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How Propaganda Works

How Propaganda Works

by Jason Stanley


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How propaganda undermines democracy and why we need to pay attention

Our democracy today is fraught with political campaigns, lobbyists, liberal media, and Fox News commentators, all using language to influence the way we think and reason about public issues. Even so, many of us believe that propaganda and manipulation aren't problems for us—not in the way they were for the totalitarian societies of the mid-twentieth century. In How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid. He examines how propaganda operates subtly, how it undermines democracy—particularly the ideals of democratic deliberation and equality—and how it has damaged democracies of the past.

Focusing on the shortcomings of liberal democratic states, Stanley provides a historically grounded introduction to democratic political theory as a window into the misuse of democratic vocabulary for propaganda's selfish purposes. He lays out historical examples, such as the restructuring of the US public school system at the turn of the twentieth century, to explore how the language of democracy is sometimes used to mask an undemocratic reality. Drawing from a range of sources, including feminist theory, critical race theory, epistemology, formal semantics, educational theory, and social and cognitive psychology, he explains how the manipulative and hypocritical declaration of flawed beliefs and ideologies arises from and perpetuates inequalities in society, such as the racial injustices that commonly occur in the United States.

How Propaganda Works shows that an understanding of propaganda and its mechanisms is essential for the preservation and protection of liberal democracies everywhere.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173429
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/06/2016
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 153,903
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests, Language in Context, and Know How.

Read an Excerpt

How Propaganda Works

By Jason Stanley, Martin Brady


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6580-2



There is a simple and compelling argument, known since Plato, which would lead us to expect that even apparently robust liberal democracies are such in name only. The argument is as follows. A certain form of propaganda, associated with demagogues, poses an existential threat to liberal democracy. The nature of liberal democracy prevents propagandistic statements from being banned, since among the liberties it permits is the freedom of speech. But since humans have characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation, allowing propaganda has a high likelihood of leading to tyranny, and hence to the end of liberal democracy.

The argument is central to the lengthy history of political philosophy, from antiquity to the twentieth century. Jean Jacques Rousseau is correct when, in The Social Contract, published in 1762, he declares the problem to be political philosophy's central reason for skepticism about democracy:

The reason our political theorists go astray is the following: All the states they see were badly constituted to begin with, and they are struck by the fact that no polity of the kind I have described could possibly be kept going within those states. They tell over to themselves, with vast amusement, all the absurdities that a crafty scoundrel or spell-binder could pass off on the people of Paris or London.

It is not accidental that the problem propaganda poses for democracy is so central in the long history of political philosophy. Philosophers have historically taken the stability of a political system to be a way of evaluating it against other political systems. It is for this reason that Aristotle chooses democracy as the least bad of the various forms of government in his Politics. But even Aristotle recognized (in Politics, book 5, chapter 5) that democracy's flaw, the particular instability it faces, came from "demagogues" who alternately "stir up" and "curry favor" with the people. Aristotle clearly recognized that a chief danger to democracy was flawed ideology and demagogic propaganda.

The argument has been at the center of philosophical discussions about the stability of the system of any form of democracy from antiquity to the twentieth century, and has been accordingly central to the evaluation of liberal democracy as a political system. Curiously, however, the problem has completely dropped out of discussion in philosophy. Why so? Here is a suggestion. On one conception of normative political philosophy, the goal is to describe the normatively ideal components of an ideal liberal democratic state. But in an ideal liberal democratic state there is no propaganda. So propaganda as a topic is no longer visible.

In ideal political theory, the problem of how to move from an actually flawed state guided incompletely by liberal democratic ideals to an ideal liberal democratic state is known as the transition problem. It is usually posed in terms of how to change from an unjust distribution of goods to a just distribution of goods. The tension between two liberal values, rights to private property and equality, is at the center. Given the self-conception of political philosophy as the study of properties of the ideal liberal democratic state, the transition problem counts as "applied" political philosophy. To label something as "applied" in philosophy is to marginalize its study. Ethics is "pure" philosophy; applied ethics is "impure" philosophy, fit for those who cannot absorb the discipline in its pure form.

It is possible to frame the problem of propaganda in terms of the transition problem. The question would be how to transition from a kind of deliberation that is not democratic to genuine democratic deliberation without violating the freedom of speech.3 Ideal political theory does therefore allow for a space to address what one may arguably regard as the most central question of democratic political theory. It is a question, yet to be addressed in the discipline, of applied political philosophy. It is to be addressed at some point after the issue of how to move from an unjust distribution of goods to a just distribution of goods is solved.

The problem raised for liberal democracy by propaganda is whether the most central expression of its value, liberty (realized as the freedom of speech), makes liberal democracy fundamentally unstable. The conception of normative political philosophy I have sketched allows a space, though a marginalized one, to address the question. But it hinders insight into the historical centrality of the problem. Rousseau very clearly attributes to all political philosophers of his time the view that "no polity of the kind I have described [a democracy] could possibly be kept going within those states." But the idea that it could pose some kind of fundamental conceptual problem to liberal democracy is now difficult to understand.

Charles Mills has developed this point into an objection to the very methodology of ideal theory:

[I]deal theory either tacitly represents the actual as a simple deviation from the ideal, not worth theorizing in its own right, or claims that starting from the ideal is at least the best way of realizing it.... Almost by definition, it follows from the focus of ideal theory that little or nothing will be said on actual historic oppression and its legacy in the present, or current ongoing oppression, though these may be gestured at in a vague or promissory way (as something to be dealt with later).

In the same paper, Mills argues that ideal theory presupposes an "idealized cognitive sphere," in which "[a] general social transparency will be presumed, with cognitive obstacles minimized as limited to biases of self-interest or the intrinsic difficulties of understanding the world, and little or no attention paid to the distinctive role of hegemonic ideologies and group-s pecific experience in distorting our perceptions and conceptions of the social order" In other words, topics such as flawed ideology and propaganda clearly fall outside the scope of the ideal theoretic project.

In previous work, Mills calls our attention to the non-ideal character of the classic texts in political philosophy:

The classic texts of the central thinkers of the Western political tradition—for example, Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Marx—typically provide not merely normative judgments but mappings of social ontologies and political epistemologies which explain why the normative judgments of others have gone astray. These theorists recognized that to bring about the ideal polity, one needs to understand how the structure and workings of the actual polity may interfere with our perception of the social truth.

Political philosophy concerns itself with normative judgments, how things ought to be. One view of normativity holds that it is only reasonable to hold someone to what they ought to do if it is within the bounds of her capacity to do it. If one ought to obey a law, it must be possible to obey that law. Otherwise, that law sets an impossible demand. On this view, the normative judgments of political philosophy are bounded by what is within the reasonable capacity to expect of human societies. On another view of normativity, ideals can guide even if they cannot be completely realized. But even this view is bounded by the possibility of being guided by those ideals; it may be that sufficiently remote ideals cannot function to guide in human societies. The study of what is within the reasonable capacity of human societies is social theory.

The view that political philosophy can be done without social theory presupposes that social theory will not place significant and unexpected restrictions on political possibility. Therefore, political philosophy without social theory involves extreme idealization in the construction of its models. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, the idealizations involved in ideal theoretic political philosophy are akin to the ideals involved in the decision theoretic axioms governing rationality. My view of the decision theoretic ideals is that they provide a false and distorting view of the ordinary picture of rationality when they are considered as ideals for agents with bounded rationality like us. I hold a similar view for ideal conceptions of the state, when such ideas are theorized without simultaneous attention to social theory.

This book is clearly influenced by Mills. However, it is easy to misunderstand Mills in ways in which it may also be easy to misunderstand the project here. There is a commonly held view that politics is simply about power and interests, and the political vocabulary is only ever used strategically. The rhetoric of political and moral ideals is just one more weapon in a game whose object is to seize power and, along with it, the goods of society. One might worry that Mills's objections to ideal theory come from this dark perspective.

In a book published in 1901, Vilfredo Pareto begins the twentieth century with an articulation of the view that politics is simply about power and interests:

Buddhism, which proclaimed the equality of all men, has generated the theocracy of Tibet; and the religion of Christ, which seemed especially made for the poor and humble, has generated the Roman theocracy.... The decline of the old elite and its increasing arrogance at the time of the Reformation can be clearly seen in the emergence of the robber barons: Sickingen and Hutten are two types of such a revolutionary knighthood. As usual, the new elite leaned on the poor and humble; as usual, these believed in the promises made to them; as usual they were deceived, and the yoke weighed even heavier on their shoulders than before.

Similarly, the revolution of 1789 produced the Jacobin oligarchy and ended with the imperial despotism. This is what has always happened and there is no reason to believe that the usual course of events should change now.

The view is also clearly articulated in the works of Carl Schmitt, who writes, "[A]ll political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning. They are focused on a specific conflict and are bound to a concrete situation; the result (which manifests itself in war or revolution) is a friend-enemy grouping, and they turn into empty and ghost-like abstractions when this situation disappears"

Because of the enduring controversy of Schmitt's National Socialist political affiliations, he is not the official mid-twentieth-century spokesperson for the view that politics is only about power and interests. But it is a not uncommon view in political and social science that the complexities of administration make democratic accountability too difficult to be realistically managed by a society substantively guided by democratic norms. On this view, the democratic vocabulary has no application, and should instead be employed by those versed in economics and policy—what we now call "experts"—to mask from the masses an illiberal and undemocratic reality. The wide contemporary acceptance of the antidemocratic position is due to the fact that what could be regarded as an authoritarian conclusion has been presented in the economic language of efficiency.

It is one thing to dismiss descriptions of the regular misuse of democratic political ideals when they are presented alongside National Socialist ideology or the Orwellian ideology of certain branches of contemporary social science. It is much more difficult to dismiss such descriptions when they issue from the pens of philosophers suffering under the yoke of oppression. The former eschew normative vocabulary in their description of what they take to be the inevitable political reality. The latter are clearly engaged in a normative project of critique. There is no possibility, in reading Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, or Charles Mills, of construing them as endorsing the elites' use of the concepts of liberal democracy to seize power. It is clearly a demand for oppression to be philosophically addressed, rather than a philosophical endorsement of the mechanism of oppression. It is not inconsistent with ideal theory. It is a demand for the reformulation of the task of normative political philosophy to place social theory on equal footing. It is why many political philosophers who are members of oppressed groups self-describe as working in "social and political philosophy"' whereas members of privileged groups often self-describe as working in "political philosophy"'

Philosophy, classically understood, has as its task both the presentation of reality and the explanation of the illusions that deceive us from recognizing it. Normative political philosophy so conceived should have among its most central tasks not just a defense of the political ideal that is so often masked by political illusion, but also an explanation of political illusion itself. Normative political philosophy that fails to place political illusion at the same level of importance as political ideal faces the legitimate objection that the practice of normative political philosophy is itself part of the machinery that produces illusion: in this case, the illusion that there is no illusion.

In The Republic, Plato is clear that one task of philosophy is to cast off illusions. His worry with the democratic city is that most of its members are not philosophers and suffer under the illusions that philosophers have dispelled. The liberty granted by democracy gives tyrants the power of illusion over the masses. Democracy suffers from "an excess of liberty" that "seems destined to end up in slavery" (564a).

Plato and Joseph Goebbels, the Reich minister of propaganda, were both enemies of democracy, Plato because he thought it was too likely to be exploited by people such as Goebbels. There are differences between Plato's conception of democracy and the Weimar Republic, the democracy whose freedoms gave rise to National Socialism. It is nevertheless plausible to take Plato as drawing our attention to the point Joseph Goebbels is making in the epigraph to this book. The liberties allowed by democracy too easily allow demagogues to seize power and thereby end democracy. The risk is too great that someone who is in fact a "towering despot" (566d) will represent himself as a protector of the people and seize power. This is the classic statement of the problem propaganda poses for democracy. Democracy is a system of self-rule that is supposed to maximize liberty. Freedom of speech, especially public political speech, cannot be restricted in a democracy. But the unrestricted use of propaganda is a serious threat to democracy.

In book 1 of The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau poses a question: "Is a method of associating discoverable, which will defend and protect, with all the collective might, the person and property of each associate, and in virtue of which each associate, though he becomes a member of the group, nevertheless obeys himself, and remains as free as before?" Rousseau's solution is the social contract. There is a tacit agreement between members of a civil society to place themselves under the same laws, which "place the same burden on everybody." What results is a "collective moral body," which Rousseau calls a Sovereign Power. The sovereign is a state that "consists exclusively of the individuals who are its members" and hence "has no interest that goes against theirs, and cannot possibly have such an interest."

Rousseau calls the freedom humans have in the state of nature natural liberty. Natural liberty, for Rousseau, is a person's "unlimited right to anything that [she] is tempted by and can get." The problem Rousseau seeks to answer is how, in civil society, humans can remain free, despite losing their natural liberty. Rousseau's solution is to motivate a distinct kind of liberty. Natural liberty, for Rousseau, is more often than not mere "motivation by sheer apatite" Genuine liberty is, for Rousseau, different than this; it is what he calls civil liberty. By being a citizen in a sovereign power, one gains civil liberty. It is "obedience to self-imposed law," of the sort formed by deliberation in citizens' assemblies, which is genuine freedom. True freedom, for Rousseau, is accepting the decisions that are arrived at by a majority under conditions of full civil liberty, that is, political equality.


Excerpted from How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley, Martin Brady. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface IX

Introduction: The Problem of Propaganda 1

1 Propaganda in the History of Political Thought 27

2 Propaganda Defined 39

3 Propaganda in Liberal Democracy 81

4 Language as a Mechanism of Control 125

5 Ideology 178

6 Political Ideologies 223

7 The Ideology of Elites: A Case Study 269

Conclusion 292

Acknowledgments 295

Notes 305

Bibliography 335

Index 347

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Jason Stanley's How Propaganda Works is a novel and significant contribution that should revitalize political philosophy."—Noam Chomsky

"Filled with compelling examples, this book examines what propaganda is and what threat bad propaganda poses for democracy. The case it makes—which is conceptual, normative, historical, and empirical—is persuasive and provocative. Stanley is tackling an important topic that many philosophers ignore but shouldn't."—Tommie Shelby, author of We Who Are Dark

"This ambitious book brings Stanley's insights from epistemology and philosophy of language to bear on the self-masking role of propaganda in democracy. Generous use of concrete political applications enliven the book's arguments and drive home the topic's normative importance."—Rae Langton, University of Cambridge

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