Thought Policing

How Propaganda Works BY Jason Stanley. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 376 pages. $29.

The 9/11 attacks occurred the week I had to defend my dissertation in philosophy. I took my first tenure-track job (yes, such a thing existed back then) during the launch of our now fourteen-year-old “war on terror.” As I made my way in academia in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency, my new colleagues and I would inevitably discuss the authoritarian and distorting turn of American public discourse. How could so many be so cowed and so misled into supporting such an obvious misadventure as the Iraq war? How could our leading institutions—and especially the media—fail so miserably to underline the immorality of torture and question the claims as to Saddam Hussein’s threat to national security? This dismal time raised the specter of propaganda, and posed the questions of how the false alibis of power could hold such sway in a liberal democracy and what could be done about it.

In 2004–2005, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan. By then, I had become so radicalized by the American political situation and so frustrated by the restrictive horizons of my research—my specialty was ancient Greek philosophy—that I felt I had to make a choice. On the one hand, I might continue on the academic track and try to speak out where I could. (Like many of my peers, I was an active extramural blogger.) On the other, I could leave the ivory tower behind and plunge into journalism.

One of my Michigan colleagues during that year was Jason Stanley, a distinguished philosopher of language and epistemology. Although we didn’t chat about topical issues at that time, it’s clear from his subsequent writing that he, too, was deeply disturbed by the same political moment. In 2011, Stanley, now a professor at Yale, began writing a series of pieces related to propaganda, ideology, and democracy for The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy opinion blog. His new book, How Propaganda Works, is the fruit of his turn from his core specialties to politics.

In altering his focus, Stanley follows a long line of academic specialists in linguistics, sociology, political science, psychology, and communications who have sought to dissect the various ways that propaganda insinuates itself into public life. For Stanley, propaganda is a topic ripe for philosophical analysis:

The lead-up in 2003 to the Iraq War again raised the philosophical mystery of the power of propaganda. A Washington Post poll in September 2003 found that almost 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York City. . . . How is it that propaganda can thoroughly convince the majority of the country of something that later appears to have been obviously false at the time? The questions of the effectiveness of ideology and propaganda bear the characteristic hallmarks of philosophical problems.

These concerns raise, in turn, a key philosophical quandary in their own right: Can philosophy in the analytic tradition help us understand the problem of propaganda? Since Stanley is steeped in analytic philosophy, his book provides a valuable test case.

The results are decidedly mixed. On the plus side, the book crackles with brilliant insights and erudition, while also managing to explain the arcane preoccupations of analytic philosophy in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience. He is particularly strong in applying his own specialties, language and epistemology, to the subject at hand. Yet his book unfortunately also suffers from a shortcoming typical of the academic-philosophy genre: It reads more like a series of related journal articles on a topic than like a book engaging with a pressing issue on a sustained basis. Although the writing is clear from page to page, Stanley often leaves his subject for prolonged tangents that only specialists would care about and that do little to advance the book’s argument.

How Propaganda Works runs into trouble early on, when it seeks, in its second chapter, to define its basic terms of inquiry. Stanley begins by rejecting the “classical sense of propaganda” as derived from Immanuel Kant—which holds that propaganda is “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate”—as well as the closely related “biased speech” definition advanced by Noam Chomsky: that propaganda is “speech that irrationally closes off certain options that should be considered.” In Stanley’s view, neither account explains the popular appeal of propaganda, especially in a liberal democracy, or its relationship to ideology.

Such objections are puzzling. Stanley claims he is offering an account of what propaganda is—a metaphysical definition—but it’s unclear just how the popular allure of propaganda for its audience should inform a metaphysical, as opposed to a psychological, account.

“The essence of political propaganda,” Stanley argues, “is that it is a kind of speech that fundamentally involves political, economic, aesthetic, or rational ideals, mobilized for a political purpose.” Specifically, what distinguishes propaganda is its tendency to undermine the very ideals that its disseminators invoke as they craft it. For example, when oil companies pay so-called experts to make skeptical claims about climate change, such experts will base their authority on an implicit appeal to the objectivity of science. But at the same time, of course, their careers as leased company mouthpieces completely undercut the aims of objective science at their foundation.

Still, as Stanley continues to enumerate examples of propaganda and its abuses, it becomes clear that he’s relying on an unrealistic conception of the politically interested manipulation of the truth. Consider this one:

In the National Socialist press, the Jews were described as a public health threat, as in Hitler’s claim that “Jews are the Black Death.” The claim that “Jews are the Black Death” is clearly a public health alert. . . . However, many Germans at the time in fact were Jewish. The public health threat was inconsistent with the health of a group of citizens of that country. So the content of the claim was clearly inconsistent with the political ideals it represented itself as embodying.

But how is it, exactly, that these Nazi claims should be taken as public-health alerts? The Nazis were doing far more than expressing internally contradictory messages by promulgating bogus health advisories about the contaminating powers of German Jews. Their aim was simultaneously more straightforward and more self-aware: to deliberately inculcate in the masses an irrational aversion to Jews, which Nazi leaders could then exploit to depict Jews as fit subjects for extermination. The audience for these anti-Semitic appeals wasn’t duped by the ideal of public health, but rather by the more pedestrian techniques of association, repetition, and racial scapegoating. In this cesspool of deeply irrational and pathological race hatred, the framework offered by analytic philosophy isn’t especially helpful.

Stanley is on firmer ground when he essays a narrowly linguistic analysis of propaganda. There, he draws a distinction between “at-issue content,” i.e., information that is asserted by an utterance, and “not-at-issue content”—supplemental information that listeners are urged to uncritically accept without the benefit of any formal assertion. Through the promiscuous confusion of these two forms of content, propaganda breeds its own distinctive linguistic sleight of hand, which can convey to a listener meanings beyond the surface level of discourse. This broader stream of perception, which propaganda consistently exploits at other-than-rational levels of thought, also helps to explain why views we accept because of propaganda are hard for us to articulate or even rationally access.

Stanley also identifies a crucial political paradox at the heart of propaganda and offers some promising resources to address it. In a liberal democracy, propaganda appears to be symptomatic of a sick polity, yet it also seems inevitable. As Stanley rightly argues, propaganda is grounded in inequality, which is inimical to the liberal-democratic ideal of equal relations embedded in the social contract.

Stanley persuasively argues that propaganda in liberal democracies is in fact symptomatic of material inequality—and that, insofar as material inequality enables propagandistic tendencies, it epistemically undermines liberal democracy. The rich command cultural and intellectual resources that allow them to articulate and voice their interests and views more effectively than the poor. And the rich and powerful will also tend, ineluctably, to construct flawed ideologies that endorse their privilege and the policies that maintain it. From there, it’s but a short step to persuading captive politicians, media outlets, and the public at large to adopt these slanted views, which in turn blind everyone to the very problem of how material inequality leads to epistemic inequality. As Stanley concludes:

Large inequalities in society tend to lead to epistemic practices that are obstacles to the realization of liberal democratic ideals. . . . Those who benefit from such inequalities will tend to believe that the ideals have nevertheless been realized, even in the face of clear evidence that they have not. They will use their privileged status to erect vehicles of propaganda devoted to obstructing investigation into the gaps between ideal and reality. The resulting school systems and media outlets will prevent even members of dispossessed groups from recognizing the existence of such gaps.

All true enough—yet, at the same time, some quotient of propaganda in a large liberal democracy cannot be avoided. Despite the Enlightenment ideals of the American founding, the public isn’t made up of epistemic equals. Even if all citizens were equally intelligent, they couldn’t all devote the requisite time to understand how best to conduct all our affairs. Leaders in a liberal democracy must find a way to persuade the public to support measures it doesn’t and can’t know much about, without the means, time, and expertise to offer a full, rational explanation. In order to get anything done, and to enlist public opinion on their side, they have to propagandize.

So what, in the end, makes the propaganda that launched the Iraq war or attempted to end the “death tax” bad but other instances of propaganda—such as the campaigns that launched FDR’s war against Fascism, economic royalists, and want—good, or at least tolerable?

I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say the ends justify the means, but Stanley is surely onto something when he claims that the most productive role for propaganda in a liberal democracy is to shore up liberal-democratic ideals. In this view of things, the cure for the problem of propaganda isn’t to make less of it, per se, but to harness it into the service of undergirding the core values of our political system: reasonableness, pluralism, and equality.

I left academia to fight for these values. Although journalism is not propaganda, Stanley’s book clarifies what’s at stake when journalists fail to see how the propaganda of our liberal democracy is functioning.


David V. Johnson is the online opinion editor for Al Jazeera America. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University.