Why politicians use fear and racism

Today it’s Muslims, African gangs, Middle Eastern terrorists and refugees. In decades past, it was communists, “yellow peril”, narco-traffickers and welfare cheats. Politicians won’t admit it, but fear is seen as a key tool in manipulating us, writes Asher Moses.

The first thing you need to understand about the behaviour of politicians is that they don’t believe their own democratic dogma. The public, far from knowing what’s best for it, are ignorant and meddlesome outsiders, who must be persuaded to leave the governing to a relatively small group of responsible elite.

“The good life … is no organic secretion of the horde, but the tedious achievement of the few,” Harold Lasswell, widely regarded as one of the fathers of modern political science, wrote in 1927 in his book, Propaganda Technique in the World War (read it here).

The world is so complex and diverse, with so many competing interests, that trying to have a true democracy would simply result in chaos.

“No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea … fortunately the sincere and gifted politician is able, by the instrument of propaganda, to mould and form the will of the people,” writes Edward Bernays, who invented the public relations industry, in his 1928 book Propaganda.

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump pushed through a Muslim travel ban, while during his campaign Mexican immigration featured prominently (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The way in which an amorphous public can be persuaded using propaganda to support government policy is known as “the manufacture of consent”, a term coined in the 1922 book Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann, who is credited as the father of modern journalism.

“It is no longer possible … to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart,” writes Lippmann.

Bernays was involved with the Creel Committee on Public Information, an agency set up by the US government to influence public opinion to support US participation in World War I.

He found that using propaganda it was possible to regiment “the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers”.

He defined modern propaganda as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses”.

Propaganda was essential in war, wrote Lasswell, because unless the government “controlled the minds of its people” there was no way the people would unite behind it to make the sacrifices of war.

“So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations that every war must appear to be a war of defence against a menacing, murderous aggressor.

“The war must not be due to a world system of conducting international affairs, nor to the stupidity or malevolence of all governing classes, but to the rapacity of the enemy … If the propagandist is to mobilize the hate of the people, he must see to it that everything is circulated which establishes the sole responsibility of the enemy.”

Propaganda gave the Allies a decisive edge in WWI and while the Germans were caught on the hop, they learned of the power of it by World War II, much to the world’s horror. Propaganda has also been used in recent times to whip up support for new wars, such as the exaggerated “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq or the idea of spreading democracy to the Middle East.

After WW1, the same propaganda techniques that were used to create murderous hatred for the enemy became commonplace during peace. A good BBC documentary called Hypernormalization, which can be watched here, details with plenty of real examples how this played out, focused on US foreign policy in Libya, Syria and Israel.

Propaganda began to be misused heavily by governments to spread fear after the 1960s, when it was believed that western democracies were at risk of collapse due to an increasingly educated, affluent and politically active public. Groups who had previously been apathetic such as young people, women and minorities had become political.

These fears were expressed in a 1975 paper, The Crisis of Democracy, which was a report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission prepared by leading professors in North America, Europe and Japan. It claimed there was an “excess of democracy” and the public had developed expectations that were impossible for government to meet.

“The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups,” according to the esteemed intellectuals.

Modern democracies are extremely fragile because force cannot be used to corral the public and limit the policy agenda, while institutions can evaporate if the public simply stop believing in them. The politicians have power only because of public acquiescence, and while the democratic fervour of the 1960s resulted in substantial increases in government activity, there was also a “substantial decrease in governmental authority”, the professors wrote.

Without any obvious threats to security there was a need for a common purpose, which unlike in totalitarian regimes could not be imposed from “on high by fiat”.

“It must instead be the product of the collective perception by the significant groups in society of a major challenge to their wellbeing and the perception by them that this challenge threatens them all about equally,” the paper reads.

Foreign policy would be a natural focus as “seeming successes are much more easily arranged than they are in domestic policy”.

By planting and encouraging fears, and by making us feel hopeless, politicians could regain control. “You have to beat them [the public] back to passivity and obedience”, says leading US intellectual Noam Chomsky. To do this, propaganda is key.

As Lippmann writes: “By the same mechanism through which heroes are incarnated, devils are made … it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do realities and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.”

It does not take a cynic to question the real motives behind the recent alarmism by Australian government ministers regarding African gangs, as their warnings do not seem to gel with the reality of the threat to the general public.

Similarly, through the lens of Lasswell, the War on Terror can also be seen in a new light: “Set up an ideal which will arouse the enthusiasm of those elements in the nation whose support is desired, and make it clear to them that the chief immediate stumbling block is the military enemy. This permits the scrupulous to kill with a clean conscience; or at least, to admonish the younger to do so.”

John Howard
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard and US President George Bush used terrorism and refugee issues to gain public support and implement their agenda

The negative connotations of the term propaganda mean it’s been phased out in favour of euphemisms like “public relations”, “media relations” and “communications”. Every company, politician, government department, charity, museum, art gallery and virtually anything that is public-facing will today employ PR staff to influence the public, control media access and ensure as best as possible that the discourse remains desirable.

As Bernays wrote, “The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities”.

Every government announcement, press release and most of what you hear politicians and business leaders say are carefully constructed by PR staff, who seed desired stories with selected prominent, favourably-disposed journalists (including pictures, video, third party commentary and statistics designed to ensure the story is presented in a positive light).

Savvy PR can place stories on issues benefiting their client without their client’s fingerprints ever appearing, and for the average reader looking at the newspaper it’s usually impossible to know which stories are PR generated versus based on organic exploration by the journalist.

Events are completely stage managed and the separation between journalist and PR has broken down – indeed most journalism graduates now enter communications rather than media jobs and senior government PR gigs are more often than not taken up by senior journalists.

“Newspapermen win their daily bread by telling their tales in terse, vivid style,” writes Lasswell. “They know how to get over to the average man in the street, and to exploit his vocabulary, prejudices and enthusiasms.”

Today’s PR can sometimes afford to bypass media altogether as they can easily spread their own propaganda via social media. Even in the 1920s, the PR industry was already pervasive across the public and private spheres.

“Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it,” writes Bernays.

Lippmann: “Great men, even during their lifetime, are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality.”

Lasswell: “Policy and propaganda should work together, hand and glove”

For Bernays and his ilk, propaganda itself was not bad if it was used for good aims. In fact, it was essential to the orderly functioning of democracy. The objective, in theory, as Lasswell wrote, was to “inform, cajole, bamboozle and seduce in the name of the public good”.

Australian PM Scott Morrison
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison led a military campaign against refugees and has pushed an anti-Muslim political strategy

We think we make up our own minds, but in practice it’s impossible to study for ourselves every piece of economic, political, or ethical data for every decision, just like we can’t research every single car on the market before we buy. Therefore, Bernays wrote, “we have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions”.

“Whether in the problem of getting elected to office, or in the problem of interpreting and popularising new issues, or in the problem of making the day-to-day administration of public affairs a vital part of the community life, the use of propaganda, carefully adjusted to the mentality of the masses, is an essential adjunct of political life,” Bernays wrote.

Our job as the public is to pick among a field of responsible elite already narrowed down for us, coming out to vote once every 4 years and then going back to our lives. The public is rarely called on to decide on policy.

According to Professor Chomsky, the reason conservative political parties – like the Republicans in the US or the Liberals in Australia – resort more to racism is because the parties that are unabashedly slanted towards promoting the interests of business and the wealthy do not have an automatic appeal to the mass electorate. They cannot come out during an election campaign and say “we are all about giving welfare to the rich” (tax cuts, subsidies, favourable depreciation rules, defence spending which ends up in private company coffers, etc), so they resort to gaining mass public support more through racism, jingoism and religious fundamentalism.

Even the fathers of PR, journalism and political science referred to in this article predicted the risk of misusing this powerful tool.

“Propaganda is likely to be abused to promote personal and partisan ends, and the line of distinction between a private advantage which is incidental to a legitimate public advantage, and a private advantage which brings no overwhelming public advantage, is difficult to draw,” writes Lasswell.

Australian MP Peter Dutton
Australian Prime Ministerial contender Peter Dutton stoked fears about African gangs

So next time, before you react in a knee-jerk fashion to the latest racist or other unsavoury comment from a politician, pouring your outrage out in a snap social media post, realise that in nearly all cases, it’s a conscious attempt to manipulate and control you that is seen as integral to the smooth functioning of democracy. They do not see themselves as backward racist buffoons, but smart statesmen, and they often have ulterior motives in mind that are very different to what they will admit publicly.

As long as the media and the public at large continues to focus predominantly on what politicians say rather than what they do, we will remain putty in the hands of those who seek to manipulate us.

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