How do politics affect popular culture? A well-received speech by Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes sparked speculation that the media omnipreneur would run for president in 2020. Winfrey wouldn’t be the first: earlier stars-turned-politicians include Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken and Donald Trump.
The influence of popular culture on politics may not be limited to stars becoming politicians — or endorsing them, as with Winfrey’s 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama. In a newly published article in International Studies Quarterly, we demonstrate that the information presented in popular culture can change how mass and elite audiences approach politics.
Fiction tells us about things that are real
It may seem preposterous that popular culture can change people’s perceptions of the real world. By definition, fiction presents depictions of events that aren’t real. Yet fiction can also tell us about places, cultures and institutions that are real.
The two of us have never been to Russia, for instance, but we have some idea about what Moscow is “like.” Those impressions come from documentaries and works of serious nonfiction — but also from Jason Bourne movies and episodes of “The Americans.” And at times it can be hard to keep those sources straight.
Why does information from fictional sources commingle with real information? The way brains process fictional narratives makes it hard to distinguish between truths and untruths. As we discuss in our article, psychologists and others argue that immersive, narrative fiction leads audiences to process fictional stimuli as if they were “real” — even for a mental instant. That’s the essence of suspension of disbelief — it’s integral to why we can understand fiction and narrative in the first place.
This suggests that popular culture’s audiences treat as real plotlines and ideas that can be entirely unrealistic. And because those fictional experiences seem real, they can leave a lasting impression on audiences’ beliefs.
Fake stories can have real effects
So popular culture may be more than a mirror to reality. It can be a way to change how people see the real world. From the presidency in “The West Wing” to terrorists in “NCIS” — the potential scale through which popular culture can influence real behavior becomes more clear.
Some people have long suspected this. During the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon asked the producers of the television show “24” to stop portraying torture as effective. Experienced interrogators feared that the show’s depiction of torture as a reliable method of information gathering was proving toxic for new interrogators — a fear consistent with findings in later research.
Other researchers found exposure to popular culture artifacts produced similar effects. Movie audiences that watched “The Cider House Rules,” for instance, became more sympathetic to its arguments for abortion rights.
And there’s a downside: Audiences might believe the inaccuracies to be true
In addition to changing beliefs, fictitious narratives can also overwhelm accurate information. One team of researchers found that watching films containing historical inaccuracies led students to recall the inaccurate information more reliably than facts from a nonfictional source.
Fortunately, audiences can display some resistance to inaccurate information if they know something about what is being described. Unfortunately, when the inaccurate information is plausible yet wrong, audiences may be more likely to remember the inaccurate information.
That’s why portrayals of history in a roundup of current films like “Darkest Hour,” “The Post” or “12 Strong” matter. Even when such dramatizations get the facts wrong, the impressions they convey can linger for a long time.
A closer look at Tom Clancy’s foreign policy
It’s one thing to show that relatively unsophisticated audiences can be swayed by fiction. But what about its effects on supposedly more sophisticated elites? Does fiction influence how officials make foreign policy? In our article, we demonstrate evidence that the books by novelist Tom Clancy did just that, at least to some extent.
Clancy dominated bestseller lists during the 1980s and 1990s, and officials in the Reagan and first George H.W. Bush administrations were among his biggest fans. It appears that Clancy’s fiction may have shaped policymakers’ opinions, on at least a few occasions. President Ronald Reagan suggested to Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that she read Clancy’s novel “Red Storm Rising” in preparation for an upcoming summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Vice President Dan Quayle cited the same novel as evidence of the effectiveness of U.S. antisatellite weaponry.
Clancy’s imagined plots may have had some positive effects on policy decisions. Terrorism expert Richard Clarke, for instance, told the 9/11 Commission that Clancy’s novels prompted him to worry about the possibility of groups like al-Qaeda using airplanes as weapons. But finding that popular culture influenced senior officials’ beliefs on matters of surpassing national importance raises questions about the broader basis upon which policymakers make decisions.
Fake stories, real effects on politics
We do not claim that popular culture can change political behavior, or that all politics are shaped by popular culture. But we do think that political professionals — and professional students of politics — may dismiss too quickly popular culture’s potential impact on mass and elite audiences alike.
Political scientists work hard to bridge the gap between scholarship and popular understanding. If movies and television shape audiences’ impressions of politics, then how they portray the political process and political events may be more influential than all the peer-reviewed articles (or Monkey Cage posts) by credentialed academics put together. The chasm between realistic portrayals of politics and plausible but wrong stories may be deeper than social scientists have thought.
And much of popular culture promotes misleading ideas about politics and politicians — that political change is easy, established politicians are typically venal, and politics is more personal than structural, to name a few stereotypes. Such images may partly explain the appeal of nontraditional politicians, like celebrities. But our research suggests that voters should check the origins of their beliefs to see if they rest on fact — or fiction.
Furman Daniel, III is an assistant professor of global security and intelligence at Embry-Riddle University.
Paul Musgrave (@profmusgrave) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.