November 2004: How to Brainwash a Population

Democracy can't work if system is subverted by propaganda
November 1, 2004

Winston Churchill once described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That was in a House of Commons speech back in 1947. He was aware of how people could be persuaded to vote for incompetent or even unprincipled politicians. He had seen Hitler democratically elected in Germany, and public brainwashing later refined to a sinister science by Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels. But I doubt if Churchill could have anticipated the scope and intensity of the media propaganda mill that has been operating in the United States—and to a lesser extent in Canada—over the past three decades.

It’s a cliché that, to work as intended, democracy requires a well-informed electorate. To be more specific, it requires 1) that voters have a genuine choice of parties and candidates; 2) that the results of elections fairly reflect the voters’ wishes; and—most importantly—3) that the voters know how to vote in their own best interests. In our current political system, the last two of these prerequisites don’t exist, and some would argue that the first is lacking, too.

A conversion to some kind of proportional representation might correct the second deficiency, or at least begin to address it. But the problem of uninformed—or, more accurately, misinformed—voters is much more difficult to tackle because it originates with the print and broadcast outlets that people rely on for information. What they read in the newspapers and see or hear on TV and radio shapes their political views. Their thinking process can be subverted, their opinions re-moulded, their voting preferences twisted. They can be induced to support and vote for politicians who will never faithfully represent them or promote their interests. On the contrary, the governments they elect and re-elect will make them less happy and secure, while passing laws and adopting policies that benefit only an affluent minority.

This mass media manipulation of mindsets in the United States was described in detail by Lewis H. Lapham, the estimable editor of Harper’s, in that magazine’s September issue. It started in the early 1970s when what Lapham calls “the legions of reaction”—the business barons and their academic and professional henchmen—launched a large-scale and heavily financed campaign to boost and strengthen private enterprise. The first stage was to re-engineer public opinion.

The capital for this venture in mind control was provided by several rich American philanthropists, such as Richard Mellon Scaife, John Olin, Charles Koch, and Joseph Coors. “Their money was ideologically sound,” says Lapham, “and it was put to work acquiring newspapers, radio stations, and journals of opinion, bankrolling intellectual sweatshops [think-tanks] for the making of political and socioeconomic theory.”

These right-wing think-tanks include the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute, and a dozen others, all endowed with multi-million-dollar budgets and all churning out studies, reports, pamphlets, monographs, and other papers dedicated to freeing America at last from “the tyranny of the left,” from “the dungeons of liberalism,” and ushering in a new age of unconstrained corporate greed.

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, says Lapham, the reactionary propaganda mills “were spending $100 million a year on the manufacture and sale of their product (neoconservatism).” Today this spreading of the right-wing gospel in the U.S. is bankrolled at more than $300 million a year. The message is conveyed incessantly, over and over, through newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, on television through the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, on Radio America and the Rush Limbaugh Show. It’s the only message of Eagle Publishing Inc. and the and websites.

The message is that “all government is bad, and that the word ‘public,’ in all its uses (public service, citizenship, public health, community, public school, etc.) connotes inefficiency and waste. The dumbing down of the public discourse follows as the day the night, so it comes as no surprise,” says Lapham, “that both candidates in this year’s presidential election present themselves as embodiments of what they call ‘values’ rather than as the proponents of an idea.”

Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1950s and ‘60s know just how successful the corporations have been in pulling and pushing public opinion in the U.S. so far to the right. Forty years ago, liberalism was the prevailing mindset in the U.S., favoured by most politicians, supported by most of the media, and even by significant elements in the business community. As Lapham notes, most Americans, their universities and churches, “were aligned with the generous impulses of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, accepting of the proposition that government must do for people what people cannot do for themselves.” A large majority of Americans actually described themselves as liberals or progressives.

To seize their mentalities and drag them away from this caring and compassionate way of thinking into their present enthusiasm for corporate rule—to make “liberalism” itself virtually a dirty word—was no mean feat. It took many years of long-range planning and the enlistment of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful business leaders. It was an exercise in mass brainwashing that has made the U.S. political system today a travesty of democracy.

A similar reversal of political (and intellectual) thinking has been achieved in Canada, too. I’ll look at the effects on our own political system next month.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)