Propaganda is at the Heart of Democracy

Democracy might be the least bad form of government there is, but that only means that it is no less vulnerable to certain weaknesses than the alternatives. Take for example propaganda, typically viewed as the staple of totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Though it is utilized across all political cultures, it is perhaps most pernicious in democratic forms of governance, ironically enough because of the principles of freedom enshrined in such societies.

As Quartz explains:

Democracy is susceptible to propaganda … because liberty protects free speech and so propagandistic statements can’t be banned. But, as [Jason] Stanley writes in his book How Propaganda Works, humans have “characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation”, and so are vulnerable to spin. This is not a recent discovery: As Stanley notes, Aristotle recognized that demagogic propaganda posed the biggest threat to democracy.

Stanley argues that there are two kinds of propaganda. The most obvious kind, typically present in times of emergency such as war, uses fear mongering and nationalism to garner support through appeals to emotion.

But there’s also a more subtle form of propaganda, which Stanley defines as when an affront to a certain ideal is presented as though it’s an embodiment of that very ideal. For example:

“How do you defend bigotry against gays? You can’t just stand up and say, ‘We hate gays’, so you evoke religious liberty. Package anything in liberty and you’ve got yourself a deal”, he tells Quartz. As this uses the ideal of liberty to curtail another’s liberty, it meets Stanley’s description of this kind of propaganda.

I plan on reading Stanley’s book at one point, as it seems to offer a new and perhaps controversial way to look at propaganda. Many Americans tend to imagine propaganda to be a lot more overt and old fashioned than it really is — vitriolic radio broadcasts, colorful posters, organized rallies adorned with party paraphernalia. But more often than not, especially in a 21st century inundated with stimuli and signaling at all directions, propaganda can seep into our consciousness in the most subtle and seemingly mundane ways. One need only frame an idea a certain way, and communicate with a degree of pizazz, for it to seem substantive and true.

What are your thoughts?

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