Thomas L. Knapp

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The medicine show
(The Life of the Party, Part Six)
by Thomas L. Knapp

Silver bullets come in all shapes and calibers, and Libertarians seem to suffer from a congenital addiction to them. Every election cycle is characterized by mournful, pouting claims that "if we only had a celebrity candidate" or "if we only had $10 million to spend," or some other magic formula, the LP would "break through" into popular and electoral success.

Politics is more complex than that. And, as I've recently come to realize more and more, some of the silver bullets are themselves more complex. They seem, at first glance, to actually constitute useful bodies of ideas; upon closer examination, they turn out to be fairly pedestrian examples of the "if only" school of thought.

Having only been an LP member for a few years, I can't really say when the late 1970s school of "sales and marketing" pitchmanship first began to infiltrate itself into the LP's internal culture. By the time I joined the Party in 1996 it was all the rage, and has remained so since. Over the last couple of years, more and more of its cultural child of the 90s -- "corporate culture" schtick -- has taken a seat beside it in the Party's internal "how do we reach the public" debate.

Many Libertarians -- and the LP as an organization -- seem to have proceeded from the basic understanding that the free market is a good thing to the inane idea that political ideas are "sold" like so many Baby Bottle Pops, National Enquirers, timeshare RV lots or cases of beer.

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My background as a prole -- I spent a number of years as a factory worker -- introduced me to both these schools of thought from a different perspective. I'll start with the latter school -- "corporate culture" -- and work backward.

Both of the larger companies which I worked for as a plain vanilla worker (as opposed to a manager) flirted with "corporate culture." They hired the services of consultants. They held seminars for management, and for the employees at large. They tinkered with their tables of organization and they fiddled with the company's daily routine.

From a worker's point of view, it was quite interesting. Each new fad generally meant a couple of hours away from driving a forklift. Instead, I got to sit in a room, sipping warm Coca-Cola and munching on stale donuts, while some yahoo held forth about who had moved his cheese, what color his parachute was or how some acronym (JIT, TQM, BR549) was going to change the world.

Then I'd go back and drive the forklift some more. A couple of months later, I'd be back in the same room -- and, I swear, eating the same damn stale donut -- while management paraded the latest production and sales figures in front of me as "proof" that their latest magic bullet "worked." Sales for the fourth quarter were up 5%! Order cuts (ie late order shipments) were down 10%!

Of course, these pep rallies always ignored the fact that sales had increased by 5%, plus or minus half a percent, in all of the six preceding quarters; and that order cuts always went down in the fourth quarter, since the summer was characterized by a slimmer workforce due to vacations.

A month after that, it would be back to stale donuts and warm Coca-Cola as the latest acronym or metaphor was presented in 32-bit Microsoft PowerPoint glory. As far as I could tell, the only real results from any of this were that some guy in middle management kept his job, which amounted to Looking for the Next Big Thing; and that everyone else in middle management had a new set of acronyms and slogans to pop off with around the water cooler.

Of course, I was never content to be "just" a factory worker. There's certainly nothing wrong with being a factory worker, mind you; it's just that the income and opportunity is limited. Which brings me to my experiences with "sales and marketing" culture. I occasionally cast about for extra income opportunities that usually involved sales through multi-level ("network") marketing; and, in one case, during a layoff, ended up being hired for an actual full-time sales job at a resort.

Believe me when I say that I have a great deal of respect for those who sell and who make their living by selling. I find nothing repugnant in the notion that products have to be marketed and sold, nor do I find claims that there are workable techniques for marketing and selling those products to be the least bit controversial.

There is, however, a line of thinking in sales circles that runs parallel to the whole "corporate culture" phenomenon: the idea that sales and marketing -- of anything -- can be reduced to a set of easily applied, axiomatic principles. Just apply those principles and you'll sell whatever it is you're selling, whether that's expensive laundry detergent or RV timeshares. This line of thinking is, to my mind, incorrect. And, applied to a political party, dangerously so.

Sales is not a science. It will never be a science. Sure, there are some techniques that can maximize your chances of making a sale, but they're pretty much common sense: attire yourself suitably. Have a good product. Present it positively. But these techniques only go so far, and they vary by product, clientele, environment and salesperson.

If I'm selling high-end mainframe computers to a large firm, I'm probably going to want to wear a jacket and tie. If I'm trying to sell a "network marketing" opportunity to a blue-collar family, I'm probably going to want to dress nicely, but not so much so that I leave them feeling like I'm out of their league in my Armani suit and $300 shoes. If I'm selling RV spaces at a vacation resort, I'm going to want to dress casually and athletically, so as to convey the impression that "this is a fun place ... you're going to want to spend your summer here."

Since I've mentioned RV timeshares thrice now, the reader will surmise that I've been involved in that industry, and that surmise is correct. During a layoff from another job, I applied at, and was hired by, a resort in southern Missouri which, in turn, was part of a national timeshare chain. The idea was that we would spend four hours becoming oriented to the resort itself, another four hours learning the mechanics of the program we were selling, and a second entire workday being pumped full of "sales technique" before they turned us loose on the gaggle of tourists who came running through each day, having "won" a "prize drawing" for a set of steak knives or some such.

The first four hours were great. The place had volleyball courts, swimming pools, the whole nine yards. It was something that I felt I could tell others was worthwhile.

The second four hours bothered me. The product did not feel, to me, like a good value.

The second day was a disaster, and I quit the job at the end of it. We were treated to a seminar on the latest rage in sales technique: "overcoming objections." Find out just what it is that keeps the mark ... er, the customer ... from buying, and find a way around it. That's it. That's all. Simple and scientific, right?

To summarize, I approached my supervisor, and asked him the following question:

"Sir, I'd like to make sure I have this straight. I'm supposed to approach the customer and overcome his objections to paying $5,500 for an undivided interest in your resort, plus $18 a month in maintenance fees in perpetuity, for the privilege of renting a space for $8 a day to park his vehicle on for a week each year. In overcoming his objections, I'm authorized to lower that $5,500 to a bottom of $1,800, and to offer financing with his vehicle as collateral. Is that correct?"

"Yep. That's it."

"I'm afraid I have to resign ... if I was an RV owner, I couldn't possibly see this as a good deal, and I can't tell anyone with a straight face that it is."

"All right then -- thanks for giving us a try."

Now, I happen to know that that particular resort is still open, still operating on the same type of sales plan and apparently doing quite well. It follows from those facts that some people are able to sell "the plan." And it's possible that the whole "overcoming objections" schtick is helpful to some people in selling it, although I suspect that the place has since moved on to other, newer sales pitch teachings.

But there's more to it than that, I think. There are, in fact, "natural born" salespeople who have a natural ability to love their product and a natural ability to connect with people, make them feel comfortable with the salesperson and the proposition and close the deal. Those salespeople will make a living whether they are hawking timeshares, encyclopedias, used cars or satellite dishes.

Others won't -- and a shelf full of books on "how to close the deal" won't change that. At the very outside, a deep, personal identification with a particular product might animate them in such a way as to make them credible to their potential customer, perhaps.

I've had some success -- not notable success, but I think as much as most Libertarians -- in "selling" libertarian ideas to people. To the extent that I have had any success at all, however, that success has been achieved far outside the parameters applicable to selling RV timeshares.

Political ideas are not laundry detergents, hair treatments, aerobic exercise devices or even, believe it or not, self-help programs. They are political ideas. A political party is not a travelling medicine show with a pitchman to raise the ballyhoo, a few shills to work the crowd and a selection of bottled waters that promise to cure carbuncles and revive male potency. It is a political party.

To put a finer point on it, Dale Carnegie did not ghost write "Common Sense" for Tom Paine. Thomas Jefferson did not run the Declaration of Independence past a focus group of average middle-class Americans to "get its negatives down." Zig Ziglar did not work in the west wing of the Lincoln White House. Teddy Roosevelt was not a Double Diamond Amway distributor.

The LP has, over the course of several election cycles, been fully adoptive of the whole "sales" culture. The proof of that culture's applicability to what we are doing is in the pudding, and the pudding says: we get the same 1/2 of 1 percent now that we got before we bought into it (sales culture infiltration alert -- we gotta get "buy-in").

In terms of electoral politics, it might be useful to look at what has been successful over the same period. Can anyone summarize the sales backgrounds of the men who "made" the last three presidents?

I can. Those three men were Lee Atwater, James Carville and Karl Rove. The summary of their sales backgrounds, so far as I can tell, runs as follows: Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. None of them, from the brief biographies I was able to track down online, seems to have ever made his living selling products as we traditionally understand that process.

Now, I will be the last to say that sales and marketing techniques have no place in the LP's strategy. They certainly do. One of the meritorious ideas now circulating, albeit one couched in the whole freaky language of sales and marketing culture, is that of "identifying constituencies" to approach, and I hope that it is followed through on (although I suspect that particular constituency being targeted is a dead-end path). But if we approach any constituency with the idea that we're selling RV timeshares ... we might as well not bother.

The libertarian idea is simple, but it is not a "product" in the sense that a loaf of bread, a vacuum cleaner or even a new car is. Political ideas and other important ideas are adopted, when they are adopted, for what is presumed to be the life of their adopter; and they play a central -- or at least important -- rather than peripheral role in that life.

The successful purveyors of ideas get across to their "prospects" that the ideas in question are, or at least can be, life-changing; that they have consequences; that they are important.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence did not offer "half off," "two for the price of one" or a "money back guarantee" to their prospective "customers." They offered their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors. The libertarian idea is worthy of no less a principled approach -- and, indeed, such an approach is required if we are to ever succeed. Hucksterism won't cut close the sale.