As we all know, propaganda is a concerted effort to get people to believe something and presumably to act on those beliefs. Effective propaganda is based on bombast and rhetoric that appeals to our fears and desires: it may or may not involve blatant falsehoods, as Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC tended to do. Usually, it involves half-truths — that is, statements that have a modicum of truth in them and seem plausible if one doesn’t really think about them. And the propagandist does not want listeners to think about what they hear!
Let’s say I want you to vote for my candidate, Jones. Now It is generally known that Jones was divorced a few years ago and later married a woman who had been his secretary. A good propagandist will twist the facts and embellish them so the story comes out that Jones is a womanizer who was unfaithful and left his wife high and dry after his torrid love affair with his secretary in a Miami hotel. If he is the least bit concerned about law suits, he will rely heavily on innuendo — a suggestion that Jones is a womanizer, not a bald-faced statement to that effect (“Jones was seen by several witnesses coming out of a Miami hotel with his secretary several months before his divorce.”). You get the picture: filter in a few “facts” but make sure you create the impression that the man is scum and not worthy of anyone’s vote: use loaded language and strong emotive overtones. The idea is to persuade, not to tell the truth. In fact truth is the real victim here — if it is not Jones.
The radicals just prior to the American revolution had a huge problem: how to persuade the majority of Americans who considered themselves loyal British citizens that they must cut all ties with the mother country and go to war? As a number of historians have noted, the remarkable thing is that the revolution happened at all: Americans really had very few gripes with the mother country and all were of a mind to regard revolution as a last resort. Don’t underestimate the power of words carefully chosen!
To begin with, of course, they stopped calling Britain the “mother country.” They used emotive language, calling Britain “the rotten island” that was out to pillage America and steal its wealth, rape its women and turn its children into slaves. In fact, the propagandists in the mid-eighteenth century used the term “slavery” again and again to great effect. The idea was to instill in the American citizens — many of whom right up to the end, even after Lexington and Concord, regarded themselves as loyal British citizens — a love of liberty and a hatred of England. They insisted that Great Britain would “overwhelm the virtue of the people” of America. As John Miller tells us in his remarkable study of the period (Origins of the American Revolution), “the America of 1775 was made to appear tied to a bankrupt, rotting state that sought to keep itself alive by sucking the strength from its colonies.” Further, “every shilling squeezed from the colonies, Americans were told, went to ‘tyrants and debauchees‘ and was spent on vices that would have made Nero blush.” Note the clever use of exaggeration and bombast: arouse the emotions of the listener or reader and generate a hatred of the desired object, Britain. And keep stressing Britain’s desire to tax Americans, to reduce Americans to slavery. Sound familiar?
It worked, of course, as millions of Americans in a very brief period were persuaded to go to war against the most powerful nation on earth — a nation that had only yesterday been a trusted ally of the colonists and their protector against a hostile world, expelling the French from the continent. It is indeed food for thought. With Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in the lead the British radicals were not the only effective propagandists the world has ever known but they did perform an amazing turnaround in a very short time. And it was done without radio or TV. Truly remarkable.
We need to think about this at this time because there are unscrupulous people who are busy marketing their politicians like boxes of cereal and they desperately want to sell them to us without letting us know what the ingredients are. And the underlying rule is: the end justifies the means. It matters not if what we say is true, we shall repeat it often enough that people will come to believe it in the end. If it turns out later to be false, it will be too late: strike quickly and often and repeat the message until it is no longer questioned. The last thing the propagandist wants is for the listener, viewer, or reader to think about what is said. Logic and reasoning have no place at the table of the propagandist: it’s all about persuasion at any cost. Be on your guard! It’s out there and it’s out to get your vote!