Spinning out of control:
What happened to modern political rhetoric
By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan
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Spinsanity is dedicated to tracking and analyzing the increasingly pervasive form of spin that we believe is corroding American political discourse. Each week we will look at the harmful techniques some pundits and politicians use to advance their opinions. In this backgrounder, however, we want to explain the theory behind our analysis - about the development of spin, its incorporation into politics and the new, more sophisticated form used with disturbing frequency today.
The origins of spin
Edward Bernays is generally credited with inventing the modern discipline of public relations (PR) in the early 1900s. Bernays sought to define a scientific methodology to shape public perceptions of organizations or individuals. He drew on the techniques of then-emerging social sciences, especially psychology, to develop methods of creating favorable impressions and appealing to irrational impulses (though, to his credit, he later backed away from these).
Bernays's theories were put to increasing use throughout the first half of the twentieth century. During World Wars I and II, government organizations dedicated to promoting the wars employed early PR specialists. By the 1950s, corporations began to employ practitioners of a modernizing PR discipline to influence public opinion.
Institutionalized PR in politics
By the 1960s, as media coverage played an increasingly important role in politics and institutions like political parties and unions became less effective at mobilizing the public, politicians and political organizations began using the techniques of PR to influence public opinion. First, beginning with President Kennedy's administration, the White House began employing public relations specialists to deal with the press and institutionalized a polling operation. Congress and the parties followed the lead of the executive branch, as did interest groups and a new breed of policy-oriented think tanks during the 1970s. By the 1990s, both President Clinton and the Republican leadership were making unprecedented use of polling and regularly applying it in day-to-day tactical decisions. Opinion leadership is now the name of the game in Washington.
Why did this happen? In short, it allows politicians, parties and political organizations to get their way. Although pandering to the public is not rare, it is far more common for political actors to attempt to change or influence political opinion for policy reasons. Politicians and political groups have found that altering public opinion can be the most effective way to reduce the cost of pursuing their own policy preferences (which often diverge from those of the public) and increase their own likelihood of success.
Partially as a result of this trend, the political media now focuses primarily on tactics, rather than policy detail. Pundits are the primary analysts of tactics. Created by the need to fill time on 24/7 cable news networks and a celebrity-focused culture, these political talking heads populate the op-ed pages of major newspapers, the ranks of think tank experts and the studios of political talk shows. Their reach and influence has grown tremendously in recent years.
The breaking point
Research shows that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the public's policy preferences are surprisingly stable on most policy issues. It's not easy to change the American people's mind on the merits or drawbacks of a particular policy. It is much easier - and therefore extremely common - for political actors to use what is called "framing". Instead of simply offering supporting facts or arguments, political actors attempt to define the debate itself to emphasize a particular set of attitudes. For example, in the debate over campaign finance reform, one side frames the issue as corruption versus reform, and the other as free speech versus restrictions on speech.
In their most twisted form, these arguments become sub-rational and seek to directly appeal to irrational or unconscious perceptions and attitudes. This is called "priming". Using carefully crafted language, political actors are able to present their irrational claims as if they are actually rational. This type of argument seeks to break old associations and create new ones; attacks weakened or twisted versions of the opposing side's argument; or even simply makes up "facts" and establishes them in the discourse. This last effect is magnified by the way the mass media tends to echo itself: what one columnist paraphrases on Monday is reported by others as fact on Tuesday and quotation on Wednesday. In this way, "facts" can arise out of nothing more than repetition.
This rhetoric is now used widely in politics. Politicians use it, of course, as well as political organizations like parties and interest groups. But perhaps the most pervasive use comes from pundits and talk radio hosts, who employ these tactics on a regular basis.
Examples can be found on both ends of the political spectrum. Liberals often argue that the right wants to take away the rights of women, minorities, or homosexuals; is racist, sexist or homophobic; or wants to create an authoritarian or theocratic state. Conservative priming generally focuses on appealing to attitudes of resentment toward liberal elitism, double standards, reverse racism and anti-white/male/heterosexual bias, although anti-Clinton/Gore priming was often even broader and more general.
What's new about this
Of course, politics has always had slanted or irrational arguments; we hold no nostalgia for some imagined golden age of universally dignified and rational political debate. However, we believe American political discourse is currently being very seriously distorted in a more pernicious way. The sophistication of irrationalism is unprecedented; the practice of systematically designing a set of supposedly impartial facts to support previous decisions or actions has never been more pervasive; and the echo chamber effect of modern political journalism metastasizes subrational spin into national political issues. People express frustration with spin frequently, but because of the complexity of the rhetorical tactics, the specifics of how spin works are left unconsidered. As a result, the impact on the discourse is poorly understood.
The importance of public reason
As Phil Agre has suggested in a penetrating essay for his Red Rock Eater newsletter, "American political culture faces a crisis of public reason." In a modern democratic society, it is of vital importance that powerholders give reasons for their actions and be accountable for them. These arguments should be rational, meaning that they are conducted in a logical manner. Moreover, they should be actual debates, based on established facts, that use logic to make opposing arguments, rather than emotional associations or innuendo.
The crisis we face today is that this rhetoric - what Agre calls "the new jargon" - appears to satisfy the norms of public reason, but in fact is profoundly corrupting of them. "Facts" are manufactured to justify and strengthen perceptions of reality; subrational argument appears to be rational, but is impossible to argue against rationally. The use of this kind of language destroys not only the boundaries of reasonable debate, but public confidence in political discourse itself. Our political culture is now made up of people beating the public over the head with ever-larger and more sophisticated rhetorical bludgeons.
Despite widespread frustration with "spin", no organization or individual has systematically examined it to our satisfaction. Our website is therefore dedicated to helping pull apart the rhetoric and prove the pervasiveness of manufactured pseudo-reason. We look directly at speeches, articles, talk show transcripts and press releases, and analyze the language to show just how carefully engineered they are. We also demonstrate how these messages are propagated through the media echo chamber. Our goal is to demonstrate that our analysis of the state of the discourse is correct and to provide citizens with the tools to critically evaluate spin. Ultimately, we hope that our work helps make possible democratic and civic renewal.
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