Back to blog

How political leaders shape public opinion

See blog

Readers' comments

The Economist welcomes your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful of other readers. Review our comments policy.

Terence Hale

In contrast it is interesting how Michael Wolff (journalist) has influence public opinion. My analysis; he writes about the other him, the part where the fire burns in his mind. His assumptions to process the medical knowledge of incrimination render him questionable. As an advertising professional he should know the half of all advertising is fiction.

CaptainRon

The extremism from the right is ruining the ability to compromise, especially the Tea Party faction which implicitly refuse to compromise. I don't think the news services did us a great service by inviting the spin doctors to the debate.

guest-aaawwwmj in reply to CaptainRon

especially the Tea Party faction which implicitly refuse to compromise.
.
They kowtowed to the other Republicans by voting for the Tax Bill, which increases the
National Debt.
.
.
I'm so old....
.
(How old are you?)
.
I'm so old, that I remember when Tea Party members were fiscally conservative.
(rimshot)
.
NSFTL
Regards

sikko6

Kid Donald Trump is a global disaster. China and Russia are amassing troops to North Korean border. They are expecting Kid Trump will start nuclear war with another Kid Kim JungUn. It will be the start of WWIII. Congress should start impeaching him before he presses nuclear button. We are in very dangerous time.

Houshu

"How political leaders shape public opinion"
.
Circular tautology.
And to apply the definition in reverse: should a newspaper's editor board failed to shape its readership's opinion resign en masse?
hehehe...

Zoltán Koskovics

Eh.. well, either we accept that TE has forever lost its famed ability to spot the real issue and then go ahead and dispassionately disect it - then I must praise them for a well written article analysing a mere symptom of a confluence of larger problems.
Or I must assume they are deliberately trying to obfuscate the real issue. In which case, ya know, ts ts.
____
Ok, so the real problem here is that a crisis in the American republic is happening alongside a crisis of massive global belief system (that being liberal globalism). This twin crises cause polarization within the US and elsewhere in the US led Western world. This is the issue that would deserve a series of honest, candid and serious exposés.
_____
As for the substance of the article. That most people are fickle and conform to the opinions of those in positions of authority was always self evident, but by now it is of course a proven scientific fact. (Which is why whenever you are testing if you can sway a person's opinion with facts, you must be extremely careful to present a very meek picture to them - the moment you project any form of authority, even as thin as being a "sociologist" a surprising number of people will submit - humans are silly that way.)
That politicians know this and abuse this fact is older than the profession itself.
Of course all politicians also use lies to stake out positions they want followers to conform to.
To pretend that Trump has brought lying to a new level is an oft used trope in traditional media, but is in fact a complete and knowable lie in and of itself. Trump doesn't lie more than the average politician. The average politician lies 100% of the time when he displays his public face.
Of course Trump is VERY loud. But far from setting a record even in that category.
______
The funniest bit was where TE bemoans (and ascribes to Trump) the loss of credibility of traditional media. As if traditional media wasn't a collection of quasi authority figures attempting to have people conform to the POV supported by the editorial boards. C'mon TE - that was weak.
Traditional media is losing ground. That is clear. Why is it?
Well, why don't you examine the real issues: the twin crises of the American republic and globalist liberalism you'll find your answer there.
(Hint: when a religion sheds believers the priesthood loses credibility.)

Ed Zimmer in reply to Zoltán Koskovics

American republic vs liberal globalism? I can guess what you mean (especially when you you add "liberal" to "globalism"). Economically we're "global" - the advent of the internet simply eliminated any question of it. That same advent forever changed politics. Yes, in the old days people got their opinions from the traditional media - but there was COMPETITION among those media, holding them to some semblance of veracity. Today, That competition is gone and we're left with just noise.

Zoltán Koskovics in reply to Ed Zimmer

Just a clarification, there is no versus here. Basically everybody realizes that the US is going through a crisis that periodically happens to republics. It arises when enough citizens with votes feel that the system perverted itself. It is what's happening in America. This crises happens to republics with all belief systems, periodically and the nature of the belief system is immaterial to the fact that such crises happen.
But, here is the confluence bit: the currently dominant belief system happens to be liberal globalism. In the US as well as in other places.
The belief system is ALSO experiencing a crisis of its own. The two crises exacerbate each other in a cycle. (Vicious or virtuous is in the eye of the beholder).
Oh, and I definitely didn't mean to say anything about globalisation - which is a process, not a belief system.

CaptainRon in reply to Zoltán Koskovics

The problem is that the crisis in confidence is being perpetrated by those with the real power to create a split that keeps them in power. Trump ran to "drain the swamp" where its been clear that he is a part of that elite that already controls the legislation that will pass. It was made worse by Citizens United which legalized bribery of our elected officials and did away with any transparency in the funding of campaigns. To figure out what will pass you simply need to look at how it effects those elite. It is for that reason that the tax plan which is opposed by 75% of the people is able to pass and that attempts to do away with loopholes in background checks for weapons sales can't even get a vote. The US needs to dump the current system and make all elections federally funded. This would also wipe out the incumbent fundraising advantage and make sure that our elected officials are accountable to the people and not merely those who give a lion's sum to their campaigns.

Zoltán Koskovics in reply to CaptainRon

Isn't it always so that when this particular republican (very definitely lower case "r") happens the elites obfuscate?
But genuine disruptors always appear. They can get elected in such a climate - and will get elected.
Based on how much hate is directed at Trump from all corners of the establishment I personally assume that he is the real deal (potentially a weak, unstable, overemotional version of the real deal). But regardless, this is where trends and forces take over. The crisis comes to fruition and is then resolved.
Often the resolution entails a lot of violence. But that is not inevitable.
It is inevitable that at the height of the crisis nobody knows whom to trust.
The tax plan is a gamble. It will both increase growth and the debt. Whichever ever is increased faster will shape the resolution of the crisis and the way it happens. If the debt spirals out of control that leads to a hard resolution - a period of chaos and violence resulting in the utter destruction of the current elites. If the economy grows fast enough that portion of the current elites that manages to divert MOST of that growth towards the general population will obtain much political credibility and the opportunity to shape the way the system is reformed.

MASTER_OF_UNIVERSE

The Western Empire is stacked to the roof with political parties that routinely engage in Ballot Box Stuffing & Systemic Voter Fraud in order to retain power. Moreover, the MSM shapes public opinion through Central Intelligence Agency Control Fraud whereby political opposition is denied access outright. Democracy is NOT served at the hands of the state which operates the dictatorship at the behest of their political masters in the Too-BIG-to-Fail, Nail, or Jail, Wall Street Investment Banks & Bank Holding Companies.

MOU

jouris in reply to MASTER_OF_UNIVERSE

Once upon a time, editors of fiction required some level of relationship to reality before they would buy, and publish, something. Today, thanks to the Internet, anybody can publish anything. So why are you using this venue to air fantasies from your alternate reality?

Like Cocaine Cowboys(tm) [see CC documentary via Google] politicians need back up alternate routes/plans
just in case their other covert antics get exposed in the light of day via Internet or 'social/anti-social' media. Clearly, you understand why CBs use plunge protection in Finance. Politics is the same thing except 'plunge protection' is called 'false flag operations' in contradistinction. Nixon's Watergate is a prototypical example.

MOU

Langosta

The premise of this article is that democracy has failed, at least temporarily, in its purpose of allowing Americans to choose the optimal leader. I believe the reverse, which is that Trump IS the optimal leader, and that Americans have chosen wisely. Trump had to defeat 15 Republican candidates in the primaries, then defeat Ms. Clinton who out-spent and out-organized him by an order of magnitude. The people did not make this decision lightly. They had over a year (From July 2015 to November 2016) to size up the candidates and make their decision. They gave Trump an electoral vote majority after careful consideration. So why is the people's decision resented by so many? It is because there is a Great Divide between the two governing groups:
.
The first group is the Global Crony Capitalists on the center-left. These people believe in benevolent worldwide government impose on the people by the elites of government, academia, and big business, with government being the senior partner. This is the group that makes up the "establishment" wings of most European parties, as well as our Republicans and Democrats in the USA.
.
This group has been successfully challenged, for the first time since Ronald Reagan, by a group of Americans who believe that the USA does not prosper to its fullest potential when governed by globalist-minded elitists from government, academia, and big business. We elected an outsider (one of the few American presidents never to have held prior elective office) to get these people out of our hair. We who voted for Trump do not want open borders for unfettered immigration, or transfer of our jobs and wealth overseas. We want public money to fund the military, but not excessive civilian bureaucracies. We follow Trump's view that the world should be "a constellation of shining nations" rather than a supranational government of unelected bureacrats with self-serving agendas to enrich themselves, while using their unelected positions to foist leftwing politics on captive nations.
.
That is the division over Trump. He did not cause it, but merely reflects it. The division will not be papered over. One side or the other has to prevail at the ballot box until the other side is defeated and removed from power. This may take several elections to decides, but once it is decided, it will mold politics for much of the rest of this century. The stakes are high, and thus both sides are fighting ferociously to do all they can to make sure their side prevails.

Scott H Johnson in reply to Langosta

It is possible that you are not correct in attributing intention on the part of anyone voting for trump. That this urge for change was anything more than dissatisfaction looking for an explanation of itself with no conscious thought given to where it may lead. Now that we are beginning to see where America may be headed we can move away from imaginary and see what actually happens to a country of dogs eating dogs.
The idea that people may turn away from the smallness of American "leadership" probably doesn't fit the republican assumptions of them and us. And that's fine. Enjoy the isolation and the buzz you get from feeling yourself powerful.

CaptainRon in reply to Langosta

There's a sucker born every minute. If you believe that Trump is not a part of the elite establishment that you rail against, you didn't pay attention to the tax bill and the numerous previous times he tried to give himself a massive tax break along with his brethren. Good luck with that drain the swamp thing.

wmq516 in reply to Langosta

The notion "elect" is overrated when Americans are brainwashed with a narrow spectrum of political thought processes and handed by the illusion of choice.

In fact, people have made their decisions very lightly and blindly. If you are not deaf or blind, you will hear or see something like "at least he[Trump] is not a Democrat or Hillary". It epitomizes the fact that Americans, especially Republicans, vote party line (or shall I say, sometimes, skin color and gender), with little regard towards any thought process beyond K-6 level.

Looking around at the level of disrespect towards facts and the lack of intellectual engagement in discourses during the election even including primary/presidential debates (which is filled with finger pointing and no intellectual rigor), you will know that people do not spend a year sizing up the candidates at all, nor does any election year offer people a good avenue to seriously engage in a discussion to move this country forward.

Langosta in reply to wmq516

The spectrum is not narrow. I was just flipping back and forth between MSNBC (Rachel Maddow) and FOX NEWS (Sean Hannity). They might as well have been shows from different universes. MSNBC was talking about how the Bannon Book is going to nail the lid in the coffin for Trump's family, while FOX was talking up the two new DOJ investigations into Ms. Clinton's shenanigans. The information from the full spectrum is there for anybody who wants to look for it. And, yes, most people do put a lot of thought into their votes. Not all, but most.

wmq516 in reply to Langosta

That's the problem. It's not even a spectrum. American public is not exposed to a plethora of ideas. Instead, it's an intellectual bipolar.
The public discourse is plagued by American exceptionalism. Other countries success is not worth considering, simply because one of the few options below -- "they are too small", "they are communist", "they don't have black and brown people", "it's socialism!", "competition creates quality", "government is evil", "tax!", "government takes away your freedom", "corporations create jobs" or simply the emptiest notion "America is different". After all, American politics is in fact extremely ideological and dogmatic.
The truth is people *do not want to* look for the information or ideas in your so-called "the full spectrum". Sure, free speech and intellectual freedom have created a lot ideas but it becomes empty when the two-party system is so ineffective that their platform and discourse are defined in terms of how they are not the other party, and that they virtually cannot agree on anything. The country has no long-term strategic goal. The political process is largely finger-pointing, party loyalty and dominated by media that represent the two extremities. Namely, the whole thing is just two herds. Once you are in a herd, you are reluctant to change and seek out alternative ideas simply because the fact that you have your herd leader to celebrate and the other herd to point finger at. And if you grow up in this ecology, you will just be like a frog sitting at the bottom of a well thinking the sky is that big.
So there are ideas, and of course there are always a spectrum out there that anybody can access. But if the public are not encouraged to seek out, it becomes an empty notion and this country effectively does not have it. By contrast, the public mind is constantly contaminated by dogma.
If the only two parties cannot even agree on anything, how are you going to justify they are going to "look for it [alternative ideas]". If they do not look for it, how are you going to justify there is an actual spectrum?

Langosta in reply to wmq516

You have a point. A year or so ago somebody here asked, "How do Americans define 'communism?'".
.
I replied, "Communism in America is when a poor person receives healthcare."
.
I do think things are working well, even though we bat policies around like political ping pong balls. For example, Obamacare was passed by Democrats without a single Republican vote. 70% of it is still on the books and will never be repealed. The positive 70% survived the Republicans. Likewise, we are still living in the afterglow of Ronald Reagan's economic policies, even though two two-term Democratic presidents have come and gone.
.
For all the overblown political propaganda from both sides, Americans are a pragmatic people. We do the right thing (as Winston Churchill famously said) after all other options have been exhausted.

Barracuda008

I do not believe the US political leaders are able to shape public opinion but the combination of extremely bad education, partisan media and educators that has created a huge pool of mindless political fanatics unable to see reason or facts.
Just an example of how brainless are both Republican (that believe in strong government) and Democrats (that want socialist healthcare).
In 2003, President George W. Bush pushed through a massive expansion of socialized medicine with Medicare Part D, whose price tag — $1.1 trillion over the next decade — dwarfs most estimates of Obamacare’s projected costs.
For his part, the farcical Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama nearly tripled deployments to Afghanistan, and he’s lately claimed the power to kill American citizens with drone strikes. Both presidents relentlessly expanded federal power at home and abroad.
Alas, political tribalism warps people’s perceptions of basic reality, convincing partisans they’re entitled to their own facts. That’s nothing new and the partisan non-objective media and educational system are the cause of this lack of brain in the fans of BOTH parties.
In 2004, psychologist Drew Westen took a look at the partisan mind through an MRI scanner. He presented 15 “strong Democrats” and 15 “strong Republicans” with negative statements about their favored candidates and watched which parts of their brains lit up.
“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” Dr. Westen reported.
he tendency toward irrational group loyalties may have gotten hardwired in because it served us well during the long period man developed as a hunter-gatherer living in small tribes.
Maybe so, but we’re supposed to be the ape that reasons. The threat presented by big government hardly turns on whether the federal juggernaut’s currently painted red or blue. Even if you’re convinced one tribe is far worse than the other, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that political power regularly changes hands. Nothing of this is caused by political leaders they just take advantage of the huge amount of brainless available

Langosta in reply to Barracuda008

That's an interesting and very true comment. "W" Bush acted like a Democrat in expanding Medicare, while Obama acted like a Republican in bailing out the banks and continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I voted for "W" and Obama, though in retrospect I believe Obama was the better president. I perceived Mitt Romney to be a dishonest businessperson and would never have voted for him.Obama reminded me of my good Democrat neighbors back in Chicago, so I voted for him on the basis of likability plus his positive policies. Likewise, "W" though imperfect, was a better man than Al Gore or John Kerry. In restrospect, I see Bill Clinton as a competent president, although his personal sleaziness has justifiably made himself and Ms. Clinton look smaller than life.
.
With few exceptions, I do believe we have acted wisely for the most part in electing the right presidents and congresses that were most effective for their times. I judge the people to be wise in choosing the most optimal leaders.

Barracuda008 in reply to Langosta

I have made your analysis many times reaching a similar conclusion to you. However, the big picture is that having 200 million of candidates the American have had a dual choice between a bad one and a worse one. However, at least the USA is a democracy and not like the partitocracies that abound around Europe, where political leaders are not chosen by the people and for the people

Ed Zimmer in reply to Barracuda008

How can you possibly believe the USA is a "democracy"? Do you believe that what YOU think matters to ANY politician? Today money controls and that money is in the hands of of 0.1% (soon to become the 0.01%). Every elected official is bought and paid for by one or more of these monied interests! To think otherwise, you'd have to believe in one of two fairytales: that politicians don't follow their dominant donors' wishes or that they don't care about getting re-elected. And to believe that politicians don't shape public opinion you'd have to believe that advertising doesn't work. Our current POTUS proves it - say anything enough times with enough force (true or false) and it will be believed.

Barracuda008 in reply to Ed Zimmer

YES of course is a democracy
a) Can people elect a representant that will care for what he believes are your interests? YES
b) Can people remove it if he does not perform to the satisfaction of the majority? YES
c) Did the majority rules but not to the exclusion of the minorities rights? YES
d) Are the basic human rights protected by the rule of law against actions by the government? YES
e) Are contracts and agreements respected and enforced? YES

What you wrote is an example of farcical conspiracy theory. Of course that the US federal and state government work more to the interest of the donors, corporations and lobbies.No doubt about it. What is unproven is that this has been to the detriment of the people (that have full power to remove them) Obviously. donors, corporations and lobbies have benefited enormously, but believe me compared with Europe (with few exceptions) the USA is a real democracy

Ed Zimmer in reply to Barracuda008

I find a) & b) arguable. I fully agree with your last 3 - but they're judicial, not legislative (and probably the reason the Supreme Court has resisted limiting political money). So I probably should have questioned whether we have a legislative democracy.

Langosta in reply to Ed Zimmer

Donor money perhaps motivates most things that happen in government. Myrepresentatives in government have told me that. However, donor money is not infallible. Jeb! Bush, the Donor's favorite Republican candidate, spent $100,000,000 on advertisements in the 2016 presidential primaries, and ended up with 3 out of the more than 1,000 delegates he would have needed to be nominated. Ms. Clinton spent $1.6 billion raised from many donor interests and lost the general election. This year the Republicans spent millions trying to get Alabama Senator Luther Strange returned to office, and failed. If the people are really and truly against a candidate, donor money is not in itself enough to get a candidate returned to office.
.
In the recent Republican tax bill, the real estate lobbyists lobbied like crazy to block the Republican curtailment of deductions for real estate and utterly failed. It's probably true that the donors succeed in tine-tuning the technicalities of the law that the people don't know about. On more important issues that are widely followed by the public they have less success.

Ed Zimmer in reply to Langosta

Yes, I can agree that money can be overridden on important (or maybe "popular" would be the better term) issues. But that doesn't give me much comfort in our "democracy". I see so many crucial issues accelerating to a head and feel powerless to wield any influence. This next crisis is shaping up to be a doozy with no tenable solution once it hits.

Barracuda008 in reply to Ed Zimmer

All of them are arguable. Because only on democracy you can argue if you are on it. If you ask me the MAIN structural problem of US democracy is that the 9 unelected, undemocratic Supreme judges are the one making the laws. Possible the only democratic country were this happen

Langosta in reply to Barracuda008

The ability of "judges to make the law" bothers me, too. It is annoying, no matter what your political view, that any one of the 3,000 or so Federal judges can invalidate a law of Congress or executive order of the President. The Supreme Court rolled back part of Obamacare by ruling that states had the right to refuse the Medicare expansion. SCOTUS came within one vote of ruling that the individual mandate was unconstitutional.
.
However, we inherited this concept of "judicial review" from the British when we became independent in 1783. It seems strange that we would inherit this concept from the British, whose then had a powerful monarchy, but that is how it happened. Our Federalist Party anchored the principle to American law in "Marbury vs. Madison."
.
Judges will inevitably be called on to interpret the law, because many laws are written hurriedly and contain commissions and contradictions that the courts must sort out through litigation. When critics of a law complain that it has "8,000" pages, what they mean is that the law itself may have 100 pages, but there are 7,900 pages of judicial interpretation tack on to it by the courts.
.
IMO one way to make the courts less imperious would be to allow Congress to vacate any court decision by a two-thirds vote. But that runs the risk of politicizing the law, and so far we have not been willing to accept such a risk.

Ed Zimmer in reply to Langosta

No I don't know when or what the next crisis will be - only that by continuing to use the same old macroeconomic practices, there will be one. And with the federal debt we're building (IMO, needlessly), it will take a lot more than 2-3 QEs to bail us out of it. Recent government actions - Fed raising interest rates to fight inflation when the trendline is deflationary - cutting corporate tax rates to create jobs (which, although great for stock market, will likely do the opposite for jobs) - probably bring that crisis point closer.

CaptainRon in reply to Barracuda008

Judges don't make laws, they interpret the law. They are nominated by the President and approved by the elected Senate. Making them accountable to the political winds of the moment by putting them up for election would ruin any independence they have. For example in Iowa judges who voted unanimously to determine that prohibiting gay marriage is in opposition with the 14th amendment equal protection clause were targeted to be voted out of office by the extreme right who were not interested in protecting the rights of a minority. Justice should be about what is right and what is legal, not what is popular.

Langosta in reply to Ed Zimmer

I believe there will be a severe crisis that will test the viability of our economic, societal, and political systems the way the Great Depression of 1929-1940 and the Great Recession of 2008-2009 did. I'm guessing that it will be the huge pile-up of unpayable national debt, combined with the lengthening actuarial tables that extend life past 90 that will cause us to do a fundamental rethinking of our values. I think we'll be able to postpone it for 40 years before it hits us full in the face. I am also glad that the actuarial tables show that I have less than 1% probability of being alive in 40 years to worry about it. I will wish my children and grandchildren all success in thinking it through and reaching correct solutions.

Ed Zimmer in reply to Langosta

Langosta: I think we now know where the next crisis will be coming from - courtesy of WT Economist in his comment to the latest Buttonwood article ("Where did inflation go?"). Seems both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are raising their DTI (debt-to-income ratio) to 50% - to get more millenials to buy more homes - with mortgages they won't be able to repay - setting up another big bank bail-out - which, with existing debt, will likely require much more than 3-4 QEs this time around. The bright spot is that maybe this will be enough of a kick to finally bring our macroeconomic practices into this century.

Barracuda008 in reply to AvineshS

Yes many OECD countries have it and in very few if any have been a success (in term of BOTH quality and costs)
Why?
Isn’t it obvious, you ask, that government can supply medical care more fairly and less expensively than the selfish profit-oriented free market? Let us remind ourselves that in the Soviet Union, UK, Spain, Sweden, Argentina, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Italy, (many others have a mixed system) the road to medical-care hell was paved with the same good intentions.
When medical services are nationalized by a socialist government. Gradually, small private medical practices/hospital disappeared and a network of big, factory-like hospitals and out-patient clinics are established all around the country. Everyone will be registered in both out-patient clinics and hospitals according to their government-assigned residence. Patient choice was completely taken away by the State, which took full responsibility for centrally planning each individual’s medical expenses and health care.
With the elimination of private expenditures for health services, the form and amount of medical care were now dependent upon the budgetary priorities of the State. All members of the medical industry were put on low fixed monthly salaries and were mandated to examine and treat an overwhelming daily quota of patients. Medical research became dependent upon inadequate annual budgetary allocations from the government. Doctors’ and nurses’ incomes no longer depended on their professional skills or the number of patients they treated. Total unionization of the medical profession made it practically impossible for anyone to be fired. Without markets and prices determining the value and availability of health care, the government imposed a rationing system for medical services and pharmaceutical products.
Specialized services (mammograms, ultrasounds, and so forth) were available only in a few select hospitals where the doctors were supposed to treat patients as well as participate in research.
Plus many other disadvantages that will take longer to explain.
It is easy to say that the present system is imperfect and a radical change will make it perfect in a relatively short period of time. But there are always lessons from history from which to learn. Sometimes, your neighbor’s history warns you which path never to follow.