When a political consultant plans to smear someone “in a way that cannot be connected to us,” he probably should not explain this scheme to his client while a documentarian stands nearby with a video camera. The dumb violation of this rule, by someone who is paid to be smart, turns out to be among the smaller ironies in Rachel Boynton’s Our Brand Is Crisis, a feature-length account of the work done by the US firm of Greenberg Carville Shrum during the 2002 election in Bolivia.
The biggest irony: After maneuvering its candidate into the presidency, by a margin so slight it could have been attributed to humidity, the GCS team saw him chased from the country only a few months later, amid clouds of tear gas and the cries of the wounded. “What went wrong?” asks Boynton, off camera, to GCS pollster Jeremy Rosner.
“There are conditions,” he replies, “that democracy ultimately can’t deal with.”
Rosner is a likable man–soft-spoken, smiling, blatantly thoughtful, like a Reform rabbi who talks football at dinner parties–and so you hesitate to blame him personally for this world-historical shrug. The problem explored in Our Brand Is Crisis–vividly, though far from completely–does not lie in individuals but in the accepted definition of “democracy,” whether peddled in Bolivia by GCS, in Iraq by Paul Bremer and the Lincoln Group or in (you supply the name) by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
But enough of the general problem. Let’s follow Rachel Boynton’s example and get down to cases.
In 2002 the wealthy businessman Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (known as Goni) hired GCS to advise him on his run for the presidency. At the time, he was dead in the polls. Most voters thought his name was synonymous with “unemployment,” since the policies he had pursued during an earlier term as president, from 1993 to 1997, had invited foreign corporations to buy large chunks of previously state-owned companies and then permitted them to cut their workforce. Goni claimed that as a result of his “capitalization” program, 500,000 people now held new jobs; but few Bolivians, apparently, had seen one of these recent hires in the mirror. To a very large segment of the public, Goni was a failure: remote, arrogant, representative of the past (he was in his 70s) and suspiciously North American. Having grown up in the United States, he spoke Spanish with a broad Chicago accent.
But to the consultants from GCS, these were faults of image, not substance. They liked Goni’s version of free trade and privatization. (“This guy had the best formula for getting his country out of poverty,” Rosner insists.) They probably liked his Chicago English, too, and his Bill Clinton hair. Goni is the sort of man with whom North American elites can feel comfortable. GCS just needed to figure out how to sell him to an electorate that is overwhelmingly poor and Indian. Boynton shows how it was done, through a process the GCS operatives surprisingly allowed her to document, perhaps through an arrogance of their own, or perhaps through a conviction that their beliefs are self-evidently correct. As Rosner explained to Boynton, the GCS brand is “progressive politics for a profit.”
For Goni, though, the brand was crisis.
GCS told him to repeat, at every rally and in every interview, that Bolivia had reached a point of no return. He would save the country from this crisis. His GCS slogan, emblazoned on every banner, poster and TV commercial, declared “¡Sí se puede!” (“Yes we can!”) To insure that Goni stayed on message, GCS limited him to one daily appearance: the “photo of the day.” Focus groups, convened and studied by Rosner, allowed GCS to check the response of ordinary Bolivians to each particular of the campaign, with the richly comic result that Goni’s poll numbers went into immediate decline.