Commentary Magazine


Political Salesmanship

To the Editor:

It seems to me that Professor Boorstin’s suggestive outline on public relations aspects of the Presidency (“Selling the President to the People,” November) missed something that may be at the heart of the whole problem. He asserts there is a dangerous possibility that, instead of leading millions, statesmen may in reality be “tamely echoing” the “every shifting mood and inclination” of the public. Is it not possible that the real dangers lie in the opposite direction—not in the leader leading too little by adhering to the whims of his electorate but rather in the possibilities of playing to the crowd, of introducing sentiments and promoting emotional reactions? . . . If the leader is successful in “educating the public” . . . he may then use the “will of the people” as argument in support of whatever he intends to do.

This pattern of legitimacy through direct democracy would seem to characterize modern public relations and propaganda-minded totalitarian states. America seems to have been protected from the frightening possibilities inherent in direct-democracy-via-public-relations largely through the strength of our Constitution, which provides the limits of legitimacy for democratic action, and through the basically libertarian and cautious sentiments of our people.

The domestic political trauma just past, involving the problem of McCarthyism, should cast enough question on the reliability of these healthy impulses as to make the temptations of political salesmanship highly significant for students of the political system.

Nelson W. Polsby
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

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