As consultants who advise and craft messages for candidates and elected officials, what role do we have in making things better, or at least less ugly?
That was the question posed to us at a recent discussion hosted by the Project on Ethics in Political Communications at The George Washington University.
This would normally be a typical post-election exercise. In an effort to wipe our faces from all of the mudslinging and say to each other: “We can do better, we must do better.” We’d shake hands, pat each other on the back and take a nice, long holiday vacation.
But these are not normal times, and this was not a typical campaign season. There’s no playbook for campaigning during a pandemic and getting it wrong could result in people getting sick or dying.
Full disclosure, although one of us is a Democrat and the other is a Republican, we both supported and worked to elect Joe Biden. The two of us come from different sides of the aisle, but we each got into this line of work for the same reason: to make a meaningful difference.
We have worked for governors, senators and House members in both government and the political arena — and like most consultants we know what’s acceptable, what we can get away with and what’s flat out wrong.
Operating a campaign in the shades of gray is one thing, but creating a narrative that has literally led to sickness and death is another – and it falls into the pitch-black category. Don’t stop reading – we aren’t going to re-litigate the election. What we want to do is start a dialogue about ethical responsibility.
Couple of things to address at the top: This is a bi-partisan problem. As in any business, there are bad apples that taint the campaign industry. We shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the blame. Let’s also agree that there are some core principles that both parties should adhere to, such as focusing on getting your voters out and not blocking others from voting, for starters.
It may seem cliché, but we are a democracy. When more people vote, we are forced to govern better, and be more inclusive.
Go ahead, disagree and call out any media organization that gets the facts wrong, but stop questioning the legitimacy of the media at large. People need to trust our credible news organization, especially in a crisis.
If you find yourself working for a candidate who believes that lying and spreading conspiracy theories is fair game, it’s time to stop working for that candidate. This type of campaigning, and governing, undermines the foundation of our democracy. Likewise, candidates and public officials should stop hiring consultants who advise their clients to lie to the press — bad strategy aside — and the public.
And when the public has spoken and the election is over, acknowledge the results and do everything possible to help the winning candidate succeed in the mission of serving the people. That’s what’s in the public’s best interest.
None of this should be controversial or partisan. These should be principles we can all agree to in the spirit of strengthening our democratic institutions and regaining the public’s trust.
Consultants aren’t alone in this. The erosion of public trust is about much more than those of us who work behind the scenes on campaigns. We are part of an ecosystem that includes the candidates and elected officials who sometimes do, and sometimes do not, take our advice. It includes the press, pundits, advocacy organizations, parties and funders. All of us are part of a raucous national conversation about how we should tackle problems from climate change to infrastructure. We should all do better.
Speaking out can hurt careers, cost you clients and end friendships. The Lincoln Project, Republican Voters Against Trump, and other organizations weren’t launched lightly. Christmas card lists are shorter, client rosters slimmer, and when we can all safely gather again, many of our gatherings will be smaller. Had the Democrats nominated someone like Trump, we know some Democratic practitioners would have done the same.
Consultants get paid to win the next election or pass the next bill. But we must never mistake the immediate goal for the greater stakes.
Each of us loves politics, has strong views about policy, and shares a love of our democracy. It’s up to us, and everyone like us, to ensure that love of democracy comes first.
Susan Del Percio is a New York-based Republican strategist and a Senior Advisor to the Lincoln Project.
Oren Shur is a Managing Director at SKDK, where he advises and creates advertising for Democratic candidates and progressive causes.