Are Voters Easily Duped? What David Greenberg Thinks
Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University and the author of several books including, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. His most recent book is the widely acclaimed (and well-timed) Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, which was published just a few months before Donald Trump announced he was running for president. In this wide-ranging interview Professor Greenberg discusses what spin is and why he generally has confidence in the public’s ability to see through it. Naturally, we asked if he's reconsidered his views in light of what's happened this election season. He provides his nuanced answer below. But first, we wanted to know what exactly spin is.
RICK SHENKMAN: Most people seem offended by spin. You suggest that spin is neutral, meaning that it can be put to both positive and negative uses. What are the best examples of spin, both positive and negative, that you think we need to know about?
DAVID GREENBERG: Many of the words we have for advocacy or persuasion begin with a neutral valence but, owing to our distrust of the practice, take on a more ominous meaning. Even propaganda initially was a neutral term, originating with the Catholic Church, but after World War I it became associated with deception or storylines forced upon an unwitting public. (Steven Pinker calls this phenomenon the “euphemism treadmill”: euphemisms coined to describe unsavory things eventually acquire negative associations, requiring the invention of still newer terms.) The term spin originally had—and, I would argue, still has—a neutral and even playful sense. Unlike propaganda, it implies that the audience is wise to what’s going on and is even in on the game. Properly understood, I think, it implies not lying but an effort to put the best face on something while stopping short of lying.
In that sense, it can be used for good or for ill. (So, for that matter, can lying.) As I say in the book, spin is used for misleading, but it’s also used for leading. The book isn’t a compendium of examples of spin, but it offers plenty of examples. Whether they’re “positive” or “negative” depends on how we judge the policies: If you think World War II was a just war, you probably believe that FDR’s public appeals to win support for intervention were an honorable use of spin. But he did spin. In one 1940 campaign speech, he told the crowd, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” His speechwriter Sam Rosenman asked why he omitted the phrase “except in case of attack,” which he usually said. “If we’re attacked,” FDR said with a smile, “it’s no longer a foreign war.” On the other hand, if you think the Iraq War was a terrible blunder, you look at Bush’s spin—saying, for example, that the U.S. couldn’t wait for a “smoking gun” that turned out to be a “mushroom cloud”—and see a first-class deception.
You make a point of noting many times that spin didn’t matter to the outcome of many major events, not the least of which was the American public’s increasing hostility to Germany in 1915 after the Kaiser’s submarines began sinking civilian ships, including our own. You also seem to find this reassuring. But can’t an awful lot of damage be done by a president during the period the public is under his spell? The truth may out in the end but before it does wars may be started and tens of thousands can die, as happened during the period of the Iraq War.
I am not sure that we were under Bush’s spell. Public opinion polling suggests that from very soon after September 11th, Americans were willing if not eager to go to war against Saddam Hussein. They were in a vengeful mood, and there was a desire to reassert American primacy on the world stage. A lot of people have what I think is a naïve notion that the public is innately wholesome and peace-loving, and that it’s only devious presidents who deceive us into going to war. But why would presidents urge the country to go to war? Usually not because they just want to sacrifice their citizens’ lives. Either they think it’s in the national interest, in which case they’re doing the honorable thing; or maybe, if they’re really cynical, they think it will be politically popular, in which case the public isn’t so peace-loving after all.
To the larger point: if you look throughout American history, the public is much less easily manipulated than conventional wisdom would suggest. Presidents often face great opposition in trying to achieve things, whether on the world stage or at home. You see this from Wilson and the League of Nations to Obama and his domestic agenda. The public doesn’t usually just go along with the president as if we’re under a spell.
Do you think voters care about the truth? We know they say they do, but often they seem to go for candidates who feed them lies and exploit their myths.
People have different conceptions of what constitutes truth in the political domain. It’s not as easy to pin down as we like to think. Most political conflict centers not on which facts are true or false—although sometimes, as we’ve seen with issues like evolution and global warming and vaccines, many of us do subscribe to falsehoods—but on how much weight or priority to give to different facts, and on how to interpret them. Ultimately, our differences are usually about values. I’m sure you know the aphorism that’s attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (but was actually coined in a slightly different form by Bernard Baruch): that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts. The thing is, determining which facts are relevant or important is part of the challenge—and part of the disagreement
There’s another wonderful quote I came across in my research from Eric Hoffer, who wrote The True Believer. He says, “Propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already ‘know.’ ” When we respond to politicians’ playing upon myths or stereotypes, it’s usually because we already put stock in those ideas. And people have lots of reasons, individually and collectively, for believing in illusions or myths.
We know that voters are susceptible to spin even if they aren’t plastic in the hands of manipulative politicians, as some critics (like Walter Lippmann) have worried. But are they at a greater disadvantage now that the gatekeepers have disappeared and are more on their own?
I do worry about the weakening influence of gatekeeping institutions (though I don’t agree that they’ve disappeared). The so-called mainstream media aren’t perfect by a long shot, and sometimes when they mistake balance for objectivity, their insistence on not taking sides in political disputes can amount to journalistic lapses. But at their best, they’re sources of information that can be trusted by readers or audiences across the political spectrum. Society needs some institutions like this—institutions committed not to political advocacy but to information gathering and non-partisan analysis. These institutions still exist, but increasingly we’re all getting a great deal of our news and information from either partisan media or social media. This contributes to political polarization, making it harder for either citizens or politicians to find the grounds for common agreement on which—as Walter Lippmann said—political actions depends.
Has Donald Trump’s popularity made you reconsider your views in any way?
Whenever the political winds blow in a direction I don’t like, I ask myself if I’m too optimistic about the capacities of the American public. But I also try to ask myself: Is it that people are being fooled by, say, Trump? Or do they like him for legitimate reasons that I simply don’t share? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m reluctant to set myself up as the person in possession of the truth and look down on those I disagree with politically as captive to falsehoods.
None of which is to suggest that Trump hasn’t prompted new thinking on my part. He definitely has. On my book tour this spring, I’ve gotten tons of questions about Trump, and it’s forced me to think about his appeal and his use of the media to advance himself. But we don’t know how this movie ends. If Trump gets walloped in the fall, we may look back on him as little more than Ross Perot on steroids. If he’s elected, we’ll have to examine closely whether that was because of the economic condition of the old Reagan Democrats, or because of racial resentments, or because of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate, or other reasons. And maybe he’ll lose but will still have altered the political landscape, by changing the rules of what can and cannot be said. As a historian, though, I feel a need to suspend judgment for now as to the real meaning of Trump’s success, such as it is.
What’s the reason you decided to begin with TR rather than with earlier presidents, all of whom, to one degree or another, indulged in spin? Grover Cleveland, for example, claimed he was on a seaside vacation when he was actually staging a recovery from a secret operation for cancer. To cover up his operation he had his spokesman tell flagrant whoppers. Was that spin by your definition or something else?
I make a point of saying in the book that all presidents tried to shape their images and messages. So, certainly, Cleveland’s cover-up of his mouth cancer can fairly be called an act of spin. But the book isn’t just a catalogue of instances of spin; it’s a history of the development of the institutional machinery that presidents now have at their disposal for image management.
In the book, I do have a little section that briefly discusses some of the innovations of McKinley, Cleveland, and TR’s other immediate predecessors. But Roosevelt matters most because he’s the first president to try to turn the office into a seat of activism. To do that he needs to mobilize public opinion, and to reach the public he needs to devise or develop a whole new set of tools and techniques, from publicity stunts to press conferences to speaking tours. TR is focused, as his predecessors aren’t, on constantly shaping the next day’s news stories, on using the newspapers and other media to set the agenda and accomplish his political goals. (The Atlantic ran an excerpt about some of these innovations.)
On page 385 you suggest that LBJ paid a lot of attention to polls “so he could build support for his policies through a firmer grasp of the public’s thinking.” This sounds like a positive. But in the very next sentence you show he used the polls in fact to manipulate voters through the selective release of polling data (positive polls on Vietnam got released; negative ones did not). This suggests that voters always need to be on guard lest they be taken in. Yet you seem to suggest toward the end of the book that it's reassuring to know that presidents going back to TR, if not earlier, were guilty of spinning the press. Why do you find it reassuring?
What’s reassuring—if that’s the right word—is that this isn’t some brand-new feature of our politics with which the public is ill prepared to cope. The fact that presidents have always spun, and that our democracy has not only survived but by and large thrived, should put in perspective the fears that modern mass media are furnishing presidents with tools too powerful for mere citizens to resist.
But none of that suggests that we should be complacent or uncritical in how we view presidential messaging. On the contrary. I mentioned earlier that the book is an intellectual history as well as a political one. Besides the stories of presidents and their aides, it tells the stories of writers, critics and intellectuals who, over the decades, observed the development of the spin machine and tried to explain it to the public—some with high hopes for democracy, some with overwrought pessimism, and some with hard-headed realism. It’s the last group that I think got it right, those who said we are never going to eliminate spin (or whatever it was called in previous eras), but we should instead try to inculcate a discerning sensibility among the electorate.