Propaganda in a Democracy

When Edward Bernays, proclaimed by many as the father of public relations, published his book Propaganda in 1928, few people realized the far‑reaching influence that the new discipline of public relations would have on society. Propaganda, Bernays claims, is not something pernicious that one government or group inflicts on another, but is rather an integral part of democracy itself.

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. … In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind,” said Bernays, who, perhaps appropriately, is a nephew of Freud. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Living in a so-called free‑market democracy, we are besieged with choices of all kinds in our daily lives—from the products and services we buy for home and business, to the activities that we undertake for entertainment and relaxation, to the politicians and government amendments we vote for, to the ideas that bring us motivation and meaning. Bernays points out that as citizens we have “voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high‑spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.”

If this was true in Bernays’ time, it is even truer today. The ever‑growing influence of the mass media, combined with the ability of inexpensive powerful computer and Internet technology to manipulate huge databases of information and images and to communicate this data almost instantaneously worldwide, has spurred the move from an industrial society to an information society. There is simply no way that any one of us can keep up with and interpret all the information that is required for sound decisions in the many arenas of our lives. Whether we like it or not, we depend on the “special pleading,” the “propaganda,” the “public relations” of communications experts, mostly invisible, to bring to our attention the products, services, people, facts, and ideas that fit in best with our own specific economic, social, psychological, political, and even spiritual situations. These invisible experts–which include advertising and public relations professionals; newspaper and magazine editors; book publishers; radio, television, and movie producers, directors, broadcasters and so on; government spokespeople; editors and anchormen; and, more recently, website owners (and the companies that rank them),, social media, and Internet bloggers–thus have a tremendous influence on our lives.

The Illusion that We are Masters of Ourselves

Though most of us would agree—at least intellectually—that this is all obvious and true, we live our lives as though it were not. We assume, for the most part, that we are the masters of ourselves and that in issues of real importance we are able to discriminate between these outside influences and our real needs and beliefs—between hype and reality. Such an assumption is questionable, however, when we realize that from early childhood on, almost everything we eat, buy, use, or read has been shaped or packaged for us by a member of this invisible government.

The fact is, Bernays takes his ideas much further than many of us would like. He states that “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” And he then proceeds in this and other books to lay out the formal mechanism by which propaganda can be used to meet the needs of a democratic society.

Propaganda, along with the special pleading it depends on, has been around since the beginning of time. But in the past–before the advent of the mass media–it was clear who was doing the pleading and for what purpose. Radio, television, newspapers, motion pictures, and lately computers and the Internet have changed all that. Propaganda of one sort or another has become so much a part of our lives that we don’t even recognize it as such. As Lao Tzu said, “the best knots are tied without rope.”

Of course, one could easily say that we in the west are better off than people living in communist or Fascist countries, because their propaganda is far more rigid and insidious than our own. This argument is a misleading one, however, for the simple reason that their propaganda is often more visible and easier to perceive than our own. By its very nature, a democratic society offers so many supposed choices to its citizens that we would have neither the time nor the energy to narrow them down without a whole industry of communications professionals dedicated to just that. Our propagandists do not use rope, barbed wire, mental hospitals, and the militia to make their point; no—they use the latest communication techniques disseminated through the print, electronic, and other media in the guise of “giving us what we really want.”

What is truly pernicious about much of the propaganda that surrounds us in the west is the very “reasonableness” of it—the way in which we are taught to believe that it somehow represents our real needs. For the goal of a propagandist–no matter what his or her stripe–is to make a sale of some kind by seeking to convince us that they understand our inner or outer needs and goals and are responding to them. In this regard, a newspaper editor or TV producer or anchorman choosing which news to tell us and trying to deliver it in a way that will attract readers or watchers is not much different than a public relations professional attempting to improve the public’s perception of a company or product.

What is important in either case is that we, the so-called public, begin to understand this process better so that we begin to differentiate between what we really want and what we’ve been conditioned to want by the invisible government competing for our share of mind and money. Such a differentiation is an important step on the path of self-knowledge and in the struggle for inner freedom, and it involves seeing firsthand in our own thoughts, emotions, sensations, and actions the specific ways in which this conditioning influences our lives.

Copyright 1998-2015 by Dennis Lewis

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