Spectacle of Participation

The permanent permanent campaign

Artwork by Tony Tulathimutte.

The world’s richest country with the highest rate of child poverty among OECD nations, the United States also enjoys the distinction of having the lowest voter turnout combined with the longest political campaign seasons. Before candidates announce their campaigns, they must raise money and hire staff so that their campaigns are seen as viable; afterward, they must continue to raise money with an eye to each campaign-finance filing deadline, when they must demonstrate to the media (and future donors) that they have sustained momentum among voters and “cash on hand.” If elected, they must continue to raise funds while in office, in preparation for the next election. This cycle afflicts the House of Representatives most of all, since their offices are up for reelection every two years.

But the presidency — with its grotesque fusion of republicanism, monarchism, and military junta — commands the most attention. It is the object of nearly continuous national fantasy, albeit for only a minority of the potential electorate; media speculation on future electoral prospects commences the moment in November when the loser concedes. Presidents in office have come to conduct their governmental activities in the form of a “permanent campaign,” in the words of Sidney Blumenthal, author of a prescient study of political consultants published in 1982. “It remakes government into an instrument designed to sustain an elected official’s public popularity,” he wrote. “It is the engineering of consent with a vengeance.” Blumenthal later became an adviser to President Bill Clinton, until recently the most avid permanent campaigner in the history of the presidency.

Those seeking to challenge permanently campaigning incumbents must also be in permanent campaign mode. The timing of announcements has changed dramatically over the past half century. Thomas Dewey, the eventual Republican nominee for President in 1948, announced his campaign in January of that year. By the time George McGovern announced in January 1971 — some eighteen months before the Democratic nominating convention — campaigns had lengthened. Both parties would come to adopt more open nominating procedures. This meant that the parties now had considerably less power to define themselves (even if, as recent political science maintains, they eventually reconstituted the power of party bosses in an “invisible” primary of agreements and deals that took place before the commencement of the contest). The vagaries of the primary “season” — really, encompassing several actual seasons — lengthened. Another feature of the new primary process was that candidates and their personalities became decisive. Telegenic, consultant-driven campaigns became the norm. Campaign strategists focused on polling, messaging, and television — Michael Deaver, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, David Axelrod — became almost as well known as the candidates themselves. Their importance to the candidate, and the importance of the campaign-style of governing to the presidency, was obvious from the fact that most strategists were installed in the administration when the candidates became President.

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