The left and the right don’t agree on much today. But it’s easy to find a consensus that an excess of spin is ruining politics. Spin — the deliberate crafting of words and images for political effect — is everywhere, from the scripted laugh lines that candidates trot out in debates, to the artful circumlocutions of press secretaries, to the slick ads and viral videos that flicker across our screens.
Don’t get spun, even about spin. Some of the conventional wisdom about the practice is false or exaggerated. Unpacking these five common misperceptions might help us to see more clearly the role that spin plays in our politics, for good and for ill — and to think of it as something that should be neither feared nor lamented, but rather appreciated and understood.
1. Spin is new to our times.
It’s common to suppose that in the recent past, politics was a more straightforward business. We imagine some idyllic, prelapsarian politics free of today’s crafted talk and deceptive rhetoric. One of the fuller statements of this notion is the 2006 book “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid,” by Joe Klein. It opens with a vignette of Robert Kennedy delivering his spontaneous, heartfelt paean to Martin Luther King Jr. on the night of King’s assassination; Klein describes this as “the last moments before American political life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters.”
This is little more than nostalgia. We do encounter spin everywhere, because there are a lot more media outlets today, many featuring politicians and their supporters pleading their cases. But politics has always involved spin. Ancient Greek orators practiced rhetoric to craft arguments, sometimes deceptively, that aroused emotions and persuaded the populace. European monarchs put great care into how their portraits were painted or what images would appear on coins or crests.
American politicians, too, have always availed themselves of what was once called publicity or propaganda. Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern master, devising all kinds of methods to get the news written the way he wanted (such as cultivating the Washington press corps and traveling around the country to push legislation). Woodrow Wilson created the first wartime propaganda agency, Calvin Coolidge staged photo-ops, Herbert Hoover produced an elaborate campaign film, Dwight Eisenhower employed a White House TV coach — every president for the past century has used sophisticated forms of spin.
2. Political consultants are geniuses with immense power over our elections.
Advisers who rise to prominence with a successful presidential candidate invariably earn the “genius” moniker and are assumed to harbor esoteric secrets about winning elections. The Economist called David Axelrod “the rumpled campaign genius who steered Barack Obama’s rise from state senator to president”; CBS News called James Carville “the fiery political genius who knew where President George H.W. Bush was vulnerable”; Karl Rove’s biography was titled “Boy Genius.” In Hollywood, from “The Candidate” to “House of Cards,” the shadowy consultant predictably plays a key role.
From the start, the public relations experts who counseled politicians claimed unique insight into the human mind. In the 1920s, Edward Bernays, dubbed the father of spin — partly because of his p.r. on his own behalf — extolled the knowledge and skills shared by “invisible governors” who secretly shaped public preferences, which magazine profiles called “The Science of Ballyhoo.” Later, the first full-time political consultants, Californians Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, were deemed to have perfected a fool-proof “push-button technique.”
But Bernays gave lots of pedestrian advice; Whitaker and Baxter mostly took on clients who were already shoo-ins; and Rove, Axelrod and Carville have all run losing campaigns. Consultants help with technical aspects such as meeting filing deadlines and budgeting ad buys. When honing a message, though, they’re relying on art, not science (losing campaigns have top-drawer advisers, too). In a 1986 debunking of consultants’ prowess, the New Republic quoted one guru’s secret: “You get on the back of a good horse and hold on.” This election cycle, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio spent millions on experienced pros, to little apparent effect. The sharpest Hollywood depiction of the business may be not the ruthless operators of “House of Cards” but the bumbling hacks of “Veep.”
3. Polls routinely tell politicians what positions to adopt.
We always hear that politicians are unprincipled weather vanes, slavishly following polls. Harry Truman put it best: “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he’d taken a poll in Israel? . . . It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong and leadership.” Truman’s complaint is as common today as 50 years ago. “No one tells me what to say,” Donald Trump boasted last August, implying that he alone shunned pollsters.
It’s true that candidates might play down or change positions if polling suggests it would help their prospects. But mostly, politicians use information from polls to figure out how to explain positions they already hold. In “Politicians Don’t Pander,” a recent classic of political science, Robert Shapiro and Lawrence Jacobs show how the Clinton administration polled on health-care reform only after the plan was finished to determine how to pitch it to the public. George W. Bush pursued privatizing Social Security even though it was unpopular because he believed in it. His White House polled to find the most attractive phrases (such as “retirement security,” “choice” and “savings”) with which to sell it.
4. Political spin dupes the public.
We sometimes assume — or fear — that slick rhetoric and clever image-making will fool us into backing candidates or policies that we wouldn’t otherwise support. This idea, too, is age-old. In 1957, Vance Packard wrote in “The Hidden Persuaders,” his advertising industry exposé, that a new breed of men was entering politics “to engineer our consent to their projects or to engineer our enthusiasm for their candidates.” A decade later, in “The Selling of the President,” Joe McGinniss used Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign to portray modern media politics as a big con, in which shrewd managers regularly mislead the public. That critique has never gone away. Whether it was George W. Bush on invading Iraq or Barack Obama on his health-care plan, critics have alleged that presidents and other politicians have hoodwinked a pliable public.
Politicians, of course, sometimes stretch the truth. But that doesn’t mean we all credulously buy their claims. In an open society like ours, counterspin comes from other quarters. However we judged Bush’s arguments for the war, prominent voices in Congress argued against them. If Obama used the bully pulpit to press for the Affordable Care Act, Republicans had plenty of outlets, from Fox News to talk radio, to lobby against it.
Social science research shows that the public has a great capacity to resist spin. Scholars now recognize the phenomena of “selective exposure,” the tendency to seek out agreeable news; “selective perception,” placing trust in agreeable information while blocking out disagreeable information; and “motivated reasoning,” using logic to reach desired conclusions. We may worry that politicians will convince us of falsehoods, but the reality today is closer to the opposite: We’re so cocooned in our own ideological bubbles that it’s hard to convince anyone of anything.
5. What we really want is a candidate who doesn’t spin.
The pervasiveness of spin makes it easy to crave a politician who doesn’t hurry to huddle with an army of pollsters, speechwriters and image-makers before appearing in public. Many pundits this year use this theory to explain Trump and Bernie Sanders. “Each in his own way, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are proving that authenticity can win the day,” David Atkins writes in the Washington Monthly. Columnist Michael Medved agrees: “Whatever their faults in ideology or substance, both Sanders and Trump seem genuine and sincere.” The disavowal of spin was also deemed responsible for the popularity of Obama and John McCain, among others.
We may think we want a candidate who throws caution to the wind and speaks the plain truth. Whether we really want that is another matter.
Candidates who flout the conventions and rituals of politics may seem refreshing, but when they go too far, they strike us as foolish and alienate supporters. In 2006, McCain had to walk back his condemnation of Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the Christian right as “agents of intolerance” in order to regain favor on the right, compromising his reputation for straight talk. Obama was hailed for refusing to throw his minister Jeremiah Wright under the bus after Wright’s sermons proved inflammatory — but soon after, when Wright kept making provocative remarks, Obama disowned him.
When we look closely, we see that completely “authentic” politicians don’t really exist. Displays of candor and spontaneity are frequently the product of planning and practice. In 1948, Truman drew raves for his speech at the Democratic convention, which he delivered in an extemporaneous style instead of from a script. Truman had been rehearsing in a studio with the Democrats’ broadcast coach, Leonard Reinsch. Four years later, Eisenhower won plaudits for a speech in which he declared that his “prepared remarks are thrown out the window.” That stunt was a gimmick, and his busy hive of speechwriters continued to furnish him remarks thereafter.
Despite the appearance of untutored directness, Trump and Sanders also put thought and calculation into their public images, each employing consultants and talking points. Candidates carefully craft their words and images. It’s simply the nature of politics.