My Review of Dennis W Johnson’s Democracy for Hire: A History of Political Consulting

29587046This book gives an insightful background into contemporary American politics as Johnson provides a comprehensive and historical look at the development of American Political Consulting. If you are frustrated with much that is called the political process, this book will give you some excellent background information on why that is.

Divided into three major parts: The Early Business of Political Consulting, 1930’s to 1960’s; The Expansion and Growth of Consulting, 1970’s and 1980’s; and Transformation of Consulting and the Challenges Ahead, 1990 – Present; Democracy for Hire: A History of Political Consulting (TBP, November 2016 by Oxford University Press, USA) is part history, part analysis, and a fascinating look at what is now common to our political vocabulary – exit poling, direct mail, targeting voters, Political Action Groups, “soft money” “dark money”- and how these and other practices are now part of Presidential campaigns and are increasingly filtering down to state and local campaigns.

One of the key themes of the book is Johnson’s assertion that campaign consulting is necessary to elections in contemporary America because of the decline of American political parties over the course of the past sixty or so years as to political affiliation (note how strong elections are now focused on independent votes) and the lack of strong party leadership (often referred to as ‘party bosses’). Yet he also acknowledges  the negative and divisive practices that political consulting has brought to American politics. ( And on that note, the number of times several former consultants expressed regret for some of the ads and phrases created during the heat of an election was very interesting.)

This is also a book of the personalities who were in the rough and tumble campaigns in years like 1964, 1968, 1988, and the like. Their first-person accounts and remembrances are illuminating and educational.  And it is a book which brings the reader up to speed on the use of the internet and social media that is common now today.

In his concluding chapter Johnson notes the negativity  the general public has toward political consulting, as well as elected officials, as well as the mixed relationship that candidates have toward the consultants who are essential to campaigning today.  He also brings out the behind the scenes look at the ‘life on the road’ demands on consultants and why many chose to eventually leave the profession.

The concluding segment of the chapter has Johnson outlining seven ways that campaigns have changed since the start of the 21st century and then suggests three trends to watch as they shape future campaigns;  so called ‘dark money’ that is now allowed since the US Supreme Court allowed unlimited contributions; the growing influence of outside groups, now with the ability to fund 527 groups (think the Swift Boat ads in the 2004 election) which Johnson believes could further weaken the national political parties; and the polarization and fragmentation of political discourse.

This book was a political re-education for me since my foray into politics as an 18 year old college student 40 years ago this fall. It has given me a new, and fair, lens through which to view current elections. It is a book that political science classes need to read and discuss; book clubs who care about  civic life; leaders at all levels in all communities because as Johnson finishes the book he reminds the voting public that it has the final say in who wins and who does not.

I have not read a book like Democracy for Hire in quite a while that describes the American political process in both its potential and its liabilities that is free of partisan politics.

I gave this book a 5-Star rating on Goodreads.

Note: I received a galley copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.


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