There has been a huge shift in the composition of political agencies over the last 10 years, due largely to the advent of so many new niche specializations. While the older, established agencies tended to be headed by one to three principals that shared a strong partisan or ideological philosophy, the newer companies are often technology focused and less partisan.
That’s what’s going on at the front end of the agency cycle, but what is happening at the back end is equally interesting.
We’ve always had agencies that muted their partisanship as they transitioned to public affairs consulting, but we’re now seeing a furry of what are being marketed as “post-partisan” agencies. These are composed, in most cases, of a handful of prominent Republican and Democratic consultants combining their resumes to offer clients, not only the best of both worlds, but presumably front row seats to a new emerging political world that dismisses ideology.
As a marketing tactic, I think these coalition companies will certainly have a brief period of success, but it remains to be seen whether or not Americans are permanently transitioning away from the two-party system, or if this is simply presaging partisan realignment as in 1948 or 1968.
The existing parties have also periodically undergone internal fracturing, to wit, Anderson, McCarthy, Wallace, Nader and Paul. If what we’re seeing is just that, the two parties digesting or disgorging this or that constituency, then the new purple agencies should probably make hay while the sun shines, because novelty alone will not sustain the business model long-term.
How does that affect the business of politics? In previous generations, political consultants got into the business because they believed in something, not because they had developed a new mobile phone app. One of our political system’s strengths, I believe, is that the veteran consultants from both parties, while usually very ideological, were deeply committed to the notion that we have a fundamentally fair system, and that free political speech needs to be vigorously defended.
They understood that there were, among political professionals, highest common denominator values that transcended the purely partisan. They also understood that there were and are lines that simply must not be crossed. That’s almost precisely the opposite of how political consultants are portrayed in the media, but it’s nevertheless an entirely accurate picture. The challenge will be to inculcate those same shared values among the new breed of political professionals who came to the business without a firm ideological perspective.
What will be truly interesting, or perhaps I should say truly frightening, is if the ranks of campaign strategists and media consultants move away from a strong personal ideology and adopt a model based purely upon business, as we’ve seen with many of the tech companies.
While campaign strategists have been justly accused of the truncation of ideas, that has been more an accommodation to the shrinking attention span of the American voter than to an aversion to vision and principle. The veteran consultants may hide it well, but they almost all share a passion for ideas, and a respect for a system that fosters genuinely free political speech.
Ironically, with the virtual disappearance of professional political reporting in our age, they may well be the keepers of the fame.
Wayne Johnson is a past president and chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants, whose political media have earned more than 100 national awards for creativity.
This article is part of a series of pieces offering 10 bold ideas for the future of political consulting. Read also: The future of direct mail is digital; The case for certified political managers; Money in politics: Time to embrace it