Thursday, January 10, 2019

Persuasion is Hard

Trump's speech on the border wall had no effect on opinion polls. Which is as you would expect, since all the evidence suggests that presidential speeches never have any effect on what people believe. Matt Yglesias:
High-profile presidential addresses simply fail to influence public opinion.

. . . a string of Oval Office addressed by Ronald Reagan failed to move the needle on voters’ view of providing aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, George W. Bush’s congressional address on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform left opinion flat, and George H.W. Bush’s speech defending his bipartisan congressional budget deal did nothing to change views.

Indeed, the general tendency is for public opinion to move in the opposite direction from the president’s preferences — a regulatory model that’s known as the thermostatic model of public opinion.

Reagan was an influential president because public opinion became very conservative in the late 1970s, leading to election results in 1980 that allowed him to govern effectively while the strong economic rebound in 1983-’84 helped him secure a landslide reelection bid. But according to Edwards, “surveys of public opinion have found that support for regulatory programs and spending on health care, welfare, urban problems, education, environmental protection and aid to minorities increased rather than decreased during Reagan’s tenure,” while support for higher military spending fell.

The longer he stayed in office, in other words, the less the public worried that liberals were out of control and the more they worried that traditional liberal priorities were being neglected.
FDR gave a bunch of speeches and fireside chats in 1939-1941 arguing for American involvement in World War II, but they had almost no effect. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and suddenly everyone wanted war. Everything Roosevelt said turned out to be true – the US was eventually forced into the war, we did eventually have to spend a huge amount of money and create an enormous military, it would have been better if we had done more to get ready sooner – but nobody wanted to hear it until the bombs started falling on Hawaii.


David said...

I'm not sure that FDR's push for war preparation, including his speeches and fireside chats, had almost no effect, especially since, so far as I know, FDR wasn't pushing outright entry. He called for preparation, and material support for the enemies of the Axis, and he got them. The US actually began its military buildup in 1940, especially with the Two-Ocean Navy Act and the Selective Service Act. Both of these represented huge changes in American life, and set the stage for the creation of the wartime army and navy. Yes, the coalition supporting the buildup I'm sure had many motives aside from presidential eloquence, and the isolationists remained a presence until Pearl Harbor.

A respected, popular president who makes an eloquent plea for something he's committed to, can often get what he wants, even without shifting long-term public opinion. Reagan, after all, got the military buildup he wanted.

Trump, of course, is neither respected nor eloquent, and hasn't been able to build popularity beyond his base (which admittedly, is more than a third of the country, but shows no sign of expanding beyond a ceiling of about 40%).

John said...

FDR got a lot from Congress, but not because public opinion supported entry into the war.

The Billion Dollar Navy bill is a great example, passed by a coalition that included allies of Roosevelt's who assumed we would eventually be drawn in to the war, leftists who wanted more shipyard jobs, and a couple of isolationists who thought a bigger Navy was a way to stay out of the war.

My understanding is that public opinion remained firmly opposed to entering the war and skeptical of all preparations until December, 1941.

David said...

So, yes, presidential eloquence doesn't by itself automatically change public opinion--though, again, I don't know of an instance where FDR pushed entry in a speech or chat, as opposed to buildup. Entry was, of course, what he wanted, but he didn't make a speech or chat for it that I know of. The "no entry, no effect" argument leaves me unconvinced.

And, yes, as I said, the Congressional coalition supporting buildup had many motives. That is virtually always the case. Did LBJ get Civil Rights and Voting Rights passed partly by making deals over things like water projects? Of course. Does that mean MLK's and LBJ's eloquence on these subjects was irrelevant, and that the whole historical tradition that makes their great speeches part of the story is wrong? I highly doubt it. My threshold for that sort of revisionism is pretty high.

David said...

I would add that, if Trump had been speaking eloquently in favor of a wall for the last two years, and had already built careful groundwork for deals with key votes in the right committees, and there had been some illegal alien serial killer arrested last week, he would be in a very different position today. And would one really be prepared to say that the speeches had played no role?

G. Verloren said...

I have to wonder if perhaps a big part of the reason why presidential addresses don't change minds is that they are immediately seized upon by the media to spin headlines and articles and opinion pieces out of.

By the time anyone can actually poll people and analyze their thoughts, every person they ask has not only heard the president's address, but also been exposed to a deluge of responses to that address. People who might potentially be swayed to change their minds solely based on a presidential address are quickly inundated with rebuttals from parties who don't agree with the president and want very much to ensure other people don't do so either.