Bernays and Democracy

By Toa Lohe (@Toamatapu) | 6 min read

Bernays. He was a chief architect in the construction of propaganda for the 20th century. His work on propaganda with President Woodrow Wilson was commissioned in 1917 when he joined the Committee for Public Information (CPI). The CPI was a governmental organization that made American people support, enlist and fight in “The Great War.”

Defining Modern Propaganda

Bernays makes the case that propaganda exists because traditional authority was stripped from the kings and given to the people. Since the people are in charge, their public opinion will be manipulated by propaganda to enable leaders to take actions with favorable public opinion. The leaders today “find in propaganda a tool which is increasingly powerful in gaining approval. Therefore, propaganda is here to stay.”

But propaganda does not only exist in government. There are many other ventures that employ propaganda. “Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president. Sometimes the effect on the public is created by a professional propagandist, sometimes by an amateur deputed for the job.”

The lens that Bernays uses to look at the world reveals a telling perspective that defines modern propaganda. “[Propaganda] sees the individual not only as a cell in the social organism but as a cell organized into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.”

We cannot view propaganda as an impenetrable beast. Bernays wrote his book to help us understand propaganda better. He writes “to illustrate how conscious direction is given to events, and how the men behind these events influence public opinion.” There are benefits to have propaganda because “if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.”

Modern Propaganda and Politics

Bernays makes it clear that we not only understand propaganda but also its modern function in America. “When the Constitution was adopted, the unit of organization was the village community, which produced the greater part of its own necessary commodities and generated its group ideas and opinions by personal contact and discussion directly among its citizens.” But then the American farmers realized that “our Constitution does not envisage political parties as part of the mechanism of government.” This allowed for many problems to arise with “hundreds of candidates” and “confusion.” Since then “[voters] have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four.” An unforeseen consequence of this decision was that politics became “the first big business in America.”

Even though most people can vote, most “people today are largely uninterested in politics.” Since people are not interested, the public is instead made up of “interlocking groups — economic, social, religious, educational, cultural, racial, collegiate, local, sports, and hundreds of others.” To be successful a candidate must have their campaign be coordinated with each group’s interests.

But an entire political campaign depends on only one characteristic of a candidate: personality. “Present-day politics places emphasis on personality. An entire party, a platform, an international policy is sold to the public, or is not sold, on the basis of the intangible element of personality. A charming candidate is the alchemist’s secret that can transmute a prosaic platform into the gold of votes.” But we cannot forget that “the party and its aims are certainly more important than the personality of the candidate.”

With the existent of propaganda and its negative connotation, political parties will use the term to defame opposing views. And this a major problem since we need to accept that “propaganda in some form will always be used where leaders need to appeal to their constituencies.” This is an undeniable factor since leaders will “depend upon acquiescent public opinion for the success of their efforts and, in fact, government is only government by virtue of public acquiescence.”

Modern Propaganda and the President

Today, presidents get a lot of flak for when they are able to win the support of the public easily. But this isn’t a consequence of propaganda. “If the public tends to make of the President a heroic symbol of that power, that is not the fault of propaganda but lies in the very nature of the office and its relation to the people.” There is no one to blame.

Since Bernays believes propaganda is essential to a democracy, he doesn’t think that politicians need to remain servants to the groups that elected him and listen to their prejudices. The main task for a politician is for him to learn “how to mold the mind of the voters in conformity with his own ideas of public welfare and public service. The important thing for the statesman of our age is not so much to know how to please the public, but to know how to sway the public.” Bernays even foreshadows that “the statesman of the future will thus be enabled to focus the public mind on crucial points of policy, and regiment a vast, heterogeneous mass of voters to clear understanding and intelligent action.” Politicians today fail to provide citizens with a “clear understanding” of their policies and the necessary steps of “intelligence action” to achieve their ends.

Modern Propaganda and Media

Every generation can blame its current circumstances for its negative characteristics. But our complaints today were the same ones we had yesterday. Today we may view our lives as extraordinarily different compared to the lives of others during the 1920s. Bernays describes a world quite similar to our one: “Today it is difficult to get more than a handful of people to attend a public meeting unless extraordinary attractions are part of the program. The automobile takes them away from home, the radio keeps them in the home, the successive daily editions of the newspaper bring information to them in office or subway, and also they are sick of the ballyhoo of the rally.”

Media has been infiltrating our lives for many decades even when there was only the radio and newspaper. Even though we have phones today that has done little to affect how we have wanted to avoid public meetings and rallies. No Facebook Event invite is ever going to change that. Since we are unwilling to go to events ourselves, we must be weary of the information we read about an event. Newspaper editors are not defending the truth. Bernays describes newspapers: “It was not many years ago that newspaper editors resented what they called ‘the use of the news columns for propaganda purposes.’ Some editors would even kill a good story if they imagined its publication might benefit anyone. This point of view is now largely abandoned.”

We live in a world that has submitted itself to modern propaganda without questions or thoughts and has given us this conundrum: “Page one of the New York Times…contains eight important news stories. Four of them, or one-half, are propaganda. The casual reader accepts them as accounts of spontaneous happenings.” People rarely second guess the news that they are reading. They don’t ask whether a story is propaganda or not, the only thing that matters is that it is a news story. This is when propaganda becomes problematic: “Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensible only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.” But when it presents itself as propaganda too clearly the public will respond negatively: “The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent, is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.”

The Public Should Understand Modern Propaganda

Bernays stresses that people understand propaganda to be able to encourage their leaders to “present their appeals more intelligently.” Currently, politicians are able to be elected on vague propositions presented with propaganda. People cannot demand the end of propaganda because “propaganda will never die out.” Since we must live with it, we “must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”


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