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When propaganda displaces democracy

This anti-Nazi propaganda poster encouraged US citizens to conserve gasoline during World War II. Weimer Pursell illustration for US government

Even the word “propaganda” seems to somehow scream totalitarian state, more suited to “1984” than a country where liberty and freedom are central to national identity. Yet, disturbingly, propaganda may actually flourish even better in the fertile soil of liberal democracy.

Nothing in a democracy is outside the reach of propaganda, from media to politics to education. Its influence on citizens’ choices can’t be overstated — and is even harder to overcome.

In his new book, “How Propaganda Works,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor, explains it’s always been that way. Stanley tracks propaganda’s history across continents and through decades, illuminating its power to make people vote against their own best interests. And what he has found is the words being used may be as important as the politics behind them.

Ideas spoke with Stanley by telephone. Below is an edited excerpt:


IDEAS: What do we, as citizens, need to know about the structure of propaganda?

STANLEY: Propaganda is one of those issues that,
whether you live in a democratic or totalitarian society, it’s always important. A problem comes from this linguistic strategy of making certain words say one thing but communicate another message. Some words have been taken and exploited for propaganda. There are innocent words that are politically dangerous.

Now, there’s a lot of work in political and social theory on these sorts of phenomena. More rare is to think about it in the context of linguistics, psychology, and epistemology to detail the actual mechanism at work here. You can appropriate a totally normal word.

IDEAS: So break down what this linguistic strategy looks like.

STANLEY: If I say, “That damn table is in my way,” all I’m saying is that the table is in my way. But what I’m conveying, what I’m telling you, is that I don’t like the table. I have a negative attitude toward it. Propaganda can politicize apparently nonpolitical words and give them what we call not-at-issue content. You can then model that content as an emotion, such as antipathy towards a group of people. . . . There’s no mystery left about how this happens. In fact, if it didn’t happen, that’d be a mystery.


IDEAS: Are the uses of propaganda in a democracy rooted in this same exploitation of words?

STANLEY: This is actually Plato’s problem with democracy in Book VIII of “The Republic.” He says that in a democracy, someone will present himself as the people’s protector against the threat in their midst. He’ll stir fear, the people will elect him, and he’ll be a tyrant. It’s a constant fight to try and disconnect people from this kind of fear.

IDEAS: You quote Joseph Goebbels famously saying that democracy “has offered to its mortal enemies the means by which to destroy it.” Is there something inherent about democracy that makes this true?

STANLEY: This is the huge paradox of democracy. Plato and Goebbels are saying the same thing. Democracy is about freedom and equality. And freedom includes freedom of speech. When you let people have freedom of speech, they’re going to employ demagogic speech to whip people’s passions up and get them to vote against their interests. And that’s why Plato says democracy can’t work.

IDEAS: We hear a lot of talk about the impact of money in politics. Are big corporate donors and rhetoric about the private sector something new in the discussion of propaganda or old forces reincarnated?

STANLEY: The opposite of democracy is the managerial state. This is where you have a planned society, with someone running the society slotting you into jobs. At the beginning of the 20th century in America, we started having people running for office presenting themselves as business managers. And they would say things like, “Oh, I’m good at running a business.” Which is bizarre, because presumably when you run a business you want to grow the business and get money for it, not cut it down.


In the early 19th century, you wouldn’t think of a political leader as a business manager, because a democracy is not a company. A company is not a democratic thing. A company is a place where a guy tells you what to do. The last thing you want is a school system run like a business. That’s what the business culture tries to do. It tricks us into confusing a corporation with a state. When we’re told the state is being run more efficiently, we have to ask: Who is it more efficient for when services are cut?

IDEAS: How can propaganda inform and educate people to defend their own interests in a more conscious way?

STANLEY: All liberation movements have the need for propaganda. Because what happens? In a democratic society, policy is supposed to be decided by taking everyone’s perspective into account. Propaganda makes some people’s perspectives entirely invisible. You have to somehow shock people into recognition that there’s a perspective they haven’t been taking into account. And that’s what the civil rights movement was about: getting a whole bunch of nonviolent protesters to march over a bridge and get beaten on national television so you’d realize what was happening, that those people are human beings. Spreading empathy, making that perspective visible, that’s what you need to do.


Nick Osborne can be reached at


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