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Wag the Dog

The phrase “wag the dog” refers to a strategy where a political leader engages in diversionary tactics—often involving military action or another high-stakes maneuver—to distract the public from a pending or existing scandal, crisis, or failure.

The term gained mainstream prominence from the 1997 film of the same name, which satirized the concept, though its underlying idea has been a subject of political analysis for much longer.

The “wag the dog” strategy capitalizes on the rally-around-the-flag effect, where citizens tend to support their leaders during times of crisis.

This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon where, during crises, the public tends to support national leaders and overlook their shortcomings, at least temporarily.

Using a “Wag the Dog” strategy

The advent of the 24-hour news cycle and social media has made “wag the dog” tactics both more tempting and more perilous.

On one hand, the constant churn of news offers ample opportunities for a well-timed crisis to seize headlines and shift narratives.

On the other hand, the public is becoming increasingly savvy to such tactics, aided by the democratization of information and opinion online.

This creates a climate where attempts to “wag the dog” can backfire, further eroding trust in leadership.

For political junkies, the phrase serves as shorthand for a range of deceptive practices, inviting scrutiny of both the motivations behind sudden shifts in policy and the media’s role in amplifying them.

Understanding the “wag the dog” phenomenon is key to unpacking the tactical arsenal of political operators and assessing the ethical landscape in which they operate.

More on “Wag the Dog”

To advocate for, or create, a distraction that diverts attention from a more pressing political problem.

The expression comes from the phrase “the tail wagging the dog,” which has been in use for more than a century. It was famously popularized by the 1997 movie Wag the Dog starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro (which became a contender in Washingtonian magazine’s 2015 competition to determine “the most Washington movie ever.”) In the film, a Hollywood producer and a political adviser manufacture a war to help a sex scandal-ridden president win an election.

Since the film’s release, wag the dog has been seen most frequently in the national-security realm, most often by critics of President George W. Bush’s controversial decision to invade Iraq. But it pops up in political contexts.

Paul Driessen, a columnist for the conservative website, used it to criticize top Iowa Republicans for imploring 2016 White House hopefuls to support continued mandates for the use of ethanol, the grain-based gasoline additive. He cited a litany of grievances against biofuels, from the toll they inflict on cars to their role in recent political scandals.

“Republican presidential candidates who surrendered to a gaggle of Iowa corn growers and renewable fuel interests need to reflect long and hard on these ethanol and corruption realities, and the broader national interest,” Driessen wrote in a column titled “Crony Biofuel Politics Wag the Dog.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Wag the Dog” in a sentence

  • As allegations of corruption began to threaten his re-election campaign, the incumbent seemed to wag the dog by suddenly escalating military tensions with a long-standing adversary.
  • Critics argued that the administration’s surprise policy announcement was merely an attempt to wag the dog and divert attention from the unfolding scandal.
  • Amid a failing economy and growing public discontent, some political analysts are wondering whether the government will try to wag the dog by embarking on a risky foreign policy venture.