Propaganda and Democracy

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How Propaganda Works. Jason Stanley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.


Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is a book uniquely suited for its time. In his words, the goal of the book is to “explain how sincere, well-meaning people, under the grips of flawed ideology, can unknowingly produce and consume propaganda” (x). The author wants to understand propaganda, how it exploits weak groups, and to expand and restore propaganda to its rightful place in political philosophy. He especially is concerned with propaganda in liberal, democratic societies and highlights many pertinent and troubling questions.

Stanley’s introduction deals with the most obvious and egregious misuse of propaganda in Western history—Nazism in Weimar Germany. For Stanley, National Socialist ideology advances a “flawed ideology” that makes rational deliberation impossible. We should expect such ideologies, he says, whenever societies are unjust, i.e., unequal. Propaganda uses rhetoric to advance these flawed ideologies. In introducing the problem, Stanley is careful not to say that he endorses reasons for thinking that American democracy is an illusion, but points to race, the replacement of democratic culture with corporate or managerial culture, campaign finance, and climate change as examples that undermine American democracy. Each example uses the language of liberal democracy to undermine the actual existence of liberal democracy and his argument is persuasive. In a prescient move, he decries the public manager laws passed in Michigan (after a public voted to repeal such laws) and shows why Detroit being run by an emergency manager is dangerous to democratic life. Of course, the water crisis in Flint and the mass poisoning of a city with 100,000 residents would be revealed shortly after Stanley’s book was published, providing very real and bleak validation to his argument.

His review of propaganda in the history of political thought is not as persuasive, though he effectively shows how idealist conceptions of deliberative democracy can inhibit thinking about propaganda. While Stanley would not make that argument in such a pointed fashion, the argument has merit. While classic philosophy is concerned with the difference between appearance and illusion, propaganda shows us places where the demos wants illusion. Thinkers like Carl Schmitt grasp this point but because of his participation in the National Socialist movement, he is, as Stanley says, “not the official mid-twentieth-century spokesperson for the view that politics is only about power and interests” (32). The main gist of this overview is that contemporary democratic thinkers, by falling to the allure of deliberative democratic theorists who emphasize democratic ideals, are not well equipped to understand propaganda, which clearly is not part of any ideal vision of democracy.

Defining propaganda, Stanley rejects the typical claims that propaganda must be false and must be made insincerely. Those making propaganda may be sincere and dealing with facts, but propaganda flows from the demagogic use of flawed ideology to end rational debate and discussion. Focusing on liberal democracies, Stanley is concerned with propaganda that manipulates political ideals. This propaganda can either be supporting propaganda that furthers the ideals it espouses or undermining propaganda that erodes the ideals it claims to support. Institutions likes schools and newspapers are the vehicles for the production of this propaganda. The worst kind of propaganda is demagoguery in service of unworthy political ideas.

Stanley argues that some propaganda is necessary to support liberal ideals, while other propaganda is democratically dangerous—he makes the distinction between civic rhetoric and demagoguery. The key difference lies in their relationship to public reason. Public reason is essential for Stanley, and undermining reason is one of the most problematic results of demagoguery. Civic rhetoric, on the other hand, promotes democratic values of freedom, equality and reasonableness. For example, using rhetoric to extend rights enjoyed by whites to blacks falls under necessary civic rhetoric because it promotes democracy and it is clearly reasonable. This norm of reasonableness requires considering the position of others and shows Stanley’s debt to proceduralism and John Rawls, as well as epistemic and deliberative democratic theory. The danger is speech that appears to be reasonable and offers reasonable proposals, but in fact erodes reasonableness.

These liberal democratic norms for reasonableness are undermined by language itself, formal semantics and pragmatics and the use of code words. Dangerous propaganda assumes that a group in society is not worthy of respect and conveys this message while seemingly advancing a reasonable doctrine in line with liberal democratic norms. The chapter on language is highly technical and it is one of the strongest in the book. It delves into the more sinister workings of propaganda in democratic life. Propaganda is sinister because it is so elusive, born of repeated associations, such as connecting blacks to concepts like welfare or linking Muslims with terror. That many of these connections are made with seemingly innocuous comments makes it all the more disturbing. Propaganda is at once everywhere and nowhere—it is never easily located. Here, as well, Stanley’s book is powerful and prescient. Donald Trump is essentially putting on a travelling clinic in making these associations, simultaneously linking Muslims to terror and implying Obama himself is a Muslim. The massive audiences show the power of this type of speech. Open slurs against oppressed groups are no longer legitimate, so the words have changed, while the anti-democratic content remains the same. As Stanley claims, “Politics involves a constant search for words that do not appear to be slurs, but that carry a not-at-issue content that prejudices political debate” (155). While Stanley focuses on the elite production of these words, it is hard not to think of the audiences who consume this propaganda with glee—it is this angle that supports Plato’s claim that democracy naturally devolves into tyranny. This leads to the bigger and more troubling thought that while egalitarianism is a democratic ideal, it is not necessarily linked to democratic practice now or ever.

Indeed, in his discussion of ideology, Stanley shows that democratically problematic ideology is inevitable in any society with inequalities. The ideology behind propaganda depends on people having beliefs that are flawed and resistant to evidence. These flawed ideologies arise due to flawed social structures. Stanley thus advocates for structural equality, both material and political, because inequality is the mother of propaganda. His argument is not predicated on the assumption that these inequalities are bad, but that they are bad because they create flawed ideology. This leads to demagoguery and ultimately undermines democratic life. These flawed ideologies are difficult to revise and are dogmatically held. They arise from social practice reinforced by friends and family. Stanley’s description of ideology shows many of the problems of traditional, idealistic democratic theory—people often and almost always hold views that have no connection to either reason or truth. These flawed ideologies are epistemologically disabling and prevent us from gaining real knowledge of the world and society. Here he is again in classic territory and dealing with a very old problem regarding the relationship between appearances and reality, but his analysis is concerned less with Plato and more with everyday American life. The cave is built within the house of language and puppeteers project flawed visions of ideologies, stereotypes, and generalizations born of inequality.

The flawed ideologies of concern pertain to core liberal democratic values and are of two kinds: the kind developed by those with control of resources, and the kind by those without control of resources. There is a self-affirmation affect between ideology and possession of resources and those with resources view this as legitimate. Further, people raised in places with uniform ideology adopt that ideology. Flawed ideology is thus a product of both inequality and ideological uniformity born of some sort of segregation. Those without resources acquire flawed ideologies that prevent them from recognizing that they are, in fact, oppressed. These ideologies are imposed on oppressed, “negatively privileged groups” through structural mechanisms that transmit to them the flawed ideology of “positively privileged groups.” In other words, oppressed groups adopt elite ideology that believes in the oppressed groups’ inferiority due to a variety of complex factors.

Stanley’s argument is, at heart, similar to Marx’s claim that material inequalities create flawed ideologies to justify these conditions and this ideology dominates political thought through propaganda. The upshot is that all political ideology is, in reality, elite ideology. Stanley describes the ideology in detail with different constitutive parts of flawed elite ideology, including myths of meritocracy, racial inferiority, and the need for technical education, along with other ideological pillars that perpetuate elite power. This part of the book veers far from the stated purpose of the book and becomes a fairly standard analysis of what creates structural inequality.

The book concludes reiterating its big argument—large inequalities lead to flawed ideologies that run counter to liberal democratic ideals. Those with power use their privilege to create and disseminate propaganda that prevents people from understanding the difference between democratic ideals and democratic reality. In this sense, the book reads like a fairly straightforward, leftist analysis of inequality. At times, the book itself becomes propagandistic in that Stanley equates the American Right to Nazi Germany. There are also a few questionable interpretations, as when Stanley suggests that Plato’s ideal regime seeks to maximize efficiency because of the division of labor. This is either a stretch or intellectually lazy—the aim of the ideal regime is justice, not efficiency, which is more suited to Plato’s description of oligarchy.

However, these points are mostly quibbles. On the whole, the book is strong and an example of political philosophy at its finest. Stanley succeeds in doing what any good writer or teacher should do—he takes a big idea and shows the reader how this affects her everyday life. Propaganda is something that we know of as a concept, but we often passively consume it as citizens. By making us think about propaganda as a threat, Stanley forces us back into big questions about the nature of reality and unreality and necessarily questions about the good life. We live in a time where politics seem to not make sense, and Stanley offers an explanation. He also refreshingly does not take democracy as a permanent feature of contemporary life. Rather, he takes seriously the threat to democracy posed by propaganda. Democracy is not a birth right or something we enjoy without effort—it is something that needs to be defended and it is under attack not in the broad sense of great world events, but in the here and now of everyday discourse.

Thomas Bunting

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Thomas David Bunting is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin studying political theory. His dissertation is “Democracy at the Ballpark: Sport, Spectatorship, and Politics."