At Bookforum, David V. Johnson reviews How Propaganda Works by philosophy professor Jason Stanley. Stanley brings analytic philosophy to bear on the question of how the population of ostensible democracies like the US can be persuaded to support calamitous misadventures like the Iraq War:
Stanley persuasively argues that propaganda in liberal democracies is in fact symptomatic of material inequality—and that, insofar as material inequality enables propagandistic tendencies, it epistemically undermines liberal democracy. The rich command cultural and intellectual resources that allow them to articulate and voice their interests and views more effectively than the poor. And the rich and powerful will also tend, ineluctably, to construct flawed ideologies that endorse their privilege and the policies that maintain it. From there, it’s but a short step to persuading captive politicians, media outlets, and the public at large to adopt these slanted views, which in turn blind everyone to the very problem of how material inequality leads to epistemic inequality. As Stanley concludes:
Large inequalities in society tend to lead to epistemic practices that are obstacles to the realization of liberal democratic ideals. . . . Those who benefit from such inequalities will tend to believe that the ideals have nevertheless been realized, even in the face of clear evidence that they have not. They will use their privileged status to erect vehicles of propaganda devoted to obstructing investigation into the gaps between ideal and reality. The resulting school systems and media outlets will prevent even members of dispossessed groups from recognizing the existence of such gaps.
All true enough—yet, at the same time, some quotient of propaganda in a large liberal democracy cannot be avoided. Despite the Enlightenment ideals of the American founding, the public isn’t made up of epistemic equals. Even if all citizens were equally intelligent, they couldn’t all devote the requisite time to understand how best to conduct all our affairs. Leaders in a liberal democracy must find a way to persuade the public to support measures it doesn’t and can’t know much about, without the means, time, and expertise to offer a full, rational explanation. In order to get anything done, and to enlist public opinion on their side, they have to propagandize.