Do political consultants love America?

As we watch the presidential campaign descend into the gutter, I keep wondering about the individuals who are giving the two candidates advice and shaping their strategies and tactics. I know they must love America, but boy they have an odd way of showing it. They need a wake-up call. Myself, I worked on 20 political campaigns by the time I was 23 years old, the last one where I served as the young aide to senior folks on a U.S. presidential race. During that last effort, I came to the conclusion that too many political campaigns were more about needlessly dividing people, striking fear in people’s hearts, and simply “winning at any cost,” than about the country itself and improving people’s lives. It was during that presidential race that I made the decision to found what would grow into The Harwood Institute.

Over the intervening 25 years, campaigns have continued down a rotten path and only worsened. They routinely make a mockery of people’s realities and diminish their very concerns and aspirations. And they are largely driven by political consultants.In listening to many political consultants on television and elsewhere, when they actually have the chance to speak more freely, one hears their love of country come through – or, at least, that’s what it sounds like to me.

And so I often wonder what goes through such consultants’ minds as they make decisions to put up yet another scathing (and often untruthful) ad about their opponent, take comments wildly out of context to distort them for their own purposes, and manipulate voters’ fears based on focus groups devised to proffer destruction, among other choices they make.

My fantasy is to try an experiment with political consultants – to work with them – to see how they would make different choices and decisions if they were continually prodded to ask certain questions of themselves during a campaign. Over the years, we’ve worked in similar ways with journalists, school superintendents, public broadcasters, United Ways, and others – all with great success – to examine their assumptions and actions and they affect people and their lives.

At the end of the day, I keep asking myself, do political consultants truly believe that politics is about nothing more than “winning?” Or, that the campaign season gives them full license to overrun the public square with untruths, half-truths and near lies? Do they ever wonder what children think when their ominous, dark, and hyped ads relentlessly air on television?

I’ve long believed – and argued – that no one individual or group should be able to hold our politics and public life hostage, including political consultants. But saying that is not enough – we must act.