Arthur Finkelstein didn’t break American politics.
Finkelstein, who died last Friday at the age of 72, was one of the world’s most successful pollsters and political consultants. His career encompassed the rise of the modern conservative movement from the 1970s to the present day. At one point, he managed the campaigns of the majority of the Republican Senate caucus and helped elect countless governors, members of Congress, and Israeli prime ministers and heads of government in Europe.
But along with these triumphs, Finkelstein also acquired notoriety as a practitioner of the political dark arts with a reputation for ruthless attacks on his opponents. Though largely unknown to the general public — he was one of the few successful campaign consultants to avoid cable-news networks like the plague, and he never gave interviews — liberals denounced him as the “merchant of venom” or the “prince of darkness.” They blamed his successful tactics for turning “liberal” from a label embraced proudly by Democrats and many Republicans into the equivalent of a swear word and for coarsening American politics. For some, he was among the principal authors of our current political malaise, in which Americans have become so deeply divided that they despise and distrust those who disagree with them. They view his efforts as the foundation for the success of Donald Trump and a “fake news” culture in which elections are won and lost by spreading falsehoods.
But while Finkelstein was responsible for campaigns that were not gentlemanly, the notion that he and the many consultants who cut their teeth working for him are the reason for Trump or a populist politics in which truth is no longer valued is a myth.
Finkelstein was an anomaly the mainstream press never figured out. He was openly gay and married his partner of more than 40 years back in 2004. That earned him the opprobrium of the Left because they felt his work for conservative candidates was a betrayal. But what his critics never seemed to understand was that Finkelstein understood the main issue that divided American politics was liberty, not racial, religious, or sexual identity. A devout libertarian who once worked with Ayn Rand, Finkelstein’s political work was devoted to those who expanded freedom against the dead hand of the state.
But what he is best remembered for is belief in negative campaigning. This was widely decried by good-government types who saw Finkelstein as undermining the fabric of democracy.
To some extent, Finkelstein always got too much credit for his insight that hammering opponents on their flaws was the way to victory. Negative campaigning is as old as the republic. More important, it was not Finkelstein’s ads that made “liberal” a swear word but the accumulated results of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the vast expansion of the welfare state into an imperial bureaucracy that ruled the country that accomplished that feat. What Finkelstein did was to harness the power of television ads and micro-data analysis to the public’s dismay about what 20th-century liberalism had done to American society.
What the New York Times described as his work that “revolutionized campaign polling and financing” was rooted in ideology. His sophisticated analysis of poll data was not about selling voters a bill of goods but rather pointing out that their traditional political affiliations were at odds with their beliefs. In practice, that meant informing Democrats that the party of their grandparents was set against their convictions. For all of the abuse that has been hurled at Finkelstein’s campaigns, which relentlessly pounded home the idea that Democrats were liberals who were out of touch with mainstream America, the tactic was rooted in truth, not lies. If that struck liberal Democrats as foul play, it was only because they were the ones who were trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the voters, not Finkelstein and his clients.
This is a crucial distinction between Finkelstein’s work and “fake news” disinformation. As Finkelstein put it, he did not “slander anyone without proof.” Ideological politics is by its nature confrontational, but it is, in the end, about ideas not merely nastiness.
As Finkelstein put it, he did not ‘slander anyone without proof.’
That is not to say that all of Finkelstein’s work was laudable. A push poll he conducted in a 1978 congressional campaign, which focused not only on a liberal Democrat being an outsider in the southern district where he was running but also on his Jewish identity, would earn him criticism for decades. His work for central European nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban put him on the side of people who generally seek to govern in a manner that is not consistent with Finkelstein’s libertarian principles.
But for all the criticism about his negative tactics, the history of the last half-century was profoundly changed for the better by his work. Without him, Ronald Reagan’s comeback from the low point of his 1976 presidential campaign might not have happened. He deserves a share of the credit for the subsequent Reagan Revolution and the triumph over Soviet tyranny that it enabled. Republicans may not have always made the most of the congressional majorities he helped build for them, but if the worst excesses of the welfare state were rolled back, it was only because Finkelstein helped convince the public that continuing to vote for liberals was a mistake. His successful efforts to elect Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon in Israel also helped that American ally along on the path to free-market prosperity and a more realistic approach to the peace process that has saved lives and allowed it to remain secure.
If American politics is broken, it is due to politicians and their media enablers, who have done so much to undermine the liberty agenda Finkelstein revered. It is not because Arthur Finkelstein reminded voters about the difference between liberals and conservatives and the importance of ideas.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.