Republic of Spin
w. w. norton, 560 pages, $35
Our country, being democratic, sends its cultural elites through cycles of high anxiety that the people will be duped into making some spectacularly bad decisions. This anxiety has led to an obsession with the methods of public persuasion. Whenever a political figure speaks now, a virtual crowd of commentators stands next to her, looking into the same camera, and saying, don’t be fooled. I’ll explain it for you. It is an industry built on the false premise that, without professional assistance, the common man will take his leaders’ statements at face value.
Republic of Spin by Rutgers historian David Greenberg, is a careful chronicle of “the acute awareness of political manipulation that has developed over the last century.” It runs from the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt to that of Barack Obama, documenting all the ways in which the publicity wing of the executive branch has attempted to shape public opinion.
One of the most instructive episodes comes in the late 1930s. In those years, Germany had fallen under the sway of Hitler’s propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, Stalin’s propaganda machinery enforced a brutal orthodoxy, and two American radio commentators built a following of millions by promoting, in Greenberg’s words, “radical panaceas that were as emotionally satisfying to followers as they were economically impractical.” Then, in 1938, Orson Welles aired a radio version of The War of the Worlds.” In this fake news report, “roughly 6 million listeners heard bulletins of alien intruders vaporizing Americans with heat rays, vanquishing the Army with poison gas, and conquering New York City. Perhaps 1 million of these listeners, many of whom tuned in late, thought the broadcast was real.” The ensuing debate became “in essence, a proxy for the debate about [Americans’] ability to resist Hitler’s propaganda.”
In this environment, the elites reacted. Department store magnate, Edward Filene, “turned to Clyde Miller, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, and offered him $10,000. ‘I don’t care how you spend the money,’ Filene said. ‘The American people must be taught to think.’”
Miller used the funds to establish the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, with a flagship journal that “dissected the movies, commercial radio, opinion polling, and the tricks of corporate publicity men.” This journal presented a list of seven deadly public relations techniques that citizens should learn to recognize. “These included ‘name calling’ (the loose use of terms like fascist); ‘glittering generalities’ (the invocation of virtuous buzzwords like truth and freedom); and ‘plain folks’ (the courtship of ordinary citizens by elites posing as ordinary citizens).” The list “survived in textbooks for decades to come.”
But IPA suffered a withering critique from academics, critics, and journalists: to inoculate people against Nazi (and Communist or commercial) propaganda, it risked “fostering a debilitating disbelief in all argument” (including arguments to fight the Nazis). Journalist Max Lerner responded that “a mind without beliefs is incapable of criticism, heroism, or tragedy” and the critic, Lewis Mumford, stated that the propaganda analysts, “exposing the rhetorical devices of persuasion, themselves put over one of the biggest propaganda frauds of our time: namely, the conviction that the important part about a statement is not its truth or falsity, but the question whether someone wishes you to believe it.”
I offer this example, in part, because it offers a useful baseline for our current persuasion anxiety and for America’s seemingly permanent narrative of decline.
Republic of Spin deserves great credit for its careful, readable, history; but it deserves some critique for its coverage from the 1990s until the present. The chapter on President Clinton mostly criticizes the press’s obsessive coverage of the Lewinsky scandal. The chapter on George W. Bush gives the impression that Bush’s media operations began with Bush’s efforts (dishonest, in Mr. Greenberg’s analysis) to convince the electorate that he had, indeed, won the election of 2000 and they ended in 2003 with a “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. The chapter on Barack Obama leaves the impression that Obama’s difficulties were mostly due to Republican intransigence and a media that has fragmented into ideological silos—denying the President any real chance to communicate broadly.
[This is probably the place where I should “unmask” myself before someone else does: I have spent most of my career working with the federal government, including a 2007 stint in the White House’s national security press office. This leads me observe the limits of image manipulation. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Ronald Reagan did not win public approval on theatrics alone. Conversely, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush did not suffer for lack of communications skill; they were undone by the hard events in their world and in their presidencies.]
Republic of Spin is filled with elite anxiety over a persuadable public. But it is silent on the opposite concern: public anxiety over a persuadable elite. I grew up farming on the Great Plains; I have lived for ten years among coastal elites; and, if I occasionally lack faith in the judgment of the common man, I just as frequently lack faith in the judgment of the elites. (Marx and Nietzsche did not start by persuading the common man.) Is it not equally urgent that the elites be taught to think—to recognize the seven deadly academic persuasion techniques like ‘name calling’ (the use of terms like “ignorance” to dismiss thoughtful disagreement); ‘glittering generalities’ (“diversity” or “sensitivity”); and ‘experts’ (courtship by ideologues falsely claiming the authority of science)?
I watched the 2000 presidential debates with my grandfather who farmed in the Depression, fought in World War II, and never attended college. Without professional help, he identified the artifice and he understood the rhetoric well. From what I’ve seen, the common man's intuitions are as likely to distinguish truth from falsehood as all the reason in the Ivy League. Indeed, if pressed to break a tie, I would favor the common man because he is more aware of his limitations.
Micah Harris is a novelist and a consultant for the Department of Defense.