Campaigning for High Political Office in the Fourth Epoch of Civilization

by William McGaughey 

(an address before the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations in Fairbanks, Alaska, June 2004)


If as students of civilization we are producing what can be called knowledge, then people should be able to use it in practical ways. The principles of knowledge which they discover should illuminate certain experiences in life. In this paper, I will tell how my own theory of civilizations relates to an experience I recently had in running for high political office.

Since attending the ISCSC Conference in Jamaica in June 2002, I have twice run for political office. I ran for U.S. Senate in Minnesota's Independence Party primary in 2002 and for President of the United States in Louisiana's Democratic primary in 2004. Needless to say, I did not win either contest.

In the campaign for Senate, I finished second with 31% of the vote (8,482 votes) against the party-endorsed candidate, who gained 49.5% of the vote, and another candidate, who had 19.5% of the vote.

In the presidential campaign, I finished fifth with 2% of the vote (3,161 votes) in a field of seven candidates listed on the Louisiana primary ballot. John Kerry, with nearly 70% of the vote, was the winner. Three campaign drop-outs - John Edwards, Howard Dean, and Wesley Clark - also finished ahead of me. But I finished ahead of Dennis Kucinich and Lyndon LaRouche by 750 votes and 830 votes respectively.

As author of Five Epochs of Civilization, I view this experience through the lens of my own theories concerning civilization. We find ourselves in transition between two civilizations: Civilizations III and IV. Civilization III is a literate society where newspapers report political campaigns as a part of their news coverage and voters take issues seriously. Civilization IV is the entertainment culture. In this culture, newspapers regard elections as just another type of event to entertain their readers.

Political campaigns are today a branch of the entertainment culture. Celebrities and other photogenic or media-savvy individuals do quite well in that environment. Experienced entertainers make successful political leaders. I once had a conversation about this subject with Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler turned Governor of Minnesota. He agreed with my hypothesis. Ventura said that political leaders today need good entertainment skills. Ronald Reagan, the former U.S. President and Hollywood film star who died last week, is America's most successful political leader of the past forty years.

Political campaigning is simple. All you have to do is communicate with the voters and do so in a way that makes a favorable impression. If you have the time and energy to shake hands with everyone, you will probably win the election. A candidate for President of the United States must take another approach. He must shamelessly play to the media. I compare this situation with that of a person hoping to cross the Atlantic ocean in a small boat. If you use a paddle, you might accomplish your goal in a few years. But if you mount a sail on your boat, the crossing will be faster. I needed to let media coverage carry my campaign to Louisiana voters in the five weeks that I had to spend on the primary.

An obvious objective would be to try to be included in the candidate debates. But I was a political nobody without much money. The debate organizers would not include me in their event; and it was no use to sue. Most people would agree that the news media should report what their customers find interesting. A candidate thought to have little chance of winning the election will not be thought worthy of coverage. Such a candidate will not be invited to participate in debates with the big guys.

Little candidates like me might aspire to be the subject of a "human-interest story" if we were sufficiently colorful. I had a shot at this. My hopes were raised when a freelance documentary producer named Alexandra Pelosi, who identified herself as a documentary producer working for HBO, expressed interest in covering my campaign. I later learned that she was the daughter of House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi. But that opportunity was too good to be true and my hopes were soon dashed.

Later, I received a kind letter from Garrison Keillor, America's foremost storyteller. I would have given anything to be parodied on his show but Keillor had too much sense to go for something like that.

a way forward

A political newcomer has instant entree to electoral politics if, like Reagan, Ventura, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, he is already famous as an entertainer. News reporters will then find bona fide interest in his campaign and treat him respectfully. Otherwise, candidates cannot expect the big media to cover their campaigns except as an exhibit in a freak show. Even celebrities can expect to be trashed. Every politician must expect to pass through the fire of ignominy before gaining public acceptance. That is the way of the entertainment world - generate interest through controversy, create polarizing extremes. Candidates who expect to get their issues out through straight news coverage will invariably be disappointed. Generally this type of communication must be done through paid advertising.

There is, however, a loophole. I found it while campaigning for Senate. The loophole lies in the distinction between big media and little media. The big-media people are arrogant gatekeepers of political campaigns who realize that they have candidates over a barrel. If they don't like you or your issues, they will give you no coverage; or, if they do, it will be a hatchet job.

A columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette placed a story about me on the Internet which began: "Some goof in Minneapolis with too much time and money is running for President." On the positive side, he said, I was not as bad as another presidential candidate who wanted to establish a fascist empire in America. Also, my photograph did not reveal antennae growing out of my head. For me, that was about as good as it gets.

Little media is different. By little media, I mean newspaper editors or reporters in the small cities and towns or the managers of small local radio stations. These people were more receptive to my campaign. As a candidate for a statewide or national office, I could offer them a story of local interest in coming to their community. They respected me for having made the effort. Therefore, the core of my campaign, both as a Senate candidate in Minnesota and a presidential candidate in Louisiana, was to visit newspaper offices in as many small-sized cities and towns as I could before the election. I was tapping the residual culture of the third civilization where grassroots democracy is still taken seriously.

How could I beat the system? Having no money, I had to be an issues-centered candidate. My issues had to be focused sharply to cut through the din of competing messages. Voters would tune out anything that required explanation. In the end, I limited my campaign to a single issue: jobs.

Less important to minor candidates is the fear of offending particular voters. The reality is that we will mostly be ignored. Shut out of big television, this type of candidate makes the rounds of smaller media taking what free publicity he can gather. It's a plus when newspapers run a photograph with their stories.

campaigning on television

Television does not persuade through reason or logic but by building brand loyalty through repetitious images. The viewer begins to think in stereotypes. He or she is unwilling to follow complex lines of reasoning or sift through conflicting sets of evidence. Money is itself a big story. I suspect that the big media focus so much on money in political campaigns because they expect that much of it will come their way.

Such is how politics is done in the age of entertainment. Big money, which alone can afford the television commercials, contributes donations to candidates who will do their bidding once elected to office. The requirements of television-based campaigning therefore invite excessive influence of money. The old ideal of voters making up their minds on the basis of carefully considered issues is an anachronistic ideal inherited from the previous civilization. Branded personalities are today what counts.

Reportedly, Karl Rove ran the 2000 Bush campaign with that requirement in mind. He focused the campaign on "character, not issues" and moved aggressively to invade Gore's turf. He knew that voters make their voting decisions on the basis of which candidate is perceived to have the better personality. The debates are a showcase of personalities interacting with each other. They are a kind of dance contest.

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush came across as a down-to-earth guy with a good sense of humor where Al Gore was a bit too stiff. Political issues had little to do with it. Reagan's advisor, Roger Ailes, once said that "likability" was the "magic bullet" in politics. If people like you as a person, they will ignore the disagreeable things you represent. The "likable" candidate would be someone like John Edwards as compared with a nerdy candidate like Dennis Kucinich. Unfortunately, I fell into the latter category than more the other.

Campaigning on television is mostly about branding. Branding is about presenting a consistent image and repeating it enough times. The more viewers see a television commercial, the more a product image sticks in their mind. Political candidates are products. Their facial image appears often on the television screen. The brandmeisters try to attach clear labels to the candidates: President Bush is a "strong, steady leader" while John Kerry is a "tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts". On the other hand, Kerry is also a Vietnam veteran who courageously saved his buddies from harm while George W. Bush's military record was suspect. The discussion seldom gets any deeper than this. If the voters know one or two salient facts about the candidate, an entire campaign can be built around them.

Economic questions are usually complicated. Getting to the truth would require a discussion in which contradictory evidence might have to be considered. Political campaigns do not have time for that. The best way to persuade is by using authority figures. You need a man or, increasingly, a woman who possesses acknowledged credentials and is well groomed. The person needs to seem judicious, expressing a moderate position in vague, generalized terms but not sparing the metaphorical characterizations. On the other hand, you lose it if your witness goes into too much detail or becomes angry.

As always, people want the image of a winner. Huey Long used to dress up in expensive suits with flamboyant neckties to impress his audiences. Today's presidential fashion is the casual look, which signals that the candidate, while rich, is a man of the people.

the pitfalls of discussing trade

It's enough, when discussing economics, to hurl one or two well-chosen labels at your opponent. Those who cite the bad consequences of free trade are "protectionist" and - the chorus line says - "protectionist policies won't work." Why they won't work needn't be discussed; we've run out of time. An economist from an Ivy League college who says those trade policies won't work is presumed to know his subject. If the free-trade critics persist, then, of course, they "want to build a wall around the country." However well-intentioned, they are "ostriches with their heads in the sand", ignoring the reality of a global economy. Inevitably, debating such issues on television leads to ad hominem attacks.

A sign posted next to a driveway not far from my home reads: "Don't even think of parking here." In politics, there should be a sign that reads: "Don't even think of advocating tariffs." Everyone knows that tariffs are protectionist and protectionism is no good. Our citizens are so well trained by the media that they know immediately what is and what is not an acceptable policy. As a result, you will seldom hear respectable candidates for public office expressing certain opinions even if the facts point in that direction. I guess that thankless role is left to me. With no reasonable chance of being elected, I can afford to play the heretic. Since the media ignore my campaign, I would actually welcome being attacked by another candidate or by a media commentator.

The results of the March 9th primary in Louisiana showed the advantage of television-branded candidacies. John Kerry did quite well, of course; but so did three others who were celebrities from the candidate debates - Edwards, Dean, and Clark - though they had officially withdrawn from the race. I took the fifth position by dint of much time spent working the state. Those who did less well - Kucinich and LaRouche - may have come across as too intellectual or too nerdy. They were both issues-centered candidates, a bit too earnest and, in LaRouche's case, a bit too strident in criticizing the system. This type of personality does not come across well on television.

You can judge whether or not this "knowledge" I claim to have as a student of civilizations made any difference in either or my two political campaigns. I did not win either contest but did do better than expected. The main thing is not to resent the fact that entertainment-centered media ignore people like me who think they have good ideas: Go with the flow. Do the best that you can. Adapt to the requirements of the age.  

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