Category Archives: Carey: Taking the Risk out of Democracy


How Propaganda Subverted Democracy – the Beginning

by Neil Godfrey

Previous two posts: (1) Propaganda in Modern Democracies and (2) “America, the most propagandised of all nations”


It began with the emergence of modern democracy. Historians have labeled the few decades prior to World War 1 the Age of Progress (compare the Gilded Age in the US). Business interests boomed and so did working class power. Democracy was on the march in both the UK and US: in 1880 10 to 15% of the population had the vote; by 1920 that figure had advanced to 40 or 50% — although in reality it was more a slogging series of trench battles than a march.

The Fears

It is hard for us today to imagine that two hundred years ago people were arguing that land itself was by nature “the free gift of the Creator to all his creatures, and not the produce of human labour, like money, food, or any other perishable commodity, it can never be a legitimate subject of property.” (Bronterre, The Operative, vol. i., no. 4, p. 1, 1838, cited in Dickinson 1898, p. 145) Bronterre was not alone. Robert Owen was among other prominent voices for the same principle.

Those who owned the property and capital were by and large alarmed by these developments.

[T]o the working class the question of political reform had been from the beginning a question of property. It was misery that made them politicians. They were convinced that all their suffering was due to unjust laws, and that, therefore, the only remedy was the appropriation of political power by the sufferers. Society, as it was constituted, was an organised conspiracy to rob the working class; it was the order of society itself that needed to be reversed, and the means to that reversal was parliamentary reform. . . .

It appears, then, . . .  that the political agitation of the working class was inspired from the first by the keen sense of distress . . .

[A] silent revolution has taken place. By successive extensions of the franchise and redistribution of seats the principle of adult (or at least of manhood) suffrage has come to be so far recognised in fact that a further extension of it is generally felt to be merely the logical corollary of what has been already done. . . . 

But the mass of the people into whose hands, in the course of devolution, the government will fall, are daily becoming more and more aware of what they mean to do with their power. The working class is ranging itself against the owners of land and capital. The nation is dividing into two antagonistic sections, and it is to one of these sections, that which is numerically the larger, that must fall, according to the democratic theory of government, the absolute monopoly of power. It is in this situation that resides the political problem of the English democracy . . . . (Dickinson 1898, p. 131, 146, 153, 159)

How serious a problem was the extension of democracy?

Universal suffrage . . . would give, it is supposed, to the more numerous of the two classes . . . the unconditional and absolute control of the legislature; they would therefore be able to effect, without further difficulty or scruple, a fundamental change in the tenure of property.

Stated thus crudely and frankly, but not, as I believe, unfairly, this conception appears to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of the whole theory of democracy, so far as it is held in any absolute sense. It is not true, and it never has been and never will be true, that the majority have either the right or the power to do anything they choose, in defiance of the claims or the wishes of the minority; and if ever a serious attempt were to be made to carry out the policy of the Socialists, the only result would be the breakdown of government altogether. Government by the majority is a convenient means of conducting national affairs, where and in so far as there is a basis of general agreement deeper and more persistent than the variations of surface opinion; but as soon as a really fundamental point is touched, as soon as a primary instinct, whether of self-preservation or of justice, begins to be seriously and continuously outraged, the democratic convention gives way.

Fear of “the tyranny of the majority” does sound somewhat crass if those who have the most to lose for the sake of establishing a more equitable and fairer society for all speak about their own interests only. Attention is deflected to a more idealistic cause, one that makes the opponents of majority rule look like white knights  with nought but the interests of others at heart, like religious minorities. (Never mind the fact those opposed to full democracy at other times expressed horror that the advocates for extending the franchise would “destroy all reverence for religion” and roll back the power of the Church!)

No minority, for example, even in a compact modem State, either would or ought to submit to a decision of the majority to prohibit the exercise of their religion. Such a decision could only be carried into effect by force, subject to the contingency of armed rebellion; and orderly government would dissolve into veiled or open civil war. Similarly, and in spite of the optimism of Home Rulers, it is perfectly possible that in the case of a population as heterogeneous as that of Ireland, the attempt to introduce the system of government by the majority might really drive the minority to rebellion. (Dickinson 1898, p. 161f)

The minority with the wealth and industrial power had the means to fight. They also were acquiring the means to fight without necessarily always resorting to physical violence.

The Warnings

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“America, the most propagandised of all nations”

by Neil Godfrey
This post is a sequel to Propaganda in Modern Democracies

Man is essentially more rational than irrational when he has access to adequate knowledge. When issues are clearly understood, a generally sound judgment is in evidence. The tragic fact remains, however, that he still lives in a world which seldom allows him the full information he needs to display consistently rational behavior. . . . The American man in the street is, as Childs contends, the most propagandized person of any nation . . . (Meier 1950:162)

Nor do other nations that have come increasingly under the influence of the United States have room for complacency and future posts will look at instances where American propaganda techniques have become established in other countries.

Propaganda in a democracy has been most commonly channeled through commercial advertising and public relations.

In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that ‘advertising is peculiarly American’, but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that ‘Hitler … employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilising advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost’ (Dudley 1947:106, 108, cited in Carey 1997:14).

Traditional media deployed: film, radio, TV, even comic strips, and now, of course, our new communication technologies daily vying for our attention.

Recall Jacques Ellul’s definition from the previous post to keep in mind what is at work through these media:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.

There are certain characteristics of American society that has made it particularly fertile ground for the creation of durable emotional symbols charged with power to manipulate public attitudes.

goodevilOne of those characteristics is the historical predisposition of American society to fall in line with a dualistic or Manichean world-view.

This is a world-view dominated by the powerful symbols of the Satanic and the Sacred (darkness and light). A society or culture which is disposed to view the world in Manichean terms will be more vulnerable to control by propaganda. Conversely, a society where propaganda is extensively employed as a means of social control will tend to retain a Manichean world-view, a world-view dominated by symbols and visions of the Sacred and the Satanic. (Carey 1997:15)

Another quality is the pragmatic orientation of US society.

This is a preference for action over reflection. If the truth of a belief is to be sought in the consequences of acting on the belief, rather than through a preliminary examination of the grounds for holding it, there will be a tendency to act first and question later (if at all — for once a belief is acted upon the actor becomes involved in responsibility for the consequences and will be disposed to interpret the consequences so that they justify his belief and hence his action). If it is that American culture, compared with most others, values action above reflection, one may expect that condition to favour a Manichean world-view. For acknowledgement of ambiguity, that is, a non-Manichean world where agencies or events may comprise or express any complex amalgam of Good and Evil — demands continual reflection, continual questioning of premises. Reflection inhibits action, while a Manichean world-view facilitates action. On that account action and a Manichean world-view are likely to be more congenial to and to resonate with the cultural preference found in the United States. (Carey 1997:15)

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Propaganda in Modern Democracies

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.

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