Politics is plagiarism

Last week, Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski delivered gut punches to two candidates for statewide office when he reported that large portions of Monica Wehby’s (R-OR) and Mary Burke’s (D-WI) campaign platforms were plagiarized from other campaigns and partisan publications.

Wehby is the Republican candidate for senate in Oregon; Burke the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Wisconsin.

In response to the news, Wehby issued a statement saying that the offending parties — namely, her former campaign manager — had already been fired, although The Oregonian has since reported that the source of the campaign’s plagiarism is more likely a former staffer at Meridian Pacific, a consulting firm.

Burke fired the consultant responsible for her campaign’s plagiarism, who had self-plagiarized from documents he had written for previous Democratic campaigns.

While both campaigns are taking heat for their respective setbacks, the plagiarism in and of itself is uninteresting. The more substantive point that these episodes highlight is that American politics is increasingly centralized and boring.

GOP Senate candidate in Oregon, Monica Wehby.

GOP Senate candidate in Oregon, Monica Wehby.

Let’s start with the obvious: Wehby, Burke and other statewide/national candidates aren’t coming up with the ideas in their platforms (they also aren’t writing their own books). These aren’t even the first examples of consultant-based plagiarism this year: Soon-to-be Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf fired a consultant in April over plagiarizing language from an energy company when crafting the candidate’s policy on energy efficiency.

Candidates have always relied on their parties for talking points, and on advisors for narratives in which to weave said talking points. With the expansion of the political consulting industry, it’s now the same set of people weaving the same talking points into the same narratives, over and over again. The more mass-produced campaigns become, the more similar they are likely to look.

So does it really matter whether or not the precise language that the same set of consultants use to repeat the same set of talking around the country changes from campaign to campaign? In other words, does it really matter whether or not Eric Schnurer, the consultant who self-plagiarized Burke’s economic plan, re-wrote the same ideas he had used on other campaigns, or simply copied/pasted them?

No, it doesn’t. As Brian Beutler pointed out in The New Republic:

If a Republican member of Congress went on TV and said, “families and small businesses across the country continue to ask, ‘Where are the jobs?'” nobody would accuse him of plagiarizing John Boehner. If Hillary Clinton were to note that, “we believe our economy grows best not from the top down, but from the middle out, and from the bottom up,” Buzzfeed probably won’t knock her for plagiarizing Barack Obama. Similarly, parts of the Democrats’ 2012 platform look suspiciously like parts of their 2008 platform and nobody finds it strange.

The Burke scandalette falls somewhere along the same spectrum. It’s an instance of lazy p.r. tradecraft, and the consultant who “plagiarized” his own talking points has been fired for it. But it tells us nothing about Burke that distinguishes her from any other major gubernatorial candidate in the country.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the same ideas from the same people are popping up in campaigns across the country. As both parties — especially the Republicans — are increasingly behaving as though they operate in a parliamentary system, ideological, if not literal, plagiarism is likely to be rewarded,  not punished. Policy proposals that deviate from what everyone else is saying are not only risky, they can amount to borderline heresy. Even if Wehby’s, Burke’s and Wolf’s policy papers passed muster in sixth grade English, they would still be largely copied from other campaigns whose policies would have been drafted by the same set of consultants.

This unoriginality is to be expected, especially in the 21st Century. When running for political office in a low-information environment, the incentives are such that, even though the average person does not hold an ideologically rigid slate of opinions, it is in a candidate’s best interest to adopt ideologically consistent positions.

This occurs for two reasons: First, while the average Democratic or Republican voter probably doesn’t agree with every position in their party’s platform, they agree with most of them — more consistently than they used to.

Second, voters aren’t able to pay close enough attention to every detail of every candidate’s campaign, and so they default to heuristics as to what they expect given candidates to believe. The stuff that sticks out and gets our attention — most often in a bad way — is the stuff that doesn’t square with those expectations.

Taken together, these two factors generate a cost for a candidate whose true opinions deviate from the party line, and that cost can be avoided by keeping to the slate of positions that everyone is expecting them to keep to.

This has always been true to a certain extent, but it is more true now than it used to be since politics are far more nationalized than they used to be. CNN and Twitter have created an environment in which voters in Portland are, more than before, getting the same political information that the voters in Milwaukee and Philadelphia are getting. Consequently, there is less separating them ideologically and, by extension, less of an incentive for a campaign to display any sense of creativity when deciding how to appeal to them. One guy at a desk in Arlington really can craft policy proposals that make sense for any region of the country because, well, geography means a lot less within partisan groups than it used to.

Of course, the standardization of American politics doesn’t come without its hiccups. Just look at the intellectually empty Senate campaign of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. Rather than running on, or even mentioning with a full throat, the resounding success of Kentucky’s implementation of Obamacare (sorry, “Kynect“), and Mitch McConnell’s commitment to taking health care access away from hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians, her primary case for statewide office appears to be that she knows how to shoot a gun better than McConnell.

If you’re a consultant in DC, this makes perfect sense: Obamacare is unpopular in the South, and you probably figure that Kentucky is just a bunch of “gun-toting yokels.” But it doesn’t take all that much imagination to see how patronizing and, ultimately, doomed this strategy is.

This isn’t an indictment of the consulting class so much as it is a weary sigh at the structure of the American political system. In other words, it isn’t their fault that our politics is becoming more and more predictable; they’re just a symptom.

And the really depressing thing is this: there are a lot of things we can do to reform the way we pick our leaders — which would allow for more imagination in our public sphere — but first we have to pick some leaders who are serious about reform.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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