Karl Rove & the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew
by Stephen Bender
conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and
opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.
Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute
an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…
We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas
suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical
result of the way in which our democratic society is organized…
(1928), one of several strikingly frank analyses of western social
psychology written by Edward
Bernays. This nephew of Sigmund Freud founded the public relations
industry in the United States.
Bernays lived a fascinating life. He first got involved in high
stakes politics when he "warmed up" the dour Calvin Coolidge
by arranging the first presidential celebrity photo op in 1928.
For the private sector, Bernays engineered a most notorious publicity
stunt for the American Tobacco Company, by single-handedly neutralizing
the taboo against women smoking in public. He organized a "Torches
of Freedom" march down Broadway by ten smoking debutantes during
the 1929 Easter Parade. With the help of feminists some of whom
understood the "right to smoke" as libratory Bernays expertly
publicized this spectacle, thus setting in motion the expected stir
on op-ed pages across the land.
Bernays, truth in public affairs did not exist per se. Rather,
truth was the product of the "public relations counsel"
forging prevailing "public opinion." It should be said
that he readily recognized the ethical implications of his work,
as witnessed in his later anti-smoking advocacy, after the dangers
of cigarettes became known in the late-1950s. He could also be,
in his own curious way, a humanitarian as reflected in his work
promoting the NAACP and anti-syphilis public education.
Bernays, however, the necessity of controlling the public mind was
a crucially important matter confronting the better element, a group
in which he clearly included himself. In his first work, the hugely
Public Opinion (1923), Bernays noted that the establishment
of public education and the gradual extension of the right to vote
caused consternation among western elites. The use of public relations
techniques, then, was a way for the minority to "so mold the
mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength
in the desired direction."
Box Opens in the Century of the Self
the early 20th Century, the public came to associate
the words "propaganda" and "war" with one another.
This was no accident. Bernays wrote in Propaganda: "It
was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the
[First World] war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in
all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the
is here referring to the "idealistic" Wilson administration’s
Committee on Public Information (CPI), a massive propaganda ministry
set up shortly after America’s entry into the First World War in
April of 1917. The CPI was headed up by George Creel, a progressive
journalist, who once remarked that "people do not live by bread
alone; they also live by catch-phrases." Bernays was an advisor
to the CPI. So was Walter
Lippmann, a former socialist turned liberal who would become
the dean of mid-20th Century American journalism.
revolutionary psychological insights had actually been percolating
in France and Great Britain since the first years of the 20th
Century. They were duly appropriated by Hitler, who wrote in Mein
Kampf (1925): "But it was not until the [First World] War
that it became evident what immense results could be obtained by
a correct application of propaganda. Here again, unfortunately,
all our studying had to be done on the enemy side…" In Bernays’s
1965 memoir Biography
of an Idea, he acknowledged that Crystallizing Public
Opinion significantly influenced Josef Goebbels.
post-World War II America, Bernays provided his services to the
United Fruit Company and the Eisenhower administration. In 1954,
the democratically elected New Deal-style Arbenz government in Guatemala
began expropriating with compensation some of that corporation’s
largely fallow lands. In due time, Bernays launched a media blitz
which made palatable the (clandestine CIA-backed) coup which would
overthrow the "communist" government.
our era, President Reagan employed new media management techniques
that built upon the foundation laid by Bernays. The "great
communicator" employed a cadre of shrewd "spin doctors,"
prominent among them Michael Deaver and David Gergen, who would
go on to also work for Bill Clinton. Gergen was soon enough displaced
by another bipartisan operator, a former consultant to Jessie Helms,
named Dick Morris. He successfully "triangulated" Clinton,
"the man from Hope" who "felt our pain," into
a second term.
with his detached air of studied bemusement, had this to say to
liberal social reformers. "Good government can be sold to a
community just as any other commodity can be sold." Today we
witness not the penny ante fibs of liberals, but the astounding
rightist machinations of Karl Rove.
Public & Its Problems
title of this segment is borrowed from the great pragmatist philosopher
and educator John
Dewey, who engaged in a heated public debate with Lippmann
and by proxy Bernays during the 1920s. Lippmann felt that
the efficacy of propaganda during the war, in tandem with the meteoric
subsequent rise of the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrated that the public’s
suggestibility was a real danger to democracy. In Lippmann’s reality,
"the herd" was too ignorant to participate in democracy
beyond selecting from what he called the choice between "tweedledee
and tweedledum." Dewey sharply disagreed; he thought, as FDR
later did, that public education could at least mitigate the irrational
element in human nature.
readers might at this point aver that the bygone writings of Dewey,
Lippmann and some obscure flack don’t amount to much today. After
all, we already know to be skeptical of advertising glitz, to say
nothing of political promises.
is however the little matter of the Bush administration’s rhetoric
and the socio-psychological context it created in the aftermath
of the horrific onslaughts of 9/11. Even some of the President’s
realist supporters now concede that he wasn’t entirely above board
when it came to invading Iraq. So the question must be asked: how
does an American president communicate with the public? Well, his
words are calculated and his persona is molded by the modern political
descendants of the public relations counsel.
Triumph of "Turd Blossom"
Rove given the above nickname by our jocular President is an extraordinarily
keen student of American psychology and history. He is well aware
of the back story to contemporary political fixtures like the focus
group a technique innovated by Edward Bernays. Consequently, it
doesn’t take too much effort to discern the afterimage of Bernays’s
teachings in Bush’s rhetoric.
Crystallizing Public Opinion, Bernays related how governments
and advertisers can "regiment the mind like the military regiments
the body." This discipline can be imposed because of "the
natural inherent flexibility of individual human nature." He
also instructed that the "average citizen is the world’s most
efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him
and the facts. His own ‘logic proof compartments,’ his own absolutism
are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience
and thought rather than in terms of group reaction."
addition to what Bernays saw as a widespread individual resistance
to reason in public affairs, he contended "physical loneliness
is a real terror to the gregarious animal, and that association
with the herd causes a feeling of security. In man this fear of
loneliness creates a desire for identification with the herd in
matters of opinion."
within the "herd," the "gregarious animal" still
wishes to express his or her opinion. Therefore, the public relations
counsel must "appeal to individualism [which] goes closely
in hand with other instincts, such as self-display."
Wilfred Trotter and Gustav Le Bon [two leading turn-of-the-century
social psychologists], Bernays agreed that "the group mind
does not think [emphasis in original] in the strict sense
of the word… In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually
to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the
most firmly established principles in mass psychology."
[Emphasis mine] To sum up, what Bernays called the "regimentation
of the mind" is accomplished by taking advantage of the human
tendency to self-deception, gregariousness, individualism and the
seductive power of a strong leader.
allure of determined leadership one can read all about it in management
and self-help books is heightened in times of turmoil. The last
election almost certainly turned on the question of whose leadership
could best "keep America safe." George W. Bush, thanks
to Karl Rove, absolutely rolled John Kerry on this question. Kerry,
the decorated vet, was successfully depicted as a French-loving,
wind-surfing "liberal flip-flopper." And then we all heard,
ad nauseum, that he "betrayed his comrades" in
Vietnam by "throwing away his medals" at some hippie protest
or other. That these smears had nothing to do with Kerry’s program
ended up being irrelevant.
expressed this deep-seated yearning for strength and decisiveness
repeatedly in Crystallizing Public Opinion. "We have
to take sides. We have to be able to take sides. In the recesses
of our being we must step out of the audience onto the stage and
wrestle as the hero for the victory of good over evil. We must breathe
into the allegory the breath of our life." Bill Clinton, another
astute observer, had this to say about Bush’s public appeal: "it’s
[politically] better to be strong and wrong than right and weak."
term individualism is rather at the core of the Republican Party’s
rhetoric, most often preceded by the quintessentially American modifier
"rugged." The individual is free to autonomously "pursue
happiness." Once the suburban pioneer has achieved happiness,
which today means financial success, his or her strivings should
not be punished. Or so the story goes. And soon enough one finds
ordinary, ambitious middle class folks clamoring for upper class
and Rove both recognized the need for Americans in particular to
feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. We are
after all by far the most religious post-industrial society on the
planet. The American people want to embrace something that provides
clarity, something that plays to their vanity and hence self-understanding.
Having won the "leadership" and "individual initiative"
battles, Rove delivered victory to George W. Bush for an additional
very cleverly marketed the President’s message via easily digestible
catch phrases that elicited in the consumer a deep connection. The
Republicans stand for "security," "strong defense,"
"individual liberty" and "moral values." The
Democrats stand for…well; it depends on who you ask. The Democratic
Party means many things to many people, often based on very personal and
hence disparate notions of identity. The Republican Party appropriated
the bedrock symbolism of "American togetherness" and thereby
again cleaned the Democrats’ clock.
underlined the importance of such symbols in Crystallizing Public
Opinion. "Mental habits create stereotypes just as physical
habits create certain definite reflex actions… these stereotypes
or clichés are not necessarily truthful pictures of what
they are supposed to portray."
aforementioned Walter Lippmann’s work is quoted extensively by Bernays;
Lippmann was his unacknowledged American mentor. In fact, Bernays
wrote Crystallizing Public Opinion one year after Lippmann’s
Opinion appeared; similarly, Propaganda appeared
one year after Lippmann wrote his deeply pessimistic The
Phantom Public. In this 1925 work, Lippmann belittled what
he saw as the nostrums of American democracy held so dear by so
many in our country. "A false ideal of democracy can lead only
to disillusionment and to meddlesome tyranny. If democracy cannot
direct affairs, then a philosophy which expects it to direct them
will encourage the people to attempt the impossible; they will fail,
but that will interfere outrageously with the productive liberties
of the individual. The public must be put in its place… so that
each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered
Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can
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