The astounding success enjoyed by the Wilson administration in swinging public opinion behind the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1917 had revolutionary implications for the course and development of democracy in our country. It was the most dramatic shift in public opinion ever recorded in American history to that time and it was manufactured by propaganda.
An isolationist and pacifist public was mobilized behind massive military intervention, an eventuality Wilson had pledged to avoid mere months earlier during his reelection campaign. In this effort, the Wilson administration established an official propaganda agency called the Committee on Public Information, headed up by the progressive journalist George Creel. It employed the leading social scientists of the day among them a young Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, who would become the father of the American public relations industry a few years later.
The previous decade had seen the rapid emergence and growth of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World their successful strike in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1912 really frightened respectable types. Then there was also the continuing agitation of Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party they reached their high water mark in the amazing election of 1912 when Debs pulled nearly 7% of the national vote running against Taft, Roosevelt and Wilson the ultimate winner. In addition, there were also progressives like Senator Robert LaFollette working the inside, along with the suffragette movement and muckraking, melting-pot-stirring to boot.
In the years following the war, state repression via the Sedition Act, and Palmer raids (named for Wilson’s Attorney General) and deportations destroyed the more radical elements and intimidated many of the reformers. Nonetheless, leading lights in the public square and private sector realized that repression alone wasn’t necessarily the most effective, and hence desirable, course of action. Drawing on lessons learned from the extraordinary triumph of war propaganda, along with the early accomplishments of the advertising industry, social scientists embarked on the comprehensive application of these social psychology techniques to politics. They’ve never stopped since.
This in turn caused a split to resurface among liberal thinkers of the day. One side held that the public could and should participate in democracy. The other scoffed, maintaining that the public was too ignorant to do any more than cast ballots once in a while. Needless to say, corporatist-conservatives didn’t then and don’t today even bother dithering with such sophistry.
The two leading figures representing these opposing positions were, respectively, the Pragmatic philosopher John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, a leading pundit, later to be dubbed the “Dean of American Journalism” in mid-Century. Lippmann would decisively win the debate he and Dewey carried on during the 1920s, backed as he was by the inexorable growth of the public relations industry and a firmly ensconced elite consensus which alternatively held in contempt and feared the “intrusion of the public” into the affairs of the “responsible men.”
Lippmann was an insider’s insider. A prominent Harvard graduate, he went from advocating socialism to serving on the Creel Commission and later advising President Wilson on his famous 14 Points at the Versailles conference. Later, he would write the most widely read column in the country for the New York Herald Tribune and thereafter for the Washington Post until his death in 1974.
In a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1979, signed by New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and then Washington Post owner-in-waiting Katherine Graham, they exalted in the establishment of the “Walter Lippmann House” at Harvard. They were “happy to report” a “fitting and lasting memorial” to “one of the great Americans of the century.”
This is instructive. Some would say that Lippmann and the liberal elite of that day were “evil” men. Who knows? Dewey said Lippmann was a “disappointed idealist.” I would agree; I would also commend him for his honesty the present propagandists in power are liars through and through. His work remains helpful for those of us who wish to continue the fight against his legacy.
What’s all this got to do with anything? Well, a lot, actually. Ours is an era in which “spin” is not just an accepted part of public life’s scenery, it is routinely praised for its effectiveness with no regard for its ultimate impact, as in “the Bush team is ‘brilliant’ at ‘controlling the debate’ or ‘getting their message out.'” This sorry state of affairs has been abetted and much else bad along with it in the economic sphere due to corporate control of the means and hence content of socially relevant public information. Today, this domination has reached historically unprecedented degree of control.
The origins of the presently stupefied state of public opinion lie partially in the counsel given back in the day by Lippmann. His case, addressing the “leaders” on how to deal with “the rank and file,” was laid out in two hugely influential works, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925).
According to the pieties that we have all been weaned on from the first flag pledge in kindergarten right through high school social studies class: this is the land of the freedom and liberty, the home of the rugged individual. Unfortunately, being bombarded with stories of the majesty and superiority of American democracy via the corporate media to say nothing of the self-serving “patriotism” parroted by public officialdom does not make it so. Lippmann’s work debunks the fairy tale that Americans are spoon fed, giving the reader an unvarnished account of the elite’s contempt for democracy.
Propaganda 101: Leaders & Rank and File
In the lengthy excerpts which follow from Public Opinion, note the imperious matter-of-fact tone which Lippmann maintains throughout. He speaks of God as if he were addressing a sock puppet. It is the voice of one secure in the knowledge of not only what he states, but the unassailability of his depictions. No one with any real power can contradict him.
“Because of their transcendent practical importance, no successful leader has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his following. What privileges do within the hierarchy, symbols do for the rank and file. They conserve unity. From the totem pole to the national flag, from the wooden idol to God the Invisible King, from the magic word to some diluted version of Adam Smith or Bentham, symbols have been cherished by leaders, many of whom were themselves unbelievers, because they were focal points where differences merged.
“The detached observer may scorn the ‘star-spangled’ ritual which hedges the symbol, perhaps as much as the king who told himself that Paris was worth a few masses. But the leader knows by experience that only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out. No wonder he hates what he calls destructive criticism… for poking about with clear definitions and candid statements serves all high purposes known to man except the easy conservation of a common will. Poking about, as every responsible leader suspects, tends to break the transference of emotion from the individual mind to the institutional symbol. And the first result of that is, as he rightly says, a chaos of individualism and warring sects…”
Here we see succinctly expressed the sheer utility of and cynicism with which such apparent trivialities as God, country and patriotism are treated by the “detached observer,” the leader and his propagandists. We also notice the contempt with which “poking around,” in other words questioning, the pronouncements of the “leader” are treated. Onward and downward then.
“The great symbols possess by transference all the minute and detailed loyalties of an ancient and stereotyped society. They evoke the feeling that each individual has for the landscape, the furniture, the faces, the memories that are his first, and in a static society, his only reality. That core of images and devotions without which he is unthinkable to himself, is nationality…
“Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand.
[Is there are better description of what has happened to our country since 9/11? Propaganda in the hands of a liberal is distasteful and perhaps deadly; propaganda in the hands of a fascist always results in mass murderous lies.]
“Many aspects of our subjection to symbols are not flattering if we choose to think of ourselves as realistic, self-sufficient, and self-governing personalities… But in the world of action they may be beneficent, and are sometimes a necessity. The necessity is often imagined, the peril manufactured. But when quick results are imperative the manipulation of masses through symbols may be the only quick way of having a critical thing done. It is often more important to act than understand. It is sometimes true that the action would fail if everyone understood it. There are many affairs which cannot wait for a referendum or endure publicity, and there are times, during war for example, when a nation, an army and even its commanders must trust strategy to a very few minds…”
This selection is particularly relevant for us today. Lippmann points to the extent to which appeals to “nationality” can evoke the most intimate associations, those of “memories,” “faces” and “landscape” the “core of images and devotions.” These can be “exploited” however, for “the symbol is also an instrument by which a few fatten on many,” (Enron, et cetera) “deflect criticism,” (Osama who? Only appeasers don’t want to squish Saddam!) and “seduce men into facing agony for objects (like going to preemptive war for “democracy” and stuff) they do not understand.”
Lippmann then shares a few tips la Machiavelli for the leaders.
“But all leaders are not statesmen, all leaders hate to resign, and most leaders find it hard to believe that bad as things are, the other fellow would not make them worse… They are, therefore, intermittently engaged in mending their fences and consolidating their position.
“The mending of fences consists in offering an occasional scapegoat, in redressing a minor grievance affecting a powerful individual or faction…or [advocating] a law to stop somebody’s vices. Study the daily activity of any public official who depends on election and you can enlarge the list… But the number of people to whom any organization can be a successful valet is limited, and shrewd politicians take care to attend either the influential, or somebody so blatantly uninfluential that to pay any attention to him is a mark of sensational magnanimity. The far greater number, who cannot be held by favors, the anonymous multitude, receive propaganda.
“…Every official is in some degree a censor. And since no one can suppress information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it, without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every leader is in some degree a propagandist. Strategically placed, and compelled often to choose even at the best between the equally cogent though conflicting ideals of safety for the institution, and candor to his public, the official finds himself deciding more and more consciously what facts, in what setting, in what guise he shall permit the public to know.”
Again, all of what are today considered simply an instrumental part of doing political business finding a suitable scapegoat, moral crusading, pandering to “uninfluentials,” and the means by which they’ve been discovered: polling, focus groups, spin doctors, image consultants are laid bare here.
Finally, Lippmann assesses the significance of propaganda for democracy, turning the phrase later popularized by Noam Chomsky.
“That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements, no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.
“The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.
“Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become the self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables.
“It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely on intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.”
And indeed, it would occur to no one to accuse high officialdom today of acting on so vulgar and sentimental an impulse as “conscience.” That is left to those naïve purveyors of the “original dogma of democracy” who unrealistically maintain that “the human heart” the President’s transparently fake protestations to the contrary via the public, might even theoretically play some role in the state’s decision making.
The Phantom Public’s Fall
Writing in The Phantom Public, we find an even deeper contempt which at times borders on outright loathing of ordinary citizens and their capacity to evaluate political questions. By this time, some of the readers may aver that it has been demonstrated time and again that the American public is disinterested in public affairs and remarkably ignorant of such basic facts as the name of the Vice President or the location of any number of countries on a map.
To them I say that they too, looking down from their precarious perch, are among the “bystanders” who must defer to the superior judgment of the “leaders,” just like all the assumed “idiots” out there. There are many layers of self-deception. To illustrate, a recent report indicated that a mere 0.1% of the population contributed 84% of the monies, some billions of dollars, to political campaigns in 2000. These 300,000 odd Americans, along with the rest of their friends in the top 1%, make for a pretty good approximation of the “responsible men.” Forward then.
“When power, however absolute and unaccountable, reigns without provoking a crisis, public opinion does not challenge it. Somebody must challenge arbitrary power first. The public can only come to his assistance. That, I think, is the utmost that public opinion can effectively do. With the substance of the problem it can do nothing usually but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically. It has no need to meddle with it. Men in their active relation to affairs have to deal with the substance, but in that indirect relationship when they can act only through uttering praise or blame, making black crosses on white paper, they have done enough, they have done all they can do if they help to make it possible for the reason of other men to assert itself.
“For when public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure or a tyranny. It is not able to master the problem intellectually, nor to deal with it except by wholesale impact. The theory of democracy has not recognized this truth because it has identified the functioning of government with the will of the people. This is a fiction. The intricate business of framing laws and of administering them through several hundred thousand public officials is in no sense the act of the voters nor a translation of their will.”
It is notable that he does not see fit to cite a single historical example of the public’s “tyranny”; for him it is self-evident, a truism. It is further curious that the unambiguous tyrannies perpetrated by “leaders,” unfettered by “meddlesome” public opinion prior the dawn of democratic forms, also escape his imperious sights. There certainly were enough of them in our own history slavery comes to mind, as do the depredations of the pre-Wilson robber barons to merit a mention, no? Nonetheless…
“The modus vivendi of any particular historical period, the system of rights and duties, has generally acquired some high religious or ideal sanction. The thinkers laureate of the age will generally manage to show that the institutions, the laws, the morality and the custom of that age are divinely inspired. These tiresome illusions have been exploded a thousand times. The prevailing system of rights and duties at any time is at bottom a slightly antiquated formulation of the balance of power among the active interests in the community…
“But, whether the system is obsolete or not, in its naked origin, a right is a claim somebody was able to assert, and a duty is an obligation someone was able to impose.” Here, Lippmann once again speaks deep truth. “Natural rights” a noble fiction.
Lippmann douses such shopworn homilies as “America, America, God shed his grace on thee” and the like in yet another acid bath. His final formulation is, however, a more significant and actually helpful one. In an era in which our “rights” (the chilling effect on the 1st Amendment, the full frontal assault on the 4th Amendment) are in full retreat and new “duties” (in the spirit of “Operation TIPS” and kindred totalitarianisms) are surfacing, we should keep this trenchant maxim well in mind.
“The random collection of bystanders who constitute the public could not, even if they had a mind to, intervene in all the problems of the day… Normally they leave their proxies to a kind of professional public consisting of more or less eminent persons. Most issues are never carried beyond this ruling group; the lay publics catch only echoes of the debate.
“If, by the push and pull of interested parties and public personages, settlements are made more or less continually, the party in power has the confidence of the country. In effect, the outsiders are arrayed behind the dominant insiders. But if the interested parties cannot be made to agree, if, as a result, there is disturbance and chronic crisis, then the opposition among the insiders may come to be considered the hope of the country, and be able to entice the bystanders to its side.
“To support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when they seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government… A community where there is no choice does not have popular government. It is subject to some form of dictatorship or it is ruled by the intrigues of the politicians in the lobbies.
“Although it is the custom of partisans to speak as if there were radical differences between the Ins and Outs, it could be demonstrated, I believe, that in stable and mature societies the differences are necessarily not profound…
“In the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and in certain of the Continental countries an election rarely means even a fraction of what the campaigners said it would mean. It means some new faces and perhaps a slightly different tendency in the management of affairs. The Ins may have had a bias toward collectivism; the Outs will lean toward individualism…
“There is, therefore, a certain mock seriousness about the campaigning for votes in well-established communities. Much of the excitement is not about the fate of the nation but simply about the outcome of the game. Some of the excitement is sincere, like any fervor of intoxication. And much of it is deliberately stoked up by the expenditure of money to overcome the inertia of the mass of the voters.”
I have yet to see a more accurate, to say nothing of yawningly matter-of-fact, dissection of the two-party collusion as it exists today.
“It follows from this that a rule must be organized so that it can be amended without revolution. Revision must be possible by consent. But assent is not always given, even when the arguments in favor of change are overwhelming. Men will stand on what they call their rights. Therefore, in order that deadlock should be dissoluble, a rule should provide that subject to a certain formal procedure the controversy over revision shall be public. This will often break up the obstruction. Where it does not, the community is pretty certain to become engaged on behalf of one of the partisans. This is likely to be inconvenient to all concerned, and the inconvenience due to meddling in the substance of a controversy by a crude, violent and badly aimed public opinion at least may teach those directly concerned not to invoke interference the next time.”
Now this segment is a real beaut. In essence, Lippmann elucidates just when the public might become involved in political decision-making whenever the “dominant insiders” are unable to reach a mutually satisfactory consensus. More likely than bringing anything to the table, the public, by aligning itself with one faction of the dominant insiders, will instead probably provide an object lesson. Their “crudeness” and “violence” will chasten the leaders to resolve their problems internally the next time.
Having outlined his servile role for the public, Lippmann assigns to political scientists the task of analyzing public opinion and providing technocratic expertise.
“It is the task of the political scientist to devise the methods of sampling and to define the criteria of judgment (for leaders). It is the task of civic education (i.e. “social studies” and “history” classes) in a democracy to train the public in the use of these methods (i.e. cultivate being a chump). It is the task of those who build institutions to take them into account.”
In a passage that has seen some exposure, again by Chomsky without his tireless work, this essay could not exist Lippmann shows his true colors.
“A false ideal of democracy can only lead 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 it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”
Technocracy Defeats Liberal Democracy
“They [classical liberals of the enlightenment] made, instead, a noble appeal to their [the bystander’s] highest instincts. They spoke over the heads of men to man… [Classical Liberalism’s] appeal to everybody’s conscience gave nobody a clue how to act; the voter, the politician, the laborer, the capitalist had to construct their own codes ad hoc, accompanied perhaps by an expansive liberal sentiment, but without intellectual guidance from liberal thought.
“In a time when liberalism had lost its accidental association with free trade and laissez faire, through their abandonment in practice, it sadly justified itself as a necessary and useful spirit, as a kind of genial spook worth having around the place. For when individual men, guided by no philosophy but their own temporary rationalizations, got themselves embroiled, the spook would appear and in a peroration straighten out the more arbitrary biases displayed…
“It [liberalism] cannot say: You do this and you do that, as all ruling philosophies must. It can only say: That isn’t fair, that’s selfish, that’s tyrannical. Liberalism has been, therefore, a defender of the underdog, and his liberator, but not his guide, when he is free. Top dog himself, he easily leaves his liberalism aside, and to liberals the sour reflection that they have forged a weapon of release but not a way of life.
“The liberals have misunderstood the nature of the public to which they appealed… He assumed all mankind was within hearing, that all mankind, when it heard, would respond homogenously because it had a single soul. His appeal to this cosmopolitan, universal, disinterested intuition in everybody was equivalent to an appeal to nobody.”
This is a bitter pill. It’s not enough that the ideals of the Enlightenment have not yet spread far and wide in the United States, which necessitates more and better popular education. No, it was all a waste of time to appeal to such illusions as universality and conscience in the first place. The “top dog” has no time for it, you see. That solves that problem.
In what anyone might consider a lay definition of “morality,” who is really at fault here: the ordinary, disoriented citizen or the well-informed insider who so cavalierly dismisses and advertently manipulates and deceives his fellow Americans? The question is a valid today as it was then.
“No such fallacy [as with enlightenment liberalism] is to be found in the political philosophies which active men have lived by. They have all assumed, as a matter of course, that in the struggle against evil it was necessary to call upon some specific agent to do the work…
“It was the peculiarity of liberalism among theories which have played a great part in the world that it attempted to eliminate the hero entirely… The great state builders of modern times, Hamilton, Cavour, Bismark, Lenin, each had in mind somebody, some group of real people, who were to realize his program. The agents in the theory have varied, of course; they are the landlords, then the peasants, or the unions, or the military class, or the manufacturers; there are theories addressed to a church, to the ruling classes in particular nations, to some nation or race.”
It is a guffaw-inducing thing, at first glance, to read Alexander Hamilton, Bismarck and Lenin quoted admiringly in the same sentence. Another look reveals that by this logic, the Nazi Führer Prinzip has merit insofar as it “calls upon a specific agent,” a “race,” to “build a great state” while invoking the “hero.” Not like those liberal wimps.
It is true that the Enlightenment project sought to make of those exposed to its charms independent in intellect and of rational mind. This is what distinguishes, among other things, participatory democracy from the mentality which informs elite-orchestrated “bystander democracy,” Fascism and Communism. The people are fools, only we the “responsible men,” the “master race” or the “vanguard party” are fit to rule.
Propaganda, becoming evermore nuanced and pervasive in form and content, has been a staple of American life for eight decades now, manifested most frequently in advertising but also in very explicit and highly coordinated governmental or corporate campaigns and stunts over the years (among the more memorable in recent history were the Gulf War Show complete with lurid tales that explicitly recalled World War I propaganda against Hun (German) atrocities, the “Harry and Louise” ads against universal health care and the Al Gore victory in the “debate” with Ross Perot over NAFTA a pro-investor treaty which every single newspaper of note endorsed).
All of them, however, have been dwarfed, and not only in terms of the stakes, by the sheer enormity of lies and distortions that have streamed out of the Bush administration since 9/11. The likely ongoing development of something akin to the (allegedly discarded) Pentagon “Office of Strategic Influence,” an overt and permanent domestic propaganda agency, is just the latest indicator of the war on public opinion.
For the past two decades, on matters of rich and poor and certainly since 9/11 on matters of war and peace, we the people have been “put in our place,” by the powers that are. The “phantom public” does not rest perpetually however. Indeed, the likes of Lippmann could never have foreseen the achievements New Deal or the anti-Vietnam War movement. [Lippmann himself, interestingly, was a critic of Vietnam well before the Tet Offensive.] With a disastrous war upon us and whispers of economic crisis aloft, the phantom may yet rise to again haunt the ghastly keepers of Lippmann’s flame.
May 3, 2005
Stephen Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can find more of his work at his website.