Declining to Be Spun

Why the seemingly fearsome tools of political propaganda backfire with voters.

Anybody over the age of thirty who follows politics even casually probably recalls an episode from 2003 that epitomized the strange frenzy of propaganda that accompanied the U.S. march to war with Iraq. Outraged by France’s refusal to join George W. Bush’s looming invasion, a group of Republican congressmen directed the House cafeteria to strike the term “French fries” from the menu and replace it with “freedom fries.” Other restaurants followed suit. I remember rolling my eyes at what I imagined was an absurd new milestone in American jingoism, and one that perfectly captured the through-the-looking-glass quality of Bush-era political spin.

Jan-16-Greenberg-Books
Republic of Spin: An Inside History
of the American Presidency

by David Greenberg
W. W. Norton & Company, 560 pp.

It turns out I was wrong. As the historian David Greenberg reveals in Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, his rich, comprehensive study of political persuasion and propaganda, the “freedom fries” coinage was merely an homage to an earlier frenzy of patriotism that gripped the nation during a different war. In 1917, just after America entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sought to counter German propaganda by establishing the Committee on Public Information, a publicity shop designed to rally mass opinion behind the policies of the U.S. government. It produced, among other things, the famous “I Want You” Uncle Sam recruitment posters. But it also fed a paranoid aversion about all things German. Posters appeared depicting menacing Teutons and warning of “Prussian Terrorism.” The music of Johannes Brahms was banned; and sauerkraut was rechristened “liberty cabbage.” As the philosopher John Dewey rationalized, “There was enough obnoxious German propaganda to create legitimate fear in the American public.”

Greenberg’s book traces the rise of the “public presidency” under Theodore Roosevelt and follows it across every subsequent administration. He reveals that every president, regardless of his initial skepticism, quickly succumbs to the temptation to try to shape public opinion, and every technology that emerges to enable this, from wax cylinders to Facebook, prompts the same hand-wringing concern. Yet we’re blind to this cycle, believing each time that we’re witnessing something new.

Before he was president, Roosevelt had been an ardent admirer of muckraking journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair. He envied their ability to seize public attention and force progressive change through their writing, while at the same time becoming celebrities. It was a model he applied to politics. As New York City police commissioner and later a decorated lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army’s Rough Riders in Cuba, Roosevelt used the press to burnish his own image as a swashbuckling reformer.

Roosevelt arrived at the White House fully intending to be an activist president and thought that appealing directly to the public by utilizing the tools of publicity would allow him to supersede Congress. This approach was new: the executive branch had typically bowed to the legislative. Roosevelt pioneered many of the techniques presidents still employ: the “bully pulpit,” the press conference, the Friday news dump, the professional staff of press handlers to push the White House message, the sound bite (“I try to put the whole truth in each sentence,” he told Steffens), the presidential trip as a publicity mechanism to promote policy. He was also adept at the older practice of bringing favored reporters into his confidence to elicit better coverage. It all worked for him. “The presidency has given to Mr. Roosevelt a far-reaching, megaphone-like Voice,” wrote one White House correspondent, “raucous and strident indeed, but of high purpose, like the prophets of old.” Roosevelt set a mold that every president after him has tried to follow.

His successors frequently resented this. Woodrow Wilson, who possessed the austere countenance of a headmaster, seethed that his own cerebral style didn’t resonated with the public like Roosevelt’s. “He appeals to their imagination; I do not,” he complained in a letter to a friend. “He is a real, vivid person.… I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.” But Wilson, too, advanced new methods of persuasion, inaugurating the practice of presidents delivering the State of the Union address in person, rather than in writing. More important, he institutionalized propaganda as the business of the federal government and installed professional publicists to run the Committee on Public Information.

Greenberg makes a convincing case that these rudimentary forms of mass persuasion had outsized historical significance because they freed candidates from having to rely on corrupt party machines. But the new methods were never without controversy. Politicians who embraced admen and public relations wizards sacrificed the conceit that they were statesmen above the grubby business of politics and opened themselves up to criticism. Roosevelt, who anticipated Twitter by circulating his speeches on wax cylinders in an effort to go viral, was constantly attacked for self-promotion. Warren Harding, who grudgingly embraced the “new media” of film, invented the gaffe by allowing himself to be shot while indulging in the rich man’s sport of golf. Calvin Coolidge staged hammy photo ops while chopping trees in a business suit, drawing scorn from critics like the New Republic for marketing himself “as though he were a new breakfast food or fountain pen.”

As technology advanced during the Cold War, the criticisms broadened from the personal to the systemic and took on a much darker cast. In mid-century America, propaganda was a constant, fraught subject of national debate. “Memories of the German populace rallying to Nazism remained vivid,” Greenberg notes. The idea that democracy could be subverted by Svengalis with hidden powers was a preoccupying fear.

Driving this anxiety was a raft of best-selling books that exposed mass audiences to the manipulations of Madison Avenue admen—books like Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and Joost Meerloo’s The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing (1956). These exposés were essentially works of social criticism that played upon the collective psyche by convincing readers that they were being unwittingly subjected to the predations of shadowy men with dangerous new methods. The Hidden Persuaders, for instance, sparked the “subliminal” advertising panic, after Packard cited the (possibly apocryphal) example of a movie theater that flashed images of ice cream faster than the conscious mind could process to induce audience desire. This manipulation fed larger fears. Greenberg reports that the 1950s produced more than 200 magazine articles on brainwashing. But the anxiety they tried to exploit was best captured in a work of fiction: Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959), a lurid tale of Communist mind control and assassination. The effect carried beyond ordinary readers and moviegoers. In 1952, the pollster George Gallup, convinced that the “psy-war” operation running out of the White House was insufficient, appealed to Harry Truman to create a Department of Ideological Warfare.

Does political propaganda warrant anything like this level of alarm? Despite Richard Nixon’s abuse of powers, the subversion of American democracy that so frightened many twentieth-century authors and intellectuals never came to pass. The Cold War’s end restored a measure of perspective that was often missing—or, rather, drowned out. Even amid the most acute periods of panic, dissenting voices were questioning whether the rise of propaganda was really so effective and nefarious. Psychologists debunked the idea of brainwashing. Communication scholars emphasized how deeply resistant most of us are to messages that conflict with our existing beliefs. “Propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds,” the social philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer (1951). “Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already ‘know.'”

Yet the notion that we can be manipulated by wily technicians, while no longer the stuff of nightmares, has managed to endure, not least because it’s such a profitable ruse to maintain. A teeming industry of consultants, pollsters, and admen depends upon the willingness of politicians—and, increasingly, rich people generally—to believe that they can shape public sentiment to their liking. Greenberg makes peace with the idea that propaganda will always figure heavily in American politics, invoking Hannah Arendt’s view that all political expression relies to some extent on deception.

But many of us who have been traveling with the current crop of presidential hopefuls can offer an alternative view. Voters today have become so adept at reading the language of advertisement and propaganda that political spin often backfires. It marks the perpetrator, rather than the target, as the overmanaged phony and produces the opposite of the intended effect. Just look at poor Jeb Bush, who has access to the finest talent and yet has burned through tens of millions of dollars fruitlessly spinning the fantasy that he is best suited to become the Republicans’ savior. Or look at Donald Trump, who has dispensed with the whole apparatus of the modern campaign and become the front-runner mainly by manipulating his mouth. As the political scientist Samuel Popkin observed when the Monica Lewinsky scandal failed to harm Democrats’ fortunes, voters can and often do “decline to be spun.”

Joshua Green

Joshua Green , a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and a columnist for the Boston Globe.