For Episode 79 of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast, Guy Evans finishes breaking down Chapter 6 (‘Propaganda and Political Leadership’) of Edward Bernays’ seminal text ‘Propaganda’. In a mammoth 93 minute edition of the show, find out how Bernays predicted that the politicians of the future would originate from the same social circles; discover how the techniques developed in his era to pique public interest in prominent personalities are still utilized today; and enjoy a special guest interview from Vasko Atanasoski of the Macedonian band ‘Bernays Propaganda’!
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Smells Like Human Spirit is a DAILY podcast that covers society, culture, and everything in between! Previous guests include Professor Noam Chomsky, Dan Carlin, Michael Ruppert and many others…
THE great political problem in our modern democracy is how to induce our leaders to lead. The dogma that the voice of the people is the voice of God tends to make elected persons the will-less servants of their constituents. This is undoubtedly part cause of the political sterility of which certain American critics constantly complain.
No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.
Fortunately, the sincere and gifted politician is able, by the instrument of propaganda, to mold and form the will of the people.
Disraeli cynically expressed the dilemma, when he said: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” He might have added: “I must lead the people. Am I not their servant?”
Unfortunately, the methods of our contemporary politicians, in dealing with the public, are as archaic and ineffective as the advertising methods of business in 1900 would be to-day. While politics was the first important department of American life to use propaganda on a large scale, it has been the slowest in modifying its propaganda methods to meet the changed conditions of the public mind. American business first learned from politics the methods of appealing to the broad public. But it continually improved those methods in the course of its competitive struggle, while politics clung to the old formulas.
The political apathy of the average voter, of which we hear so much, is undoubtedly due to the fact that the politician does not know how to meet the conditions of the public mind. He cannot dramatize himself and his platform in terms which have real meaning to the public. Acting on the fallacy that the leader must slavishly follow, he deprives his campaign of all dramatic interest. An automaton cannot arouse the public interest. A leader, a fighter, a dictator, can. But, given our present political conditions under which every office seeker must cater to the vote of the masses, the only means by which the born leader can lead is the expert use of propaganda.
Whether in the problem of getting elected to office or in the problem of interpreting and popularizing new issues, or in the problem of making the day-to-day administration of public affairs a vital part of the community life, the use of propaganda, carefully adjusted to the mentality of the masses, is an essential adjunct of political life.
The successful business man to-day apes the politician. He has adopted the glitter and the ballyhoo of the campaign. He has set up all the side shows. He has annual dinners that are a compendium of speeches, flags, bombast, stateliness, pseudo-democracy slightly tinged with paternalism. On occasion he doles out honors to employees, much as the republic of classic times rewarded its worthy citizens.
But these are merely the side shows, the drums, of big business, by which it builds up an image of public service, and of honorary service. This is but one of the methods by which business stimulates loyal enthusiasms on the part of directors, the workers, the stockholders and the consumer public. It is one of the methods by which big business performs its function of making and selling products to the public. The real work and campaign of business consists of intensive study of the public, the manufacture of products based on this study, and exhaustive use of every means of reaching the public.
Political campaigns to-day are all side shows, all honors, all bombast, glitter, and speeches. These are for the most part unrelated to the main business of studying the public scientifically, of supplying the public with party, candidate, platform, and performance, and selling the public these ideas and products.
Politics was the first big business in America. Therefore there is a good deal of irony in the fact that business has learned everything that politics has had to teach, but that politics has failed to learn very much from business methods of mass distribution of ideas and products.
Emily Newell Blair has recounted in the Independent a typical instance of the waste of effort and money in a political campaign, a week’s speaking tour in which she herself took part. She estimates that on a five-day trip covering nearly a thousand miles she and the United States Senator with whom she was making political speeches addressed no more than 1,105 persons whose votes might conceivably have been changed as a result of their efforts. The cost of this appeal to these voters she estimates (calculating the value of the time spent on a very moderate basis) as $15.27 for each vote which might have been changed as a result of the campaign.
This, she says, was a “drive for votes, just as an Ivory Soap advertising campaign is a drive for sales.” But, she asks, “what would a company executive say to a sales manager who sent a high-priced speaker to describe his product to less than 1,200 people at a cost of $15.27 for each possible buyer?” She finds it “amazing that the very men who make their millions out of cleverly devised drives for soap and bonds and cars will turn around and give large contributions to be expended for vote-getting in an utterly inefficient and antiquated fashion.”
It is, indeed, incomprehensible that politicians do not make use of the elaborate business methods that industry has built up. Because a politician knows political strategy, can develop campaign issues, can devise strong planks for platforms and envisage broad policies, it does not follow that he can be given the responsibility of selling ideas to a public as large as that of the United States.
The politician understands the public. He knows what the public wants and what the public will accept. But the politician is not necessarily a general sales manager, a public relations counsel, or a man who knows how to secure mass distribution of ideas.
Obviously, an occasional political leader may be capable of combining every feature of leadership, just as in business there are certain brilliant industrial leaders who are financiers, factory directors, engineers, sales managers and public relations counsel all rolled into one.
Big business is conducted on the principle that it must prepare its policies carefully, and that in selling an idea to the large buying public of America, it must proceed according to broad plans. The political strategist must do likewise. The entire campaign should be worked out according to broad basic plans. Platforms, planks, pledges, budgets, activities, personalities, must be as carefully studied, apportioned and used as they are when big business desires to get what it wants from the public.
The first step in a political campaign is to determine on the objectives, and to express them exceedingly well in the current form—that is, as a platform. In devising the platform the leader should be sure that it is an honest platform. Campaign pledges and promises should not be lightly considered by the public, and they ought to carry something of the guarantee principle and money-back policy that an honorable business institution carries with the sale of its goods. The public has lost faith in campaign promotion work. It does not say that politicians are dishonorable, but it does say that campaign pledges are written on the sand. Here then is one fact of public opinion of which the party that wishes to be successful might well take cognizance.
To aid in the preparation of the platform there should be made as nearly scientific an analysis as possible of the public and of the needs of the public. A survey of public desires and demands would come to the aid of the political strategist whose business it is to make a proposed plan of the activities of the parties and its elected officials during the coming terms of office.
A big business that wants to sell a product to the public surveys and analyzes its market before it takes a single step either to make or to sell the product. If one section of the community is absolutely sold to the idea of this product, no money is wasted in reselling it to it. If, on the other hand, another section of the public is irrevocably committed to another product, no money is wasted on a lost cause. Very often the analysis is the cause of basic changes and improvements in the product itself, as well as an index of how it is to be presented. So carefully is this analysis of markets and sales made that when a company makes out its sales budget for the year, it subdivides the circulations of the various magazines and newspapers it uses in advertising and calculates with a fair degree of accuracy how many times a section of that population is subjected to the appeal of the company. It knows approximately to what extent a national campaign duplicates and repeats the emphasis of a local campaign of selling.
As in the business field, the expenses of the political campaign should be budgeted. A large business to-day knows exactly how much money it is going to spend on propaganda during the next year or years. It knows that a certain percentage of its gross receipts will be given over to advertising—newspaper, magazine, outdoor and poster; a certain percentage to circularization and sales promotion—such as house organs and dealer aids; and a certain percentage must go to the supervising salesmen who travel around the country to infuse extra stimulus in the local sales campaign.
A political campaign should be similarly budgeted. The first question which should be decided is the amount of money that should be raised for the campaign. This decision can be reached by a careful analysis of campaign costs. There is enough precedent in business procedure to enable experts to work this out accurately. Then the second question of importance is the manner in which money should be raised.
It is obvious that politics would gain much in prestige if the money-raising campaign were conducted candidly and publicly, like the campaigns for the war funds. Charity drives might be made excellent models for political funds drives. The elimination of the little black bag element in politics would raise the entire prestige of politics in America, and the public interest would be infinitely greater if the actual participation occurred earlier and more constructively in the campaign.
Again, as in the business field, there should be a clear decision as to how the money is to be spent. This should be done according to the most careful and exact budgeting, wherein every step in the campaign is given its proportionate importance, and the funds allotted accordingly. Advertising in newspapers and periodicals, posters and street banners, the exploitation of personalities in motion pictures, in speeches and lectures and meetings, spectacular events and all forms of propaganda should be considered proportionately according to the budget, and should always be coordinated with the whole plan. Certain expenditures may be warranted if they represent a small proportion of the budget and may be totally unwarranted if they make up a large proportion of the budget.
In the same way the emotions by which the public is appealed to may be made part of the broad plan of the campaign. Unrelated emotions become maudlin and sentimental too easily, are often costly, and too often waste effort because the idea is not part of the conscious and coherent whole.
Big business has realized that it must use as many of the basic emotions as possible. The politician, however, has used the emotions aroused by words almost exclusively.
To appeal to the emotions of the public in a political campaign is sound—in fact it is an indispensable part of the campaign. But the emotional content must— (a) coincide in every way with the broad basic plans of the campaign and all its minor details;
(b) be adapted to the many groups of the public at which it is to be aimed; and
(c) conform to the media of the distribution of ideas. The emotions of oratory have been worn down through long years of overuse. Parades, mass meetings, and the like are successful when the public has a frenzied emotional interest in the event. The candidate who takes babies on his lap, and has his photograph taken, is doing a wise thing emotionally, if this act epitomizes a definite plank in his platform. Kissing babies, if it is worth anything, must be used as a symbol for a baby policy and it must be synchronized with a plank in the platform. But the haphazard staging of emotional events without regard to their value as part of the whole campaign, is a waste of effort, just as it would be a waste of effort for the manufacturer of hockey skates to advertise a picture of a church surrounded by spring foliage. It is true that the church appeals to our religious impulses and that everybody loves the spring, but these impulses do not help to sell the idea that hockey skates are amusing, helpful, or increase the general enjoyment of life for the buyer.
Present-day politics places emphasis on personality. An entire party, a platform, an international policy is sold to the public, or is not sold, on the basis of the intangible element of personality. A charming candidate is the alchemist’s secret that can transmute a prosaic platform into the gold of votes. Helpful as is a candidate who for some reason has caught the imagination of the country, the party and its aims are certainly more important than the personality of the candidate. Not personality, but the ability of the candidate to carry out the party’s program adequately, and the program itself should be emphasized in a sound campaign plan. Even Henry Ford, the most picturesque personality in business in America to-day, has become known through his product, and not his product through him.
It is essential for the campaign manager to educate the emotions in terms of groups. The public is not made up merely of Democrats and Republicans. People to-day are largely uninterested in politics and their interest in the issues of the campaign must be secured by coordinating it with their personal interests. The public is made up of interlocking groups —economic, social, religious, educational, cultural, racial, collegiate, local, sports, and hundreds of others.
When President Coolidge invited actors for breakfast, he did so because he realized not only that actors were a group, but that audiences, the large group of people who like amusements, who like people who amuse them, and who like people who can be amused, ought to be aligned with him.
The Shepard-Towner Maternity Bill was passed because the people who fought to secure its passage realized that mothers made up a group, that educators made up a group, that physicians made up a group, that all these groups in turn influence other groups, and that taken all together these groups were sufficiently strong and numerous to impress Congress with the fact that the people at large wanted this bill to be made part of the national law.
The political campaign having defined its broad objects and its basic plans, having defined the group appeal which it must use, must carefully allocate to each of the media at hand the work which it can do with maximum efficiency.
The media through which a political campaign may be brought home to the public are numerous and fairly well defined. Events and activities must be created in order to put ideas into circulation, in these channels, which are as varied as the means of human communication. Every object which presents pictures or words that the public can see, everything that presents intelligible sounds, can be utilized in one way or another.
At present, the political campaigner uses for the greatest part the radio, the press, the banquet hall, the mass meeting, the lecture platform, and the stump generally as a means for furthering his ideas. But this is only a small part of what may be done. Actually there are infinitely more varied events that can be created to dramatize the campaign, and to make people talk of it. Exhibitions, contests, institutes of politics, the cooperation of educational institutions, the dramatic cooperation of groups which hitherto have not been drawn into active politics, and many others may be made the vehicle for the presentation of ideas to the public.
But whatever is done must be synchronized accurately with all other forms of appeal to the public. News reaches the public through the printed word— books, magazines, letters, posters, circulars and banners, newspapers; through pictures—photographs and motion pictures; through the ear—lectures, speeches, band music, radio, campaign songs. All these must be employed by the political party if it is to succeed. One method of appeal is merely one method of appeal and in this age wherein a thousand movements and ideas are competing for public attention, one dare not put all one’s eggs into one basket.
It is understood that the methods of propaganda can be effective only with the voter who makes up his own mind on the basis of his group prejudices and desires. Where specific allegiances and loyalties exist, as in the case of boss leadership, these loyalties will operate to nullify the free will of the voter. In this close relation between the boss and his constituents lies, of course, the strength of his position in politics.
It is not necessary for the politician to be the slave of the public’s group prejudices, if he can learn how to mold the mind of the voters in conformity with his own ideas of public welfare and public service. The important thing for the statesman of our age is not so much to know how to please the public, but to know how to sway the public. In theory, this education might be done by means of learned pamphlets explaining the intricacies of public questions. In actual fact, it can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of their publics.
But campaigning is only an incident in political life. The process of government is continuous. And the expert use of propaganda is more useful and fundamental, although less striking, as an aid to democratic administration, than as an aid to vote getting.
Good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold. I often wonder whether the politicians of the future, who are responsible for maintaining the prestige and effectiveness of their party, will not endeavor to train politicians who are at the same time propagandists. I talked recently with George Olvany. He said that a certain number of Princeton men were joining Tammany Hall. If I were in his place I should have taken some of my brightest young men and set them to work for Broadway theatrical productions or apprenticed them as assistants to professional propagandists before recruiting them to the service of the party.
One reason, perhaps, why the politician to-day is slow to take up methods which are a commonplace in business life is that he has such ready entry to the media of communication on which his power depends.
The newspaper man looks to him for news. And by his power of giving or withholding information the politician can often effectively censor political news. But being dependent, every day of the year and for year after year, upon certain politicians for news, the newspaper reporters are obliged to work in harmony with their news sources.
The political leader must be a creator of circumstances, not only a creature of mechanical processes of stereotyping and rubber stamping.
Let us suppose that he is campaigning on a lowtariff platform. He may use the modern mechanism of the radio to spread his views, but he will almost certainly use the psychological method of approach which was old in Andrew Jackson’s day, and which business has largely discarded. He will say over the radio: “Vote for me and low tariff, because the high tariff increases the cost of the things you buy.” He may, it is true, have the great advantage of being able to speak by radio directly to fifty million listeners. But he is making an old-fashioned approach. He is arguing with them. He is assaulting, single-handed, the resistance of inertia.
If he were a propagandist, on the other hand, although he would still use the radio, he would use it as one instrument of a well-planned strategy. Since he is campaigning on the issue of a low tariff, he not merely would tell people that the high tariff increases the cost of the things they buy, but would create circumstances which would make his contention dramatic and self-evident. He would perhaps stage a low-tariff exhibition simultaneously in twenty cities, with exhibits illustrating the additional cost due to the tariff in force. He would see that these exhibitions were ceremoniously inaugurated by prominent men and women who were interested in a low tariff apart from any interest in his personal political fortunes. He would have groups, whose interests were especially affected by the high cost of living, institute an agitation for lower schedules. He would dramatize the issue, perhaps by having prominent men boycott woolen clothes, and go to important functions in cotton suits, until the wool schedule was reduced. He might get the opinion of social workers as to whether the high cost of wool endangers the health of the poor in winter.
In whatever ways he dramatized the issue, the attention of the public would be attracted to the question before he addressed them personally. Then, when he spoke to his millions of listeners on the radio, he would not be seeking to force an argument down the throats of a public thinking of other things and annoyed by another demand on its attention; on the contrary, he would be answering the spontaneous questions and expressing the emotional demands of a public already keyed to a certain pitch of interest in the subject.
The importance of taking the entire world public into consideration before planning an important event is shown by the wise action of Thomas Masaryk, then Provisional President, now President of the Republic of Czecho-Slovakia.
Czecho-Slovakia officially became a free state on Monday, October 28, 1918, instead of Sunday, October 27, 1918, because Professor Masaryk realized that the people of the world would receive more information and would be more receptive to, the announcement of the republic’s freedom on a Monday morning than on a Sunday, because the press would have more space to devote to it on Monday morning.
Discussing the matter with me before he made the announcement, Professor Masaryk said, “I would be making history for the cables if I changed the date of Czecho-Slovakia’s birth as a free nation.” Cables make history and so the date was changed.
This incident illustrates the importance of technique in the new propaganda.
It will be objected, of course, that propaganda will tend to defeat itself as its mechanism becomes obvious to the public. My opinion is that it will not. The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent, is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.
Again, the objection is raised that propaganda is utilized to manufacture our leading political personalities. It is asked whether, in fact, the leader makes propaganda, or whether propaganda makes the leader. There is a widespread impression that a good press agent can puff up a nobody into a great man.
The answer is the same as that made to the old query as to whether the newspaper makes public opinion or whether public opinion makes the newspaper. There has to be fertile ground for the leader and the idea to fall on. But the leader also has to have some vital seed to sow. To use another figure, a mutual need has to exist before either can become positively effective. Propaganda is of no use to the politician unless he has something to say which the public, consciously or unconsciously, wants to hear.
But even supposing that a certain propaganda is untrue or dishonest, we cannot on that account reject the methods of propaganda as such. For propaganda in some form will always be used where leaders need to appeal to their constituencies.
The criticism is often made that propaganda tends to make the President of the United States so important that he becomes not the President but the embodiment of the idea of hero worship, not to say deity worship. I quite agree that this is so, but how are you going to stop a condition which very accurately reflects the desires of a certain part of the public? The American people rightly senses the enormous importance of the executive’s office. If the public tends to make of the President a heroic symbol of that power, that is not the fault of propaganda but lies in the very nature of the office and its relation to the people.
This condition, despite its somewhat irrational puffing up of the man to fit the office, is perhaps still more sound than a condition in which the man utilizes no propaganda, or a propaganda not adapted to its proper end. Note the example of the Prince of Wales. This young man reaped bales of clippings and little additional glory from his American visit, merely because he was poorly advised. To the American public he became a well dressed, charming, sportloving, dancing, perhaps frivolous youth. Nothing was done to add dignity and prestige to this impression until towards the end of his stay he made a trip in the subway of New York. This sole venture into democracy and the serious business of living as evidenced in the daily habits of workers, aroused new interest in the Prince. Had he been properly advised he would have augmented this somewhat by such serious studies of American life as were made by another prince, Gustave of Sweden. As a result of the lack of well directed propaganda, the Prince of Wales became in the eyes of the American people, not the thing which he constitutionally is, a symbol of the unity of the British Empire, but part and parcel of sporting Long Island and dancing beauties of the ballroom. Great Britain lost an invaluable opportunity to increase the good will and understanding between the two countries when it failed to understand the importance of correct public relations counsel for His Royal Highness.
The public actions of America’s chief executive are, if one chooses to put it that way, stage-managed. But they are chosen to represent and dramatize the man in his function as representative of the people. A political practice which has its roots in the tendency of the popular leader to follow oftener than he leads is the technique of the trial balloon which he uses in order to maintain, as he believes, his contact with the public. The politician, of course, has his ear to the ground. It might be called the clinical ear. It touches the ground and hears the disturbances of the political universe.
But he often does not know what the disturbances mean, whether they are superficial, or fundamental. So he sends up his balloon. He may send out an anonymous interview through the press. He then waits for reverberations to come from the public—a public which expresses itself in mass meetings, or resolutions, or telegrams, or even such obvious manifestations as editorials in the partisan or nonpartisan press. On the basis of these repercussions he then publicly adopts his original tentative policy, or rejects it, or modifies it to conform to the sum of public opinion which has reached him. This method is modeled on the peace feelers which were used during the war to sound out the disposition of the enemy to make peace or to test any one of a dozen other popular tendencies. It is the method commonly used by a politician before committing himself to legislation of any kind, and by a government before committing itself on foreign or domestic policies.
It is a method which has little justification. If a politician is a real leader he will be able, by the skillful use of propaganda, to lead the people, instead of following the people by means of the clumsy instrument of trial and error.
The propagandist’s approach is the exact opposite of that of the politician just described. The whole basis of successful propaganda is to have an objective and then to endeavor to arrive at it through an exact knowledge of the public and modifying circumstances to manipulate and sway that public.
“The function of a statesman,” says George Bernard Shaw, “is to express the will of the people in the way of a scientist.”
The political leader of to-day should be a leader as finely versed in the technique of propaganda as in political economy and civics. If he remains merely the reflection of the average intelligence of his community, he might as well go out of politics. If one is dealing with a democracy in which the herd and the group follow those whom they recognize as leaders, why should not the young men training for leadership be trained in its technique as well as in its idealism?
“When the interval between the intellectual classes and the practical classes is too great,” says the historian Buckle, “the former will possess no influence, the latter will reap no benefits.”
Propaganda bridges this interval in our modern complex civilization.
Only through the wise use of propaganda will our government, considered as the continuous administrative organ of the people, be able to maintain that intimate relationship with the public which is necessary in a democracy.
As David Lawrence pointed out in a recent speech, there is need for an intelligent interpretative bureau for our government in Washington. There is, it is true, a Division of Current Information in the Department of State, which at first was headed by a trained newspaper man. But later this position began to be filled by men from the diplomatic service, men who had very little knowledge of the public. While some of these diplomats have done very well, Mr. Lawrence asserted that in the long run the country would be benefited if the functions of this office were in the hands of a different type of person.
There should, I believe, be an Assistant Secretary of State who is familiar with the problem of dispensing information to the press—some one upon whom the Secretary of State can call for consultation and who has sufficient authority to persuade the Secretary of State to make public that which, for insufficient reason, is suppressed.
The function of the propagandist is much broader in scope than that of a mere dispenser of information to the press. The United States Government should create a Secretary of Public Relations as member of the President’s Cabinet. The function of this official should be correctly to interpret America’s aims and ideals throughout the world, and to keep the citizens of this country in touch with governmental activities and the reasons which prompt them. He would, in short, interpret the people to the government and the government to the people.
Such an official would be neither a propagandist nor a press agent, in the ordinary understanding of those terms. He would be, rather, a trained technician who would be helpful in analyzing public thought and public trends, in order to keep the government informed about the public, and the people informed about the government. America’s relations with South America and with Europe would be greatly improved under such circumstances. Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses.
Is this government by propaganda? Call it, if you prefer, government by education. But education, in the academic sense of the word, is not sufficient. It must be enlightened expert propaganda through the creation of circumstances, through the high-spotting of significant events, and the dramatization of important issues. The statesman of the future will thus be enabled to focus the public mind on crucial points of policy, and regiment a vast, heterogeneous mass of voters to clear understanding and intelligent action.
Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: MacMillan.
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