Dancing with the Shutdown Spin that Brought You

When the shutdown is over and the victors are proclaimed, remember that narratives and messaging aren’t to thank. They were set to win before this war even started.

Spin is overrated. Alas, it’s never going away.

If there’s one thing that political scientists try, repeatedly, to convince the reporters and correspondents who cover politics of, it’s that fundamentals tend to matter a lot more than they think, and opinion manipulation matters less. Not none—but in many cases, not very much.

That’s why, for example, it was easy to predict that Republicans would lose the polling battle over the shutdown. If spin mattered, then that wouldn’t be the case; we would have to wait to see how well each side developed and delivered their “messaging” and their “narratives.” Oh, they do that; it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as structural elements, such as the advantage that a president has over congressional leaders in these sorts of situations or the fact that going into this particular battle, Democrats were united while Republicans were split.

When this is over and you read a behind-the-scenes story about how the White House won the shutdown battle because of the effectiveness of its war room or that the president is just a more appealing public politician than Senator Ted Cruz or House Speaker John Boehner, don’t take it too seriously. Odds are those factors were marginal at best.
Spin’s uselessness also explains why election results are as predictable as they are. Campaigns can matter—as can the candidates and all sorts of other unpredictable elements. But they only matter, generally speaking, at the margins. Take a year in which the fundamentals strongly favor one party—the incumbents in 1984 and 1996 or the out-party in 1980 or 2008—and there’s just no way that a series of clever TV ads, or perfectly executed campaign events, or anything else for that matter, is going to turn it around.

The same thing applies to the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act (see also Paul Krugman). Both sides have spent enormous resources trying to convince people to like or dislike Obamacare. In the end, it’s not going to matter. If the system works—if the exchanges have insurance plans that people want at good prices—then it’s going to be fine, even if people are still convinced that “Obamacare” is a death-panel government takeover. If no one wants to buy the insurance, or if cost controls don’t work, or if glitches persist to the extent that no one can buy in even if they want to … well, then it’s going to be a flop, even if people like the idea of it.

But spin might make a bit of a difference, at least in some circumstances. A better framing of the issue, or a more articulate politician, or a clever phrase—in a very close election, even a very small advantage could be what makes the difference. But from the news coverage, one would think that it’s the central battleground, not the outlying skirmishes. Indeed, Mark Leibovich’s recent This Town focused in large part on the portion of Washington that’s dedicated to manipulating the public opinion by manipulating what people hear in the mass media, implying that this entire process is central to what “This Town” does (as an excellent Ezra Klein interview gets at).

The problem? We’re almost certainly stuck with spin.

From the point of view of reporters, the spin war is just far more likely to make “news” than a more fundamentals-based approach. Some senator or some White House aide says something stupid? That’s a story—as is the reaction to what they say, and the speculation on the effects of the episode, and the profile of the poor shnook who caused the trouble, and the “what does it all mean” punditry after that—hey, there’s an entire week of stories, right there. Stories that seem to be news—after all, something happened, right? I should note, by the way, that I’m not asking for reporters to ignore the day-to-day events of a campaign, with front page after front page just repeating, for example: “The economy is good enough; the president will probably win re-election.” Just don’t ascribe importance to those events that they don’t warrant; a gaffe can be an entertaining story even without puffing it up into something more than it deserves.

Then there are the politicians, both in office and on the campaign trail. Here, the calculus is pretty basic. Even if they are perfectly aware that in some particular case the structural elements are far more important than the spin, in many of those cases the spin is the only thing these political actors can control. Over the long term, an incumbent president may be able to affect the economy or other structural factors. In the short term, however, it’s surely better to produce pretty pictures and nice sound bites than to not do it.

There’s also an institutional side to this. We hear way more about “messaging” because we read the news from reporters, and they talk to the people whose job it is to try to influence the stories. The people who do the work of governing just aren’t going to be as prominent—and, therefore, neither is the work that they get done. That is, we hear more about “narratives” than about how laws are being implemented because the people who tell us about the news talk to the people whose job it is to construct narratives.

This problem is likely one without a solution. The best we can probably do is to learn to be smart news consumers, realizing that there’s going to be a lot of fluff in there that just doesn’t matter very much. Oh, and to support the smart reporters who fight back against spin-based reporting altogether, and try to stick to the stuff that does matter.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties and elections.