Packed shoulder to shoulder in the Marriot in Anaheim, supporters roar as Sarah Palin shrilly yawps, "Are you ready to fight for your freedoms?" Her question is utterly devoid of substance. However, it still inspires an impassioned and sincere audience response. It is this passion that will drive many of these voters to the polls where they will likely cast votes for Republican candidates and leave Democrats and Progressives questioning how so many people can vote against their own self-interest.
Propaganda in a Democratic Society
Of course, appeals to passion are a common gambit for political figures of any ilk going back millennia. President Obama's mantra of "hope and change" tapped similar emotional wells as Palin's call to clap for "freedoms." Still, it is remarkable to see the extent to which such appeals resonate and endure in effectiveness. Or perhaps it is not remarkable at all. Propaganda aims to forge an emotional connection with an audience, and then direct that audience to act -- Donate! Shop! Vote!
In Propaganda in a Democratic Society (1958), Aldous Huxley differentiates two forms of propaganda. The first, which he lauds, is called "rational propaganda." This type of propaganda agrees with the "enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed." In other words, the purveyors of and the recipients of both stand to benefit from the dissemination of this propaganda.
The second, called "non-rational propaganda," is not necessarily aligned with anyone's "enlightened self-interest," but is instead "dictated by, and appeals to, passion." The former, he argues, is vital to a democratic society that serves the long-term interests of all while the latter creates a world filled with "misery" in which people, moved by passion more than reason, are driven to act against their own self-interest.
The Rise of Non-Rational Propaganda
For the past three decades, the average American has been pummeled by an unprecedented amount of non-rational propaganda. This is the type of propaganda commodified and promulgated by the Limbaughs, Hannities, Boehners, and Becks of today. As Huxley would explain, these sources exchange arguments founded "upon the best available evidence fully and honestly set forth" for strings of half-truths, catch phrases, and scapegoats that "cunningly" associate "the lowest passions with the highest ideals."
Passion for power and profit is cloaked in the fabric of America's highest ideals. In today's twisted America, you are treasonous if you favor legislation that offers an additional 30 million Americans the chance to affordably purchase health insurance. You are Marxist if you argue that the wealthiest Americans could afford to pay an additional 3.6% in income tax. You are unpatriotic if you question the motives of military action that have led to the displacement and deaths of millions of innocent human beings at a cost of trillions of dollars.
Republican Propaganda Feels Good
Why are Republicans so good at propagating non-rational propaganda? Republican pundits and politicians have learned how to capitalize on Americans' deep, unabating desire to protect themselves and their families from some form of "violation." It is understandable why a fear of being violated exists in our culture. For decades Americans have been systematically exploited -- by politicians, by corporations, and by each other. With exploitation comes a feeling of helplessness and shame: Why can't I provide for my family? Why can't my children attend a better school? What happens if I get cancer? Will I be able to retire? However, Americans are also acculturated towards optimism. So, coincident with persistent feelings of impotence, shame, and anger are feelings of possibility, pride, and love. Republican propaganda is especially adroit at addressing both sides of this American dichotomy.
Republican propaganda feels good because it empowers individuals to take action against fabricated foes. It thereby channels feelings of impotence, shame, and anger into seemingly constructive outlets. Consider the healthcare debate. Sarah Palin claimed that Democrats would create "death panels," and Chuck Grassley told his constituents that the government wants to "pull the plug on Grandma." Grassley and Palin offered the sensation of empowerment by suggesting that voters could literally "save Grandma" by taking action. Voters were encouraged to make signs and speak out at town hall meetings, which they did in great numbers. For many Americans, this engagement felt good and productive.
However, the sad reality is that Grandma's days are still numbered. The real reason Grandma's fate still hangs in the balance is that America relies an employer-based, for-profit health care system where investors benefit when care is restricted and coverage denied. But again, instead of thinking long-term and addressing this root cause, Republicans advance propaganda that urges voters to advocate for repeal of the healthcare bill. A tangible measure that voters can work towards, but one that does little to resolve the ongoing issues with healthcare affordability and effectiveness in our nation.
Republican propaganda also feels good because it stirs Americans' feelings of possibility, pride, and love. The Republican's 48-page "Pledge to America" is suffused with evocative, "feel-good" imagery designed to console and revivify America's frustrated and forlorn population. Turning from the stately hues of the royal blue cover, readers are greeted by a beautiful image of the Statue of Liberty set against the backdrop of the pale New York sky. A few pages later, they see the majestic faces of Mount Rushmore. These photos reaffirm a comforting American mythology that promises opportunity and possibility for all while sidestepping challenging questions about America's historical and economic reality.
This propaganda of good feelings is used to transmute patriotism and pride into donation dollars and votes. At Glenn Beck's Rally to Restore Honor, he implies that everyone in his audience is a hero simply by showing up to his rally. For Beck, "[h]eroes are just people who stand and do the right thing. Usually at their own peril, they'll stand and do the right thing." Hearing this, his audience erupts with applause and whistles, cheering themselves. Likewise, Palin's audience in Anaheim thunderously applauds as she speaks about "our great American hero, Ronald Reagan" who "was optimistic and... unwavering in his acknowledgment of the strength and goodness of the American people." They cheer, not for Reagan, but for their own goodness. As the applause subsides in Beck's audience, he asks them to donate to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF) while Palin implores her audience to take action and vote: "There's nothing wrong in America that a good old-fashioned election can't fix."
Education versus Agitation: Can Progressive Propaganda Feel Good?
Progressives who agonize about the persistent systemic and structural inequities in their democracy understand that there are many things a "good old-fashioned election" cannot fix. Therefore, Progressives can and should learn to embrace Huxley's rational propaganda. Education is fundamental to forging an enlightened propaganda, and the public faces of Progressive and Democratic politics have some skill in this arena. Media figures such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert use biting satire to educate viewers. Pundits such as Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Keith Olbermann employ earnest, emphatic, and erudite pleading. President Obama delivers long-winded, professorial lectures. However, the approaches used by these figures achieve only limited success. Progressives need to remember that education never feels as rewarding as the catharsis of yelling at a town hall meeting or hearing Sean Hannity tell you that you are a "great American." A new Progressive narrative will have to make Americans feel as good and as empowered as Republican propaganda does today.