Pitfalls of power and propaganda

The pitfalls of democracy seem to surround us at depth in every direction. Winston Churchill once (humorously?) claimed that, “Democracy is the worst form of government––except for all the others.” It is sometimes easier to agree with the first half of his statement than the second, except when we observe the destructive mess that usually accompanies the operation of petty tyrants and dictators.

It takes enormous confidence in the aggregate wisdom of our fellow citizens to accept the (sometimes) dismal directions our elected leaders may opt to follow. Many among us may lack that confidence altogether, but politicians are paid to make decisions. Once they’ve done so, no matter how outrageous their ideas may seem to us, and in order to maintain social order and coherence, most of us fall into line.

In half seriousness, a friend recently proposed that citizens should have to pass a basic competence test (measuring familiarity with candidates, parties, platforms, and so on) in order to vote. But in a society predicated on citizen equality, to deny the vote to any citizen would be to remove a basic civil right.

Based on the insights of his discoveries in linguistics, noted intellectual Noam Chomsky expressed great admiration for the creative understandings of which the so-called “common man” is capable. Yet despite this confidence, Chomsky regularly deplores the machinery of lies and manipulation that is applied by powers throughout the world to ensure citizen consent for their policies.

As technologies of mass communication have become both more extensive and more refined, people have struggled to assess just what hazards these devices might create. In the 1920s and 30s radio and film became powerful tools of persuasion. In the 1930s, Germany’s Third Reich powered itself into European dominance thanks in part to Goebbels’ propaganda, a process he termed “mind bombing.” (He based his program on ideas first expounded by an American academic––Edward Bernays). Goebbels even tried to manipulate American opinion, broadcasting “news” from Germany to America in English about the “global Communist Jewish conspiracy.” In the USA, Roosevelt sold his “New Deal” through his fireside chats, listened to across the country on radio.

Recent achievements in voter manipulation, resulting in such absurdities as Brexit and the Trump presidency, used persuasive techniques first codified by Clem Whitaker, founder of an early American political consulting firm. (Its critics called it “the lie factory.”) Following P. T. Barnum’s assessment of voters and of American consumers (“no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”), Whitaker’s firm was wildly successful.

He argued that the average [citizen] doesn’t want to be educated or to improve his mind. To convince or manipulate such folk, keep issues simple. Never explain anything, because subtlety is your enemy. Words that lean on the mind are no good. They must “dent it.” If your position doesn’t have an opposition, invent one. Never shy away from controversy. Instead, win it. Attack your opponent(s) relentlessly.

What politicians does this strategy remind you of? Keep it simple? Attack? “You’re fired.” “Dirty Hillary.” “Lock her up.” Never explain? “Global warming is a Chinese hoax.” No wonder so few people want to do anything about climate change.

Questions we need to ask ourselves are, just how dumb are we, anyway, and, how is it possible to miss these techniques in action all around us?

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