Overview of Propaganda

Imagine that you have gone back in time to the beginning of the twentieth century. You live in a large metropolitan area along the East Coast of the United States, and you are a second- or third-generation American. You are a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. Your city is growing rapidly, with new neighborhoods springing up daily to house waves of immigrants from poorer nations in Eastern Europe and the Far East. These people speak strange languages and practice strange cultures. Many claim to be Christians, but they don’t behave like any Christians you’ve ever met. Most keep to themselves in ghetto neighborhoods in which there are many social problems.

Most disturbing of all, these people seem to have no sense of what it means to live in a free and democratic nation. They are governed by political bosses who turn them out to vote for what you perceive to be corrupt party-machine candidates. If you pay attention to gossip (or read the right books or magazines), you hear about groups like the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. You also hear (or read in your newspaper) that various extremist political groups are active in these ghettos, spreading all sorts of discontent among these ignorant, irresponsible aliens. Many of these nefarious groups are playing upon the newcomers’ loyalties to foreign nations. What would you do about this situation?

Well, you might adopt a Conservative approach and start an Americafor- Americans movement to remove these foreigners from the sacred soil of your homeland. If you are of a more liberal bent, you might be reluctant to send these immigrants back to where they came from (even though they do represent a threat to your way of life). As a forward-thinking person, you may want to convert these people away from their obviously misguided beliefs about government. You are aware that greedy employers are exploiting these people with sixteen-hour workdays and child labor, but you believe that’s why they should join mainstream political parties and work within the system. Perhaps, you figure, if they would only abstain from alcohol and adopt more rational forms of religion that might help them see their problems more clearly. This was how the political movement known as Progressivism tried to help immigrants in the late 1800s, but, unfortunately, most of these recent arrivals don’t seem to respond well to efforts designed to help them. They reject both Conservative and Progressive efforts to reform them. Resistance grows ever more determined and is accompanied by violence on both sides. Labor unions are organized to oppose the power of monopoly capitalists. Strikes become increasingly common and violent. Now what do you do? You could become a prohibitionist and successfully ban the sale of liquor. But this only creates a market for bootleggers, strengthening rather than reducing the power of organized crime. Political party bosses flourish. How will these newcomers ever become true Americans and be absorbed into the American melting pot?

Now imagine that you are one of those aliens. How do you cope with life in the world’s greatest democracy? You turn to your family and the friends of your family. Your cousin is a member of the political machine. He promises a patronage job—if you vote for his boss. You fight exploitation by joining labor unions that promise to correct bad working conditions. Above all, you practice the culture you grew up with, and you stay within the confines of the ghetto where that culture is practiced. You resent prohibition and see nothing wrong with occasionally consuming alcohol. You listen to family members and local political bosses who can do things for you and can be trusted to keep their promises.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States was a nation of many cultures. At any given point in time, people in different racial and ethnic groups were exploited and feared. Some of these groups escaped the ghettos, and their children were absorbed into the amorphous American middle class. Others were less successful. Some members of dominant cultural groups attempted to assist these minority groups, but their efforts were only partially successful. Too often, their work was actually self-serving—not selfless. They sought to protect their way of life from the threats posed by these other cultures and lifestyles. This led them to adopt solutions that sometimes made problems worse. Put yourself back there in time. Take whichever role you choose. How comfortable would you be? What would you do? How would you feel about the changes around you?

This situation was an ideal breeding ground for violent social conflict. The battle was waged in the streets and through the ever-expanding mass media. Yellow journalists and muckrakers fought wars of words in the media; battle lines were drawn between defenders of immigrant groups and representatives of existing elites, and the coverage was not confined to polite newspaper editorials or human-interest feature stories. It was a fight for the heart and soul of the nation (Altschull, 1990; Brownell, 1983). Nor was the struggle unique to the United States. In Europe, conflict across social-class lines was even more intense and deadly. These clashes led to the development of extremist political groups that demanded an end to democracy and the establishment of totalitarian states.

In the United States, advocates on all sides were convinced of the Truth and Justice of their causes. Their way was the American way, the Right way, the only True way. They were opposed by the forces of Evil and Chaos. These advocates appealed to the strongest emotions—hate and fear. Mass-mediated propaganda spread throughout America, across Europe, and around the world. Everywhere it deeply affected politics and culture.

In this chapter, we will discuss how political propaganda was used and then survey some of the theories developed to understand and control it. With the normative theories discussed in the next chapter, these were the first true media theories. Mass society theory saw media as only one of many disruptive forces. However, in propaganda theories, media became the focus of attention. Propaganda theorists specifically analyzed media content and speculated about its influence. They wanted to understand and explain the ability of messages to persuade and convert thousands or even millions of individuals to extreme viewpoints.

Propaganda commanded the attention of early media theorists because it threatened to undermine the very foundation of the U.S. political system and of democratic governments everywhere. By the late 1930s, many, if not most, American leaders were convinced that democracy wouldn’t survive if extremist political propaganda was allowed to be freely distributed. But censorship of propaganda meant imposing significant limitations on that essential principle of Western democracy, communication freedom. This posed a terrible dilemma. Strict censorship might also undermine democracy. In this chapter we will trace how propaganda theorists attempted to address and resolve this dilemma.

At first, some experts were optimistic that the American public could be educated to resist propaganda. After all, propaganda violates the most basic rules of fair democratic political communication. Propaganda freely uses lies and deception to persuade. If people could be taught to critically evaluate propaganda messages, they could learn how to reject them as unfair and false. These experts believed that public education could save democracy. Nevertheless, optimism about the power of public education faded as both Nazism and Communism spread from Europe to America during the 1930s. More and more Americans, especially first-generation immigrants from Europe, turned away from mainstream politicians and instead chose to listen to leaders who espoused totalitarian ideals and visions of social justice and jobs. Social movements sprang up based on propaganda imported more or less directly from Europe. In the United States, rallies were held to celebrate Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin and to denigrate inferior races and Wall Street bosses.

Propaganda experts became convinced that even if public education were a practical means of resisting propaganda, it would simply take too long. It might also teach people to resist all forms of propaganda at a time when some powerful elites saw as necessary the use of propaganda of their own making to promote democracy. Time was running out as the Depression deepened. It appeared likely that a Nazi or Communist leader would seize power before public education had a chance to succeed. So propaganda theorists abandoned idealism in favor of strategies they regarded as realistic and scientific. Propaganda must be resisted by whatever means possible. Even though the threat of propaganda was great, there might be a silver lining to this cloud. If we could find a way to harness the power of propaganda to promote good and just ideals, then we would not only survive its threat but have a tool to help build a better social order. This was the promise of what came to be called white propaganda—a strategy that used propaganda techniques to fight “bad” propaganda and promote objectives that elites considered good.

After World War II ended, these white propaganda techniques provided a basis for the development of strategic (promotional) communication methods that are widely used today in advertising and public relations. In fact, propaganda theory is experiencing a resurgence of interest precisely for this reason: the techniques used in these modern promotional efforts appear to many observers to be even more effective in the contemporary world of corporate media ownership (Laitinen and Rakos, 1997).

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