Statism parades itself in various forms. Most noticeably, it puts a chokehold on individuals through its progressive taxation policies, micro-lawmaking, and ultra-regulation of everyday lives. Yet one of the most creeping ways in which statism affects us directly is in the form of its propaganda.
Every act of state propaganda requires a cause to make it necessary. That cause needs a catchy theme that conveys how one should think about it. As with political polls, the simplified purpose of propaganda is to tell us what to think. Each cause, therefore, requires a crisis — or a perceived crisis — in order for the masses to more readily accept the symbolism disseminated in the name of that cause. And with crisis, fear may be a factor. And currently, in the midst of such disquieting geopolitical volatility, what could be more fear-provoking than the crisis of war?
For instance, the new patriotism that is sweeping the nation is unyielding in its grip on Americans anxious to show their love of country. Terrorism at home and the looming threat of war with insurrectionary jihad makers begets a massive anxiety. And fear, as a rule, tends to be assuaged via a sense of coming together. From the mass-produced "God Bless America" signs to pro-USA T-shirts and lapel pins and hats, folks are snapping up this merchandise like mad. They do so because they are told that such actions help to overcome adversity and serve to support the affected. And the state is highly successful in promoting such thoughts. However, all the symbolism proves to be pointless rah-rah that intends support for the government’s actions, whether they are actually sanctioned by the electorate or not.
Nowadays, the "patriotic" lip service promoted by the State is eerily reminiscent of that during World Wars I and II, when the Wilson and FDR administrations and their assorted government entities gave rise to a tide of mind-numbing posters meant to instill a sense of duty among citizens devastated by war. WWII propaganda is perhaps more compelling because of its ultimate goal in promoting outright socialism and the building of foreign alliances abroad.
The horrible statism symbolized by WWII-era posters sometimes harped on feel-good themes of doing one’s part and being useful, or they may have even exploited fear by inflating crises and threatening impending disaster. The feel-good propaganda, in particular, played upon the natural inclination people have toward participation and accomplishment, and it boasted of individuals playing their proper role in the war effort; those roles for participants being that of conserving rubber, lumber, petroleum, paper, food and other items that are typically in high demand during times of war. A smiling housewife boasting about her family’s food rationing was intended to provoke a general submissiveness on the part of families toward government diktat. And conserving one’s tires or lumber was a way of having a hand in helping to provide supplies for the boys overseas. All the while, the citizenry was unknowingly mocked into surrender of their individuality and family-first guiding principles. Immediately, one can understand how a move away from such docility could spark a rising independence in society that might no longer mandate a government’s full-blown war.
Other good behavior included abiding by price controls and believing in the ultimate value of such, and certainly, avoiding black markets to serve one’s daily needs. A good American would rather "do without it" was the message. And the offices of War Information, Price Administration, and War Food Administration were adept at conveying that meaning.
Another form of efficacy was portrayed in the form of constant production, with hard work being the means to the end of winning the war. After all, who could possibly be against a good work ethic? Increased production called for women to sacrifice domestic bliss for the sake of her men and country. And non—war-bound men were made to sense that they couldn’t work hard enough to overcome the lack of a draft card and military uniform. And the most outlandish State propaganda always assured that those not meeting the demands of the day were, in fact, working for the enemy.
Then there was crisis and disaster. This was always portrayed in the sense of "you can do something to prevent it." This theme preyed on the natural human instinct to do all that one could in order to stave off calamity. Loose lips sink ships, we were told, and blabbermouths ultimately killed men directly. And of course, the ultimate catastrophe was for evil to encroach upon American shores and strike us right here at home. WWII propaganda posters are perhaps most memorable in this sense because of the availability of pop-culture villains from which to draw motivation. Mussolini, Stalin, and especially Hitler provided a heap of fodder for the statists.
In 1942, the War Production Board released a series of posters that depict how Hitler was everywhere. According to the propaganda cretins he was in our neighborhoods if we didn’t support the war and in our car if we didn’t carpool. After all, in times of such profound suffering and despair, there had to be ends that individuals and families could strive for to justify the means. The evil images of a Hitler gone mad in our personal spaces conveyed the most deliberate messages of all.
Because this crisis of Hitler in our homes was portrayed as bona fide, American women were often represented as willingly giving their men to the State to die for its war. After all, without the propaganda of encroaching horror to engender absolute fear into a nation of peace-loving people, the State could not possibly expect to be able to clutch loved ones from the home and toss them into harm’s way. Without this ultimate goal from which to convey the necessity of the ultimate sacrifice, a warmaking State would have few subjects from which to garner enough support for ongoing war. Imagine the average American being asked to die for Churchill, or to serve the purpose of U.S. imperialist adventures promoting puppet governments abroad?
Hence, the notion of sacrifice was perhaps the most compelling of all during this time because of the corollary that was presented as the alternative: the squashing of the entire nation by its global enemies. Therefore, the life of one man within the ambit of a gigantic whole was devoid of any parallel worth. FDR socialism was hard at work.
And in a less compelling sense, families were to sacrifice their vacations and save resources for the greater cause. Staying home was said to be beneficial toward the war effort. In fact, it was a great way to contribute by simply doing nothing. An oxymoron, but patriotic nonetheless. In addition, people were convinced to sacrifice laissez-faire commuting plans for car pools. Individuality was entirely eschewed in favor of collective ambitions, as is always the case within the framework of statism.
And lastly, perhaps the most common type of WWII propaganda abounding was that pushing war bonds. Of course, financing a war presented more than just conventional money-raising problems; it also meant that government first needed to acquire a gainful approval rating — from an already overtaxed public — for spending the populace into further debt. Once again, people were instructed how to behave via posters produced by, typically, the United States Treasury or the War Finance Division. Purchasing bonds meant directly supporting the husbands and sons overseas, and spending ten-percent of one’s weekly paycheck was a minimum criterion in order to meet the standards of sufficient patriotism.
All in all, WWII successfully marketed its persuasion upon a willing American audience just waiting to be coerced into thinking something, believing anything, and merely following the Head Persuader.
However, the propagandists must always first build a reputation and credibility, even if they merely feign it as opposed to actually possessing it. After all, persuasion is one of the keys to the democratic process, hence, the revulsion that some of us have to “democracy” and governing by the politicized masses.
Interestingly, Aristotle noted that propaganda (or persuasion) was to be only used by those of good character or good moral standing, otherwise, it ceased to be trustworthy or to have credibility. Modern propaganda as practiced by the State gains its "credibility" because, as a precursor to its persuasion tactics, the State has — through its Cradle-to-Grave-role — already exercised a seemingly legitimate form of rule in that they are the final arbiter of all that is significant, from taxes to the military to monopolized goods and services. Therefore, the pre-conditions have been set for a massive campaign of telling people how to think, act, and carry out their daily tasks.
Be aware that the pre-WWII era was a time of isolationist impulse; a time when an entire generation had already experienced world war, and afterwards, only desired to stay home and tend to their domestic lives instead of being dragged off into another series of foreign entanglements. In spite of this, FDR’s various agencies proved masterful in their endeavor to shift the opinions of an entire nation from coveting peace to supporting war.
For war, it seems, had became the norm for the maintenance of a healthy and growing State, and hence, the same propaganda lives on today in a similarly effective role. On balance, shouldn’t we all pull together to prop up our government’s wars?
Karen De Coster, CPA, [send her mail] is a paleolibertarian freelance writer, graduate student in Austrian Economics, and a business professional from Michigan. She is writing her first book, which is a treatise against all things statist. See her Mises Institute archive for more online articles.