`THE era of the amateur in public life is over,'' says Prof. Ross Baker of Rutgers University. ``We preserve the image of the New England town meeting as the ideal, when in fact it's a quaint relic.'' Precinct captains and volunteer canvassers have given way to consultants and media buys. And now comes the Graduate School of Political Management - the first institution of its kind - which will open in New York City this fall.
The school will offer a two-year degree program in the increasingly sophisticated techniques of modern campaigning and political influence. Polling, direct mail, ``lobbying tactics,'' ``the gaining of access to television news,'' are among the topics in the school's catalog. According to Neil Fabricant, its founder and president, the goal is to ``contribute to the development of a new profession - political management.''
At one level, the school is yet another sign of the marketing needs of universities in an era of declining enrollments. It also reflects the career orientation of today's students, who see the program's internships in congressional offices and political action committees (PACs) ``as an employment mechanism,'' Mr. Fabricant concedes.
But at a deeper level, as the United States celebrates the 200th year of its Constitution, the school mirrors the democracy that document established. So doing, it poses difficult questions.
Does the school represent the triumph of the marketing arts in the realm of politics - ``a definition of effectiveness that falls short of goals and values,'' as James David Barber of Duke University puts it? Or, as the school's founders contend, will it open up these ``dark arts'' to the public scrutiny they deserve?
Does the very concept of a graduate program in ``political management'' forebode the closing of American democracy to those not having a professional degree? Or will the school help women and minorities gain entrance to the burgeoning campaign industry, while making the tools of modern campaigning available to underfunded though worthy causes?
``Politics have already been professionalized, whether we like it or not,'' says Dr. David Adamany, president of Wayne State University in Michigan, who reviewed the program for the New York Board of Regents. ``The only question is whether we should provide training.''
Fabricant, a former legislative director of the New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, has held various government posts and once ran a magazine of state government called Empire State Reports. A genial man, he is described by acquaintances as an ``entrepreneur'' who has channeled his energies to the nonprofit world.
One question he faced is whether subjects like ``lobbying tactics'' belong in a university. ``This would be like a class in clubhouse politics 50 years ago,'' says one New York academic who is familiar with the school but asked not to be named. These subjects, he says, are ``much better taught in a campaign'' - especially given the price, which is over $12,000 a year for tuition alone.
Stanley Kelly, a political science professor at Princeton who doubles as provost of the new school, disagrees. He says that such subjects as demographic research and television advertising are well-suited to academe. ``If you want to learn linear algebra, you don't walk around with a mathematician,'' he says.
The tougher question is whether such techniques should be taught - or whether their use should be discouraged.
Former Iowa Sen. John Culver gave eloquent expression to these concerns at a recent symposium at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, when he compared the modern campaign wizards to ancient Greek Sophists who considered persuasive skills an end in themselves - ``clever rather than wise,'' he called them. ``Electoral politics should never be thought of as a career, but as a service,'' Culver said.
But people connected with the new school see it as a way to inject some ethical awareness into an occupation less than exemplary on this score. ``Today, if you ask [a PAC operative] `Is this right?' they look at you as if you were from the moon,'' says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, author of widely aclaimed books on PACs and political consultants, who will direct the School's internship program in Washington. Without making undue claims for the power of rational discourse, Mr. Sabato suggests that classroom discussion ``at least opens the possibility of raising ethical standards.''
Then, too, there's the question of equal opportunity. Political consulting much like management in professional baseball, is a white man's club. With one or two possible exceptions, Fabricant says, ``There isn't a black political manager of any stature in the US.'' The school, he says, will provide a gate of entry to those previously excluded.
It's the old dilemma: Reform the system or provide access to those excluded from it. But Professor Kelly, for one, doesn't see why the school can't do both. A faculty teaching and writing about the latest gimmicks for getting on the six o'clock news will help focus public discussion upon such ploys. ``These things hidden are much more disturbing than these things in the light,'' he says.
Moreover, Fabricant sees the school not only as a way to bring the disadvantaged into the occupation but also as a way to bring the occupation to the disadvantaged. Just as law schools have clinics for people who can't afford a lawyer, he says, the school of political management could have a clinic - a ``public interest political management firm'' - for candidates and causes that cannot afford megabuck consultants.
The danger is that disseminating these arts will serve to entrench them deeper into the culture. And the ways and means of American democracy could become the province of ``certified campaign professionals.'' But to people like Sabato, the genie is out of the bottle already. Imagining a world without political consultants and their sophisticated arts is ``a little like saying, `We'd be a better world without television.''' he says. ``There is no such thing as a purely amateurish campaign at the higher levels that can win. Its a multimillion dollar business.''
``Some say it's disturbing,'' adds Kelly. ``But finding it disturbing won't stop it. Systematic thought will preserve amateurism if anything will.''