Contract with Armenia: America May Be No Good at Exporting Democracy, but It's Great at Exporting Political Consultants
Green, Joshua, The Washington Monthly
Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business
By James Harding
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 252 pp.
A few years ago, I wrote a long article on Karl Rove's history of dirty tricks that got a lot of attention in a place I didn't expect: Australia. The radio and television producers calling from Down Under explained that the negative style of politics that Rove is famous for was dominating their national election. They were calling halfway around the world because they were looking for information on the source. I'd never thought of American politics as a form of cultural imperialism, but indeed it is one: like the early American settlers who spread smallpox to the Indians, American political consultants have carried their methods across the globe.
How this happened is the subject of James Harding's book, Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business. Harding, an editor at the Times of London, tells the story of David Sawyer and Scott Miller, a documentary filmmaker and ad man, respectively, who teamed up to establish an unlikely consulting firm in the late 1970s that Harding credits with spurring this dubious form of globalization. Sawyer and Miller weren't the first political consultants to work abroad. But during the 1980s their firm became the biggest. "They seized upon the opportunity of taking the American campaign ethic overseas," Harding writes, "and became the progenitors of a discreet international industry in American political know-how." At its height, he claims, the Sawyer Miller Group touched more than a billion people in twenty-six countries--a bigger global reach than McDonald's.
Like a lot of successful people in politics, the firm's founders came into the field almost by accident. Sawyer had just completed an Oscar-nominated documentary about mental patients when he was approached by a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate to shoot a biopic in the newly fashionable verite style. He soon found himself in heavy demand. Miller was a frustrated Madison Avenue star--he coined the phrase, "Have a Coke and a smile!"--who longed for meaningful work in a smaller firm. The pair quickly gained a reputation in Democratic circles as being masters of the emerging medium of television, which was revolutionizing the world of politics.
Sawyer Miller enjoyed modest success in U.S. politics, but the 1980s were not banner years for the Democratic Party. David Sawyer had worked as a consultant in the Venezuelan election of 1973. As television spread throughout Latin America and other parts of the world, consultants like Sawyer skilled in producing televised political ads found they could market themselves in foreign countries, often for a lot of money. Soon, Sawyer Miller consultants were jetting around the globe and running polished, American-style campaigns in places like the Philippines, Colombia, Israel, Nigeria and Sudan.
It was a glamorous lifestyle that even captured Hollywood's attention. The 1986 Sidney Lumet movie Power (reportedly Rove's favorite) starred Richard Gere as a jet-setting political operative and playboy whose character was based on David Sawyer. In addition to the glamour, Harding sees a strain of crusading idealism. He argues that one important effect of the Sawyer Miller consultants was to help usher in democracy in places like the Philippines and Chile, which lacked it, by getting new leaders elected. …