Propaganda in Modern Democracies

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by Neil Godfrey

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

It is a remarkable fact worthy of attention that modem propaganda should have begun in the democratic States. During World Was I we saw the combined use of the mass media for the first time; the application of publicity and advertising methods to political affairs, the search for the most effective psychological methods. But in those days German propaganda was mediocre: the French, English, and American democracies launched big propaganda. Similarly, the Leninist movement, undeniably democratic at the start, developed and perfected all propaganda methods. Contrary to some belief, the authoritarian regimes were not the first to resort to this type of action, though they eventually employed it beyond all limits. This statement should make us think about the relationship between democracy and propaganda. (Ellul 1973:232f)

Propaganda began in modern democratic states? Surely those of us who are so fortunate to live in open democracies are free to think for ourselves and make informed decisions for the greater good. We have a free press, publicly accountable education and the secret ballot. After all . . .

In 1942 Henry Wallace coined the phrase ‘the century of the common man’ to epitomize his belief that American (and world) society would come under the influence of the needs and aspirations of the great mass of ordinary people. He foresaw a society where education, science, technology, corporate power and natural resources would, to an unprecedented extent, be controlled and used in the service of large humane ends rather than in the service of individual power and class privilege (Blum 1973:635-40 cited in Carey 1997:11).

Comparable predictions have been made of the age of the internet.

“If you want to see propaganda in action look at North Korea,” we think. The idea that those of us living in free and open democratic societies are influenced by propaganda seems laughable by comparison.

There’s a catch, however. Crude propaganda is a very blunt instrument. It’s the sort of obvious propaganda we could see practiced by the Soviet leadership. It made little use of social science or psychology to shape its techniques and many of its intended targets could see right through it. People would in private roll their eyes or seek out foreign media instead. When the authoritarian system collapsed people no longer had to pretend to believe it. As I’ll discuss in future posts, sophisticated propaganda techniques that did make use of research in the social sciences and psychology began in the United States and they have proved far more effective. Expensive policing, spying and dictatorial intimidation and coercion are not needed. In place of a Goebbels-led Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda we have Public Relations and Human Relations departments. We have the ever-helpful Press Releases put out by corporations and government departments. Media Management has become a major part of political party and corporate business. Not that “information services” are themselves propaganda. There is more to it than that.

So let’s back up and understand what propaganda is.

Harold Lasswell

Harold Lasswell

A leading figure in the development of propaganda in the United States was Harold Lasswell. We’ll talk more about him later. For now, here is his definition:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the technique of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . .

Literacy and the physical channels of communication have quickened the connection between those who rule and the ruled. Conventions have arisen which favor the ventilation of opinions and the taking of votes. Most of that which formerly could be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion. Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of palaver, and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda.

(Lasswell 1927:627-631)

The public may believe it is the ultimate ruler (dictator) in a democracy but Laswell is saying that those in power, business, corporate and political, have the means to shape the public’s values, beliefs, actions by methods far more sophisticated than those used by Goebbels.

Lest the comparison with Goebbels sound overblown, note what Drew Dudley (1947: 107) wrote for the American Academy of Political and Social Science shortly after the war:

It is rather amazing that during all the war years of government advertising, virtually no one raised the cry, Propaganda! One might have expected to hear someone label the use of advertising techniques by government as “Hitlerism.” Actually, Hitler did employ the technique of advertising during the prewar and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilizing advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost.

As Alex Carey observed,

Contrary to common assumptions, propaganda plays an important role — and certainly a more covert and sophisticated role — in technologically advanced democratic societies, where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion. In contrast, under authoritarian regimes power and privilege are not open and vulnerable to dissenting public opinion. This was the point made by Robert Brady after an extensive study of business and corporate public relations — a term he uses to cover domestic propaganda. Brady (1943:288-9) . . . argues that Italy and Japan had the least experience of democratic institutions and therefore produced the least competent propaganda. In Germany, where there had been greater, though still limited experience of democratic institutions, ‘Nationalist Socialist propaganda was by all means better organised . . . more vociferous and more versatile than the propaganda of either Italy or Japan’. At the other end of the scale, that is among countries with the longest experience of liberal, democratic institutions, ‘public relations propaganda … in the United States … is more highly coloured and ambidextrous than it has ever become, even in England’. (Carey 1997:12)

Carey provides an illustration of how democratic propaganda was practiced in the United States in the 1920s, in the days when it was a newly emerging operation:

In 1928-29 the Federal Trade Commission conducted investigations into the multi-million dollar propaganda activities of the private utilities. Mr B. J. Mullaney, director of the utility interests’ Illinois ‘information committee’, produced in testimony a statement that Robert Dahl has described as the ‘classic formulation of the importance of indirect techniques’ of political influence. Mullaney observed:

When a destructive bill is pending in the legislature it has to be dealt with in a way to get results. I am not debating that. But to depend year after year on the usual political expedients for stopping hostile legislation is short-sightedness. In the long run isn’t it better and surer to lay a groundwork with people back home who have the votes, so that proposals of this character are not popular with them, rather than depend upon stopping such proposals when they get up to the legislature or commission. (Dahl 1959:30)

(Carey 1997:13-14)

The above quotations contain some evidence that there is a will or motivation among power elites to use propaganda techniques in our free and open democratic societies.

Propaganda does not simply shape beliefs. Most importantly it shuts down debate, reflection, ambiguities, give-and-take discussion.

Propaganda cannot be satisfied with partial successes, for it does not tolerate discussion; by its very nature, it excludes contradiction and discussion. (Ellul 1973:11)

Yet discussion is tolerated, or rather encouraged and well used, as long as it is being guided and directed to the “right end”. Mao’s China encouraged endless discussion sessions. I recall a documentary interviewing people who had belonged to The Hitler Youth party where they described how seductive it all was. Discussion and questioning of Nazi policy was genuinely permitted. Then came the caveat and it reminded me of my own time in a religious cult. Yes, discuss and question by all means, but always and only in a “right attitude”. When living in Singapore I once read a local newspaper article boasting how openly democratic Singapore society was. The proof offered was that political leaders met with their constituents in public halls and encouraged open questions and discussion of government policy. Critical views were aired. But living in Singapore I could also by that time read well between the lines and pick up the tone of the article itself: everything had to be conducted with the “right attitude”.

Criticism from genuine opponents quite something else. That’s when hostile denunciation, even demonization, takes the place of genuinely reflective and self-analytical discussion.

In another post I’ll talk about the way symbols are used to manipulate and shape public attitudes and support for political and corporate interests.


Carey, A. (1996). Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1St Edition edition). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Dudley, D. (1947). “Molding Public Opinion Through Advertising.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 250, 105–112.

Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.) (unknown edition). New York: Vintage.

Lasswell, H. D. (1927). “The Theory of Political Propaganda.” The American Political Science Review, 21(3), 627–631. http://doi.org/10.2307/1945515




  • 2016-09-11 21:17:03 UTC - 21:17 | Permalink

    I’m really looking forward to this series. The U.S. is indeed manipulated and controlled by business interests rather than by the interests and views of the majority.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-09-11 22:36:49 UTC - 22:36 | Permalink

      A twinge of guilt hits me each time I start a new series because I know I still have a dozen other series that I’m working on, some months, maybe a year, behind schedule. So disorganized!

      • Tim Widowfield
        2016-09-12 00:41:53 UTC - 00:41 | Permalink

        Neil, you’re ten times more organized than I am. I wonder if I’ll finish any of mine.

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