(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of The Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 31, 2015)
I generally avoid political issues in this blog, but there are a number of very disturbing trends in American politics today that demand attention. The reason for that attention is simple. As both Plato and Aristotle reasoned long ago, one cannot have a good life without a good government; without a good government, few of us will be able to live well.
It is hard to know where to begin to talk about the poison in American politics today. The contemporary dysfunction has its roots at least as far back as Nixon’s southern strategy, and war crimes in Vietnam, Reagan’s disastrous economic policies which have led to the vast economic inequality we see today, Newt Gingrich’s disgraceful time as Speaker of the House, the witch hunt against the Clinton administration, the folly, stupidity, and obvious war crimes of the George W. Bush administration, the scandal of Tom Delay as House Speaker, the current insanity of the Freedom Caucus, and more.
There is undoubtedly an asymmetry between the two parties. While the Democratic party has its problems, the Republican party is a true outlier in the history of American politics, an insurgent, reactionary party incapable of governing. Even conservative scholars agree on this point—Republicans Have Gone Wild.
There is so much more to be said about all this than we can say in a short essay, but a good place to begin to understand our current situation is with Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley’s new book: How Propaganda Works. Here is a summary of some of his basic ideas.
Propaganda in the derogatory sense refers to information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, that is used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. In today’s America for example, the propagandists tell people that voter fraud is a serious problem, or that Mexican immigrants are rapists, or that more guns will solve the gun-violence problem. The purpose of all this? To suppress voting, get re-elected, or sell guns. (Consider how immigration reform received bi-partisan support in the US Senate in 2014, and was about to be approved the US House of Representatives. But when Eric Cantor lost his primary and mostly child refugees fleeing violence hit the Southern border
—violence primarily the result of US drug policies—the reform was immediately killed. Some congressmen obviously feared they wouldn’t get re-elected in their reactionary and racist districts. For more see the brand new documentary on PBS “Immigration Battle.”)
But Stanley wonders why some falsehoods work and others don’t? And why are these lies so impervious to contrary evidence even when believing and acting upon the truth would be in people’s self-interest? Why, for example, will people reject the scientific consensus on climate change, or the overwhelming evidence that more guns equals more gun violence?
According to Stanley propaganda is the “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate” through the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, and stereotype. How does this work in supposedly liberal democracies? The key to understanding this is that Americans now live in echo chambers that reinforce their prejudices and presuppositions. This makes them especially prone to propaganda.
Stanley differentiates between propaganda that supports something—let’s go to war because our enemies are evil—and undermining propaganda, which appeals to values in order to undermine those very values. An example of the latter is the false belief that America has a voter-fraud problem which is used to suppress voting in the name of election integrity. Or the false belief that Christians are discriminated against in America justifies denying marriage licenses to gay couples. So values like equality and integrity are used to undermine equality and integrity.
Stanley also invokes the idea of a flawed ideology which generates false beliefs that are impervious to evidence. Once the flawed ideology has been implanted, then you don’t need propaganda anymore, you just reactivate the false belief. For example. if you convince people that President Obama is a Muslim, then you just use his middle name to bring that belief to the surface. Or if you convince them against all evidence that he wasn’t born in America, you just have to keep talking about how foreign he seems.
Where do these false ideologies come from? Stanley argues that they derive from self-interest, especially the belief that we are good, and from our social identity. For example, the lifestyle of American slaveholders in the pre-Civil War south was dependent upon believing blacks were inferior. And it would be hard to turn your back on such beliefs if your social identity was caught up in those beliefs. Religious beliefs function similarly. Other believers are members of your clan, and it takes courage to admit that you clan has false beliefs or commits atrocities.
In sum, we develop social identity with people who share our interests, and we naturally avoid contrary ideas. This leads to flawed ideologies based on emotion, stereotype and prejudice rather than reason and evidence. These false beliefs are reinforced by propaganda that tells us that freedom or equality demand that we diminish the freedom or equality of others. Such beliefs are almost impossible to refute because different ideas threaten the believer’s ego and social relationships.
But who or what determines what ideas or true and what ones are false? Can’t we just say that everyone just believes on the basis of self-interest and social relationships? We could say that, but it isn’t true. Why? Because some things are really true and some things are really false independent of our prejudices. Climate change really is real happening, vaccines are really good for preventing disease, voter fraud isn’t really happening, and there are no significant biological distinctions between races. (In fact, the idea of race is not a biological notion.) There really is a truth about these matters which is determined not by what you want to be true, but by what really is true. And the truth is discovered in the world by the careful application of the scientific method.