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The Read: Daniel Laurison, Producing Politics
Friday's Child Is Loving and Giving
Why did I get this book?
Laurison is my colleague, but I also think he’s one of the more sophisticated intellectuals I know when it comes to thinking about the specific, measurable consequences of social capital and educational attainment and one of the few observers of politics (both formal party politics and the wider social field of ‘being political’) who I think has some empirically founded ideas about where there are potential political coalitions beyond our current impasse.
Is it what I thought it was?
Yes—it’s a sociological study, with considerable quantitative underpinnings, of the people who staff and run political campaigns, with a very adroit sense of why that matters both in terms of actual and possible campaign outcomes but also for shaping the wider content of formal electoral politics.
What continuing uses might I have for it?
This is just an area of interest for me, not something I teach about, but the book definitely gives me some new things to think about—in some ways in confirms my own intuitions, in some ways it complicates them.
“Campaigns rarely offer anything approaching Mills’s sociological imagination, genuinely helping people to understand the forces shaping their lives. Instead, they try to figure out the message that will most likely connect people’s underlying concerns and desires for change (or to fend off threatening change) with a particular candidate’s election.”
“Why should we care about the people who run campaigns or about the way they think and feel about their work? One of my mentors, a political scientist, asked me that at the outset of this project. No matter what, she argued, these professionals will of necessity do the same thing: whatever it takes to win….it doesn’t matter who is making those decisions. My mentor is very smart, and a lot of other political scientists agree with her assessment. But it’s wrong.”
“In fact, if you assume that politicos are simply rational strategic actors trying to win elections, many campaign decisions don’t make much sense, as some political scientists have observed…Even with the increasing power of data-driven politicking extolled in books like Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, even when research is clear about more and less effective strategies, campaigns do not reliably do what scholarship says they should. Campaign professionals’ perspectives and priorities are therefore necessary to understanding the forces that construct politics in the United States.”
“The people in these positions are different from ordinary Americans in many ways…They are a relatively homogenous group: mostly White, mostly men, and mostly from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds. They spend most of their time with other people who work in politics, in political hubs like Washington D.C. Yet they create the political environment of our democracy.”
“Even after an election is over, even with two years of data-crunching by some of the political scientists most knowledgeable about elections and campaign effects, it remains impossible to establish that some action of either campaign would have definitively changed the outcome—or conversely, that it would not have changed it.”
“It is not the money itself that causes what look like bad campaign decisions to researchers.”
“In order to gain entry to this inner circle, they [campaign professionals] need other people in the political world to view them as being good at what they do. However, because it is so difficult to know which campaign decisions, if any, resulted in a win or a loss, campaign professionals must evaluate each other based on criteria other than the actual effectiveness of their tactics. Data alone cannot tell them how they are doing, but their colleagues and opponents (along with the media) do provide immediate feedback about campaign strategies. It is largely the judgments of other people in politics that matter for politicos’ careers. Thus, the second key aspect of campaign work is that campaign professionals tend to use two main proxies for good campaigning: the extent to which their colleagues are willing and able to work ridiculously long hours, and their adherence to conventional campaign wisdom passed down among campaign professionals.”
“Campaign professionals are doing work that they believe is deeply important and, simultaneously, might not matter at all. To resolve this tension, they focus on their colleagues, their opponents, and the media.”
“Campaigns are not really meritocracies in any meaningful sense.”
“Much of what campaign professionals believe about how to run campaigns effectively is essentially folklore handed down from one campaign to the next.”
“Because so many of these people worked in campaigns, the same kinds of logic that dominate in campaigns will inform big swathes of government and our broader politics. Political operatives who speak the language of politics, who treat voters as terrain to be won more than people to be heard, and who have made their careers by fitting in and impressing other politicos take the approaches that have worked for them in campaigns into other positions of power.”
“These kinds of services often work by generating political engagement from everyday citizens that looks bottom up and spontaneous while actually being orchestrated from above.”
Commentary, asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
Basic take: it’s a compact, readable book that also manages to be a pretty strong synthesis of a big body of existing scholarship, primarily by political scientists. It also feels practical to me, in that there are things that political professionals could actually do with Laurison’s analysis.
Laurison starts the body of the analysis with something that really still sticks in my craw, which is that the entire apparatus of professionalized political analysis and advice in the wider public sphere has been so overwhelmingly wrong about so many very important things for at least the last twenty years, without that shaking any of the foundational value of that expertise to the people who run for office or in the wider public sphere. In some sense, there should have been a complete turn-over in the ranks of campaign professionals and political pundits alike. But it’s rather like the more diffuse infrastructure of consultancies, especially large and powerful ones like McKinsey: it doesn’t matter how often their strategic advice is either flatly wrong or so vague that it’s little better than reading the monthly horoscope in the newspaper, they retain value because the content of the advice isn’t what the clients are buying. What the clients are buying is the illusion that they can control some outcomes that are effectively being shaped by forces outside their control, because the clients are upper-rank leadership who need that narrative. I think that is somewhat similar to what Laurison describes as the view of many academic political scientists about campaign professionals: the candidate and the political party are buying the illusion that they can make sound decisions that will fractionally shift otherwise immobile social alignments via some insightful strategic moves.
I also couldn’t help but think of a subject I do know a little bit about in a more expert sense, which is advertising—the long struggle between “creatives” and quantitatively-driven market researchers in many agencies was (and still is) fought on this ground, about whether a particular slogan, campaign or well-made advertisement can produce outcomes different than a grindingly precise sociological and economic assessment of particular markets for particular commodities matched with basic bare-bones promotional strategies. And challenging both is the intuition of some manufacturers that no kind of advertisement really makes that much of a difference, it’s the size of the manufacturer, the basic quality of the commodity, and point-of-sale strategies like buying a privileged space on the grocery store shelf or building relationships with speciality retailers.
Thank god for sociologists: I just cannot make my way without some exasperation through any social science that presumes that people are rational actors who somehow relentlessly end up maximizing (or trying to maximize) their outcomes against their interests. It’s on this point precisely that Laurison’s analysis depends, in that he thinks the sociology of campaign professionals matters and that it is not reducible to what is in their rationally-determined interests. E.g., what shapes what they do is their relationships with each other, the bounded culture of their profession, the common social identities they possess, their relative isolation from other social groups and contexts, and the fact that their most proximate social relationships outside their profession are with people who overlap their identities and interests (politicians themselves, certain kinds of experts, and media professionals who write about politics).
It’s a small thing, but one area where campaign professionals do seem to have a huge impact on election outcomes is not so much in the final election but in the candidates who get to election day in the primary process—political professionals are the brokers who talk up (or down) particular candidates, connect to sources of funding, work the media to sell the viability of their candidate, etc. long before any voters have a say. But this works very well for Laurison’s overall point as laid out in Chapter Five and Six: this is where politics gets constituted before it ever gets subject to democratic choice.
Laurison touches on a key point in Chapter 2 that pops up elsewhere in his work (and the work of closely aligned social scientists studying careers and social status): the murkier the pathway for advancement in a particular profession is, the more likely it will be subject to forms of social capital that produce discriminatory effects. I’m not sure the alternative is preferable (highly measurable, concrete, quantifiable benchmarks for hiring, advancement and promotion) in that these tend to go hand-in-hand with the credentialization of economic life and also not to produce any greater effectiveness in the profession itself (quite the contrary). Consistency and concrete transparency is not in and of itself equity. But the book makes a strong case that political professionals who come from a wider variety of backgrounds and who are not so tightly bound to the existing sociological world of political work would make for more effective political strategies and a wider political imagination. The point is that this is something that campaign professionals should want if they want to win, which Laurison believes they actually do want (e.g., they’re not going to favor their own self-interest in controlling access to the profession so relentlessly that it doesn’t matter to them whether they achieve the ends they allegedly want to achieve; it’s just that in Laurison’s view they don’t see how their excessive homophily is limiting their effectiveness.)
More to the point here, professions that require intense investments of time at odd intervals, like political campaigns, almost invariably require some form of income support—parents, family, investment income, a professional spouse—in order to get started and get noticed. If you need a good income from the start, professions that have this character are closed to you—and that’s a relatively simple thing to change, except that the people in the profession already have almost no reason to want to change it.
Laurison locks on to another thing that really eats at me, which is that conventional polling and survey strategies used not just by campaigns but in lots of fields and professions don’t return a good map of the possible or probable actions of many people in many domains. Polling and surveys affect what they try to measure, which campaign professionals know perfectly well along certain lines—that’s why push-polls are used to manipulate people. But it’s also that discrete actions, the choice to do this or that (to vote at all, to vote for someone in particular, to see a movie, to recommend a movie to others, to invest in crypto or NFTs, to leave a job, to speak up at a meeting) emerge out of a field of shifting potentialities that include the situation surrounding action (choosing to watch a movie after a big argument with someone else about it is very different from choosing to watch a movie out of boredom, etc.), the contradictory affinities and affiliations that any individual is holding in relation to action, and a great deal else. Polls isolate planned actions from the richly complex contexts where actions take place. When those contexts are stable and predictable (it’s Saturday night, we usually watch a movie) then maybe the poll captures an action. When they’re not, as they often are not in sociopolitical life, maybe not. But to some extent, campaign professionals favor what they can do over what they ought to do—the sort of “thick description” ethnography that lets the complexity of contexts and contingency be more visible is difficult and demanding labor and it takes precisely the kind of sociological variety within a campaign staff that Laurison is advocating to do it well. In particular he notes in Chapter Five this accounts for the frequent profound inability of campaign professionals to understand why possible voters don’t vote and why they’re convinced that possible voters aren’t worth trying to motivate. It also accounts for why campaign professionals do not understand how their recycling of many of the same tropes and messages on both sides is a cause of disengagement and alienation.
There’s a good analysis in Chapter Six of why parties are in many ways so very far away from the communities that make up their political base—and why many idealistic young people who want to forge a relationship to the party they prefer end up alienated by being used as canvassing foot soldiers, a grueling and unpleasant task that is undertaken mostly by organizations that are paying for canvas operations to increase their on-paper membership rolls. (The short time I worked for a PIRG while in college was easily the worst work experience I have ever had.)
There’s an abstract meta-thought I have here that elites in post-1945 American life as well as in other liberal democracies have been consistently driven by the goal of producing voters, citizens, populations, nations, and economies as predictable and controllable even when very palpably and empirically they are nothing of the sort. What matters more is the belief that they are and that they should be, and that this predictability and tractability is the core basis for elite professions associated with governance and expertise (including academia). The specifics shift all the time (that’s the need to produce new styles and fashions for the professional marketplace) so you start with something like modernization theory, maybe, and you end with something like “nudging” or “data science”. This is a kind of social glue that welcomes people into an elite identity (often through selective higher education)—that sense that you are in charge of managing these predictable, controllable bundles of people and things, of discerning how atomistic individuals scale up into communities, electorates, populations, groups, nations, economies. And the one thing that can’t be abided in that work-defined identity is the empirical and philosophical fact of unpredictability and uncontrollability that is rooted in the humanity of all those individuals, in those communities, in those groups. Contingency and agency are something you explain away as something else in retrospect; it is never something you predict and accommodate in advance.