good sense because human teeth fall out increasingly infrequently. We can test the professionalism of dentists empirically. In contrast, we wonder if politicians are merely focusing on whitening and polishing the surface, allowing underlying decay to spread. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But that is the fear. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.