Campaign Staffers Are Undermining American Democracy

National electoral campaigns are mainly staffed by political junkies from elite universities — exactly the opposite of much of the US public. No wonder they’re so bad at reaching working-class voters.

Senator Joe Manchin talks with a staff member while walking through the US Capitol on November 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News)

The problems of American democracy have earned a great deal of attention recently, with commentators blaming everything from election manipulation and social media to economic instability. In Producing Politics, scholar Daniel Laurison locates the cause of democracy’s woes in a new place: the people who design and work on national political campaigns.

If you come from a particular class background, you’ve probably met these people. Maybe it was at a party or through a friend or college acquaintance. Maybe you even are one, or once were. They are campaign professionals: the consultants, operatives, and staffers who make their livelihood on election bids. Many gravitated to politics as children like their classmates obsessed over professional sports. Yet as baseball or basketball became a hobby for most of their peers, these budding politicos turned their passion into a career.

Laurison makes the novel and compelling argument that campaign professionals have more power to shape democracy and “produce politics” than they’re often given credit for, perhaps even more than the candidates for whom they work. By determining which voters to reach out to, the messages those voters receive, and the issues candidates emphasize on the campaign trail — and once in office, campaign professionals have a profound effect on US politics.

Yet, as Laurison demonstrates, key aspects of campaign work isolate these professionals from the public — without even boosting the fortunes of their candidates. As Producing Politics repeatedly emphasizes, there is little empirical evidence that the tools of these operatives significantly change the outcome of campaigns.

Laurison begins the book with a confessional. Although now a professor of sociology, during the 2000s he labored on a series of Democratic Party campaigns. Consumed by the work, he all but abandoned his family and his graduate school work to serve as a regional field organizer for Barack Obama in 2008. He eventually snapped and decided to study campaign professionals rather than become one.

Laurison fuses this personal experience with his sociological training. The central source base for Producing Politics is the more than seventy interviews Laurison did with Democratic and Republican campaign operatives between 2009 and 2010, supplemented by interviews conducted after the 2016 and 2020 elections. Together, they give us a deep understanding of how campaigns work and how campaign operatives make sense of their vocation.

Laurison finds a great deal of similarity across the two major parties in terms of demographics, norms, and culture. The professionals he interviewed disproportionately grew up in middle-class, if not affluent, families and hold degrees from elite institutions. Motivated less by money than their zeal for politics, most of Laurison’s interviewees said they believe in what they are doing and enjoy the frenetic, high-stakes, all-encompassing nature of the job. As one Republican consultant breathlessly told him, a “presidential campaign is the ultimate startup.” That cocktail of characteristics (comfortable class background, elite college pedigree, obsession with politics as politics) has a cost: campaign professionals operate in an echo chamber, cocooned from the average voter.

Here, Laurison might have contextualized this cohort in the history of the professional-managerial class (PMC), the larger group of highly educated, credentialed white-collar workers who tend to hold the same meritocratic, technocratic view of society. To his credit, Laurison does show how insularity and elitism are fostered by the very structure of campaigns. At the bottom of the pyramid is the field operation, the people who interact with voters; at the top, and given the most influence and resources, are the departments that develop techniques to micro-target voters and deliver them the messages that operatives think will be persuasive.

Campaign “messaging” has preoccupied politicos since at least the early 2000s and the publication of linguistic George Lakoff’s iconic Don’t Think Like an Elephant. Democratic operatives like Obama campaign and administration veteran Dan Pfeiffer often point to lackluster messaging as the main reason the party has not performed better of late.

Laurison contends that the problem is not the message — the problem is the focus on the message. Campaigners are so concerned with their message that they have missed an important opportunity to understand voters and to engage the public in the political process. He argues that campaigns spend so little time or resources actually talking with potential voters, which has made modern campaigns into one-way dialogues that resemble “performances more than conversations” and think of potential voters as passive receivers of messages rather than as active participants in the political process.

Laurison suggests that campaigns should do the kind of intensive voter outreach that is dismissed by many of the campaign professionals he interviewed. This approach means using techniques like “deep canvassing,” promoted by groups like People’s Action and Knock Every Door, which Bernie Sanders staffers adopted in both his presidential bids and has been deployed in other state and local campaigns in the last decade.

Laurison doesn’t claim that “making politics more communicative and connected to regular people” would be tantamount to a political revolution, but he’s right that it could be an important step in shifting the balance of power and the distribution of services and resources toward the people who need them the most. As the Sanders campaign proved, these forms of communication are also a key tool for getting people engaged in the political process and progressive campaigns that extend beyond the presidential election cycle.

In one of the more revealing parts of the book, Laurison describes how campaigners treat politics and policy as separate spheres — few, if any, interviewees mentioned the policy agenda of candidates they worked for. This West Wing–style approach to campaigns — politics as entertainment, politics as the province of experts — repels those for whom the political world is interesting only insofar as it can improve their lives.

Laurison optimistically suggests that campaigns are places where ordinary people can step into the political arena and where politicians can reach out to them. Yet Producing Politics implicitly reveals that the only way for that to happen is to not only fix gerrymandering, campaign finance laws, and the many other anti-majoritarian obstacles that hamper the democratic process, but to democratize campaigns themselves. Yes, that means mean more conversations with voters. But it also means shifting who designs and runs campaigns. Candidates and political parties must look beyond the safe choices and construct campaign staffs comprised of people who look more like the public at large. Simply put, working-class candidates and working-class people must be at the center of progressive politics.

To truly enact change would also require defining politics more expansively to be about more than just campaigns and elections, particularly presidential ones. It would mean emphasizing the material stakes of politics and targeting outreach not only to likely voters, but also those who don’t or can’t vote. It might require developing alternative ways of studying it, too. Reading Producing Politics is an important book to start this process.