Intellectual Action Hero

burdick001If you follow the political game, you’ve probably heard of “dog-whistle politics.” That’s when politicians speak in code to their supporters–all of whom get the meaning even if outsiders don’t. Sarah Palin’s speech at CSU Stanislaus last week put me in mind of the dog whistle. Apparently, she discussed “the topic of teaching the next generation the civic lessons of protecting freedom and defending the American idea of liberty.” Sounds like conservative boilerplate, basically, and it is. But there’s a lot in that statement if you care to look. What her supporters hear is an affirmation of their worldview: of an America explicitly founded by Christians for Christians, of a low-tax, corporate-friendly, homogeneous nation that is free to do as it wishes on the world stage.

I mention all this because the subject of my new piece in California magazine had a keen ear for the dog whistle. Eugene Burdick was a Cal political scientist and a Hollywood screenwriter, a Navy man and a surfer, a public intellectual who hobnobbed with both Marlon Brando and JFK’s Whiz Kids. (His astonishingly varied resume suggested the title of the piece.) Burdick, who died in 1965, is mostly remembered today for his Cold War polemic, The Ugly American, which urged the US to adopt counterinsurgency tactics in Vietnam long before COIN was cool (COIN’s vogue over the last few years is in many ways a retread of 1960s-era thinking; so far, its lackluster results also echo that era.) Like so many liberals back then, Burdick was an ardent Cold Warrior, a “better dead than red” guy, and his writing reflects a mindset (one that’s admittedly difficult to conjure today) in which the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to our existence.

He was also, however, a preternaturally gifted political analyst, and his most interesting book wasn’t about foreign policy but about domestic politics. Published in 1956, The Ninth Wave combined surfing and California politics in what might you might call a dystopian potboiler. In some ways, the book is sort of a mess. It’s filled with clunky writing and reams of needless detail (apparently, he dictated his prose into a tape recorder, sans editing.) But the ideas–he was one of the first to see the ways in which opinion polling could be used to manipulate fearful voters–are eerily up-to-date.

Burdick’s main character, an amoral political consultant (and surfer) from L.A. named Mike Freesmith, cracks the code of the modern election campaign. Using the nascent science of computer-aided opinion polling, he slices-and-dices the electorate into easily manipulated blocs, then jacks up the fear and hate quotient to put his demagogic candidate on the road to the governor’s office. When asked what his secret is, Freesmith sounds depressingly au courant: “You scare them into voting for your man.”

You can read the whole thing here.