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Political Propaganda:
Selling Lies like Cigarettes.

Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
"The Crisis Papers."

July 13, 2004


From Big Bush Lies, edited by Jerry "Politex" Barrett
(RiverWood Books, 2004).
Web and Hard-Copy Publication only with
Permission of the Author and Publisher

Crisis Papers Co-Editors, Ernest Partridge and Bernard Weiner,
contributed three essays to Big Bush Lies. 



In The Crisis Papers and other progressive websites, along with numerous books now on the best-seller lists, we have identified and authenticated an appalling compendium of lies that have been spewed forth by George Bush and his cohorts in defense of his substantively indefensible policies – policies that are clearly contrary to the interests and values of the same general public which has, in large part, been persuaded to accept them.

How is this possible? What black arts of persuasion, and what perversions of language, have been employed to accomplish this astonishing, albeit regrettable, acceptance by the public?

This will be the guiding question of this essay.



Politics according to the Vince Lombardi Rule:

The key insight into the GOP/Bush propaganda machine is a realization that it is completely unscrupulous – literally, without scruple. To these political operatives, Vince Lombardi’s rule applies: “winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”

Accordingly, if a violation of common decency, or even of the law, is counter-productive to a GOP political campaign, only then might decency and the law be a constraint. Otherwise, anything goes, so long as it enhances the prospects of political success. Common decency and the law be damned.

The Law? Richard Nixon’s willingness to resort to perjury, illegal wiretapping and burglary to further his political ends, is well known. The GOP also violated the law in Florida in 2000, as tens of thousands of eligible voters were “purged” from the rolls, as hundreds of military ballots postmarked after the election were counted, and as the official recount of ballots in Miami-Dade County was interrupted and then cancelled, as the offices were besieged in the “yuppy riot” carried out largely by congressional GOP staffers.

Arguably, a Supreme Court decision cannot violate a law, since it validates laws. Even so, the consensus of legal scholars is that the December 12, 2000 decision, Bush v. Gore, is an absurd, incoherent and indefensible concoction specifically devised to enact a pre-ordained result: the selection of George W. Bush as President.

With such a history as this, can the public be assured that the “paperless” touch-screen voting machines, all manufactured by companies owned and controlled by Republican partisans, will accurately and fairly record the votes in the upcoming Presidential election?

Common Decency? Consider the distortions and lies that the right wing propaganda mill has fed the voters:

  • Dukakis vs. Bush I and the infamous “Willie Horton” ad. Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner, committed a violent crime while on furlough during Dukakis’s term as Governor. The ad does not point out that the furlough program was established during the term of Dukakis’ predecessor, a Republican.
     

  • In the 2002 Georgia senatorial campaign, Max Cleland was characterized as “unpatriotic” by his opponent, Saxby Chamblis. Cleland is a Viet Nam veteran who lost three of his limbs in combat. Chamblis dodged the draft during the Viet Name war.
     

  • In the 2000 Presidential campaign, Al Gore was slandered as a “serial liar” and a “self promoter.” Examples? He claimed, among other things, to have “invented the internet,” and to have “discovered the Love Canal toxic waste site.” In fact, the “lies” were made by the GOP campaign. Gore never made such claims, and one is hard-pressed to find any examples of deliberate lying in his public record. (Note 1).
     

  • The outpouring of grief at the memorial for Paul Wellstone was denounced by the GOP as a “cheap political rally.”
     

  • In the crucial 2000 South Carolina primary campaign, John McCain, an authentic war hero, was smeared by a barrage of false accusations: that he is mentally unstable as a result of his experiences as a prisoner of war, that he fathered a black child, that his wife is an alcoholic, etc. (Note 2).


Politicians who gain their offices through slander, election fraud, and lies, can be expected to continue such behavior once in office – and they do.

None of this behavior would be successful if the media reported and criticized it, and if the public repudiated it at the polls. But they don’t. Instead, the GOP campaign propaganda tests the limits, encounters little resistance and is rewarded by success, and so the limits of corrupt political campaigning are stretched ever further.

Accordingly, in contemporary American politics, Leo Durocher’s rule applies: “Nice guys finish last.”



Making the Case vs. Selling the Product.

Adlai Stevenson conducted his 1952 and 1956 campaigns with the slogan, “let’s talk sense to the American people.”

How noble! How high-minded! How naive!

Because much of the Democratic “brain trust” is drawn from the scholarly and legal professions, Democratic candidates and campaign managers are inclined to treat political campaigns as if they took place in a seminar room or a court room. They assemble their evidence and put it into a logical structure, and then proceed to “make their case.” Ho Hum!

Republican campaign strategists come from an entirely different place – the marketplace. Their methodology is that of the salesman: the candidate as “product,” and the voter as “customer.” Their commanding objective is to “make the sale,” by whatever means are found to be effective toward that end. They are utterly undeterred by qualms about committing fallacies or even about staying within the bounds factual accuracy and truth. “Salesmanship” has little interest in such concerns. “Facts,” as Ronald Reagan once said, “are stupid things.” Thus lying is just another weapon in their rhetorical armory, to be utilized whenever it is found to be effective.

In advance of their political campaigns, GOP “salesmen” examine comprehensively the public mind, through polling and focus groups. There they discover the “hot button” words, concepts, images and (less significantly) issues. With this information, they then target the emotions (in “the post-9/11 context,” primarily fear) , motives (security and economic gain), and self-image (hard-working, free, God- fearing) of the public, all this toward the objective of what Noam Chomsky describes as “the manufacturing of consent.”

Then the GOP campaign machine strikes early, defining their opponents and framing the contest, whereupon the Democrats find themselves constantly on the defensive. In addition, the Republicans resolve to “stay on the message” which they repeat and repeat and repeat, until the public perceives the repetition as proof – a tactic which has come to be known as “the big lie.”

Democrats also use polls and conduct focus groups, but primarily to discover public opinion concerning “the issues” – i.e., the economy, homeland security, health care, foreign policy, etc. Time and again, they discover that a majority of the public is “with the Democrats” on the issues. Time and again, the Republicans prove that the issues are of secondary importance to imagery and the public’s perception of the personalities of the candidates.

For example, in 1984, when the pollsters surveyed public opinion regarding the positions of the two parties on public issues, carefully excluding references to the candidates and the parties, on virtually every issue, the preponderance of public opinion was on the side of the Democrats. And yet in that election we were told over and over that it was “morning in America” (whatever that meant) and the smiling Gipper face was omnipresent on the TV screen. Reagan trounced Mondale. In 2000 election, the GOP image-makers successfully, albeit unfairly, portrayed Al Gore as untrustworthy, self-absorbed, aloof and cold. George Bush, on the other hand, was presented as a compassionate “straight-shooting” and “likeable” guy. Again, on the issues, a considerable majority of the public was on the side of the Democrats, as the voters might have noticed had they paid attention to the issues in the debates and the campaign. However, the media spin-meisters redirected public attention to the concocted caricatures of the candidates, which narrowed Gore’s margin of popular vote “victory” sufficiently to allow the GOP, with the aid of five Supreme Court justices, to steal the election and the presidency.

With Bush & Co. safely installed in the White House and his party in control of the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the mass media, the sales campaign continues – with manifest success.

How else is one to explain the endorsement by a large portion of the public of policies that clearly work against their interests. Among them:

  • policies that are designed to redistribute wealth “upward” from the poor and middle class to the wealthy
     

  • tax reductions for the wealthy that result in massive federal deficits, borrowing from the Social Security funds and threatening to bankrupt this most popular federal program along with other social services such as Medicare, Head Start, Americorps, etc.
     

  • enactment and enforcement of legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which directly violate Constitutional protection of citizen rights and privacy
     

  • policies that open up the national parks and other public lands to private exploitation, and that relax or abolish environmental regulations designed to protect the air, water, endangered species and ecosystems.
     

  • foreign wars that will gain them nothing while possibly costing the lives of themselves or their loved ones – wars that are ordered by individuals who stand to gain financially, and who themselves have managed to avoid military service. (“They had other priorities” as Dick Cheney put it).


Summing up, to the degree that the Democratic strategists approach political campaigns from the traditions of scholarship and the law, they perceive their task as that of “making the case” – i.e., their objective is to prove.

In contrast, the Republicans approach political campaigns from the perspective of the marketplace, and perceive their task as that of “selling the product,” which is to say the candidate. Their objective is to persuade – by any means available, so long as they can “get away with it.”

History tells us which approach has been more successful.



GOP-Speak and the Vindication of George Orwell.

The fundamental operating principles of right-wing and Bushista propaganda were clearly set forth in 1948 in "The Principles of Newspeak" -- an appendix to George Orwell's 1984.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ..., but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words, and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.... Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought...(Note 3).

Orwell wrote this as a warning. The Republicans and the Bush Administration has adopted it as a guidebook.

In Orwell’s Newspeak, words were corrupted by assigning them to their conventional opposites: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength.” In the government of 1984, the military command is housed in The Ministry of Peace. The secret police and the torture chambers operate out of The Ministry of Love. And propaganda, including the rewriting of history, issues from The Ministry of Truth. Note in this regard that the organ of Soviet propaganda was named “Pravda.” English translation: “truth.”

The torture of the English language in the hands of the Bush Administration is scarcely less bizarre. A Bush Administration policy that will let loose the chain saws of the timber corporations upon our national forests is dubbed “healthy forests.” Another policy which allows increased power plant emissions into the atmosphere is called the “Clear Skies Initiative.” The military occupation of the once-sovereign nation of Iraq was accomplished under “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” And the USA PATRIOT Act abolishes citizen rights and protections of law in defense of which authentic patriots in our history pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, and often gave their lives. (Cassel, van Bergen, Crisis Papers). (Note 4)

The right-wing corruption of the word “conservative” deserves special attention. Webster’s Unabridged defines “conservatism” as “the practice of preserving what is established; disposition to oppose change in established institutions and methods.” This scarcely describes a political movement that attacks our Constitutional rights, extends government surveillance of the private lives of citizens, curtails free expression, stifles free enterprise, rejects the accumulated learning of the sciences, decides national elections by judicial decree, violates treaties, and initiates wars with sovereign nations that pose no threat to us – and this list is incomplete. Better to call such an ideology “regressive” or “radically reactionary.”

For this reason, I have refrained in this essay (as I do in most of my writings) from applying the word “conservative” to either the Bush administration or the Republican party.

Yet this right-wing faction insists upon calling itself “conservative,” and does so with such persistence, that even its left-wing and centrist opponents have thoughtlessly fallen into line and routinely refer to the radical right as “conservative.”

The radical right attack on the word “liberal” exemplifies Orwell’s warning that when a powerful political party takes control of a language, “a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

In the hands of the radical right propagandists, the word “liberal” has come to signify hippies, socialism, moral relativism, political correctness, “tax and spend” big government, welfare cheats, “bleeding heart” giveaways to the unworthy, and so on. According to Ann Coulter, “liberals” (roughly half the population of the United States) are nothing less than “traitors.” (Note 5)

Joe Conason counters this caricature in his book “Big Lies”

The most basic liberal values are political equality and economic opportunity. Liberals uphold democracy as the only form of government that derives legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and they regard the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights as essential to the expression of popular consent. Their commitment to an expanding democracy is what drives liberal advocacy on the behalf of women, minorities, gays, immigrants, and other traditionally disenfranchised groups. (Note 6).

When a public opinion poll asks a sample of American citizens how they would label their political orientation, “liberal” generally comes in a poor third to “conservative” and “moderate.” However, when the “liberal” label is set aside and ordinary citizens are asked their opinions about such particular issues as Social Security, Medicaid, public education, the United Nations, voting rights, affirmative action, environmental protection, government regulation of commerce, reproductive freedom, etc., a considerable majority expresses support of these policies and issues which are, in fact, central to the liberal point of view. Thus it seems that although the American public endorses the content of traditional liberalism, the radical right has so successfully sullied the label “liberal” that it has become an effective political weapon of the right – like a piece of rotten fruit to hurl at an opposing candidate.

And so, in tune with the principles of Newspeak, the right has so corrupted political discourse that the political faction which advocates "reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual" (Webster's), formerly designated as "liberalism," has now been deprived of its traditional name. And thus, lacking a name, it has become far more difficult to articulate and thus even think of and defend the "liberal" principles of such political giants as FDR, LaGuardia, Adlai Stevenson and Jacob Javitts, and Wendell Wilkie.

So now we see the rise of the label “progressive” in place of “liberal” – presumably, until such time that this label too is besmirched by the mighty media propaganda machine of the right.


Language and the social order.

A well-ordered and well-integrated society rests upon a foundation of shared meanings – a language with a rich vocabulary, capable of expressing novelties, relatively constant, but at the same time evolving through ordinary use, rather than political manipulation. Put simply, language functions best as a conservative institution.

However, as Orwell so clearly pointed out, political propaganda is destructive of this “conservative” function of language. Heedless of the cost in social disorder, right wing propaganda deliberately and willfully distorts language to serve the purposes of the party, of the faction, of the sponsor. This is no secret. In his GOPAC memo of 1994, Newt Gingrich candidly identified language as “a key mechanism of control.”

Propagandistic manipulation and distortion of political discourse is subversive of democratic government whether or not it is successful. If the “Newspeak” of the controlling party is uncritically accepted by the public, it becomes an instrument of control by that government. If it is rejected, the institutions of government and the rule of law are likewise rejected, and anarchy ensues.

Furthermore, a degraded political language can cause havoc in the society as it undermines clarity of ordinary discourse and with it the capacity of ordinary citizens to communicate. to trust each other, and thus participate in and sustain a democratic government. Civil society then dissolves as individuals retreat into themselves and are reduced from citizens to self-seeking consumers, and society is reduced to a mere marketplace – if that.

It is thus the urgent duty of the opposing party, civic organizations and educational institutions to restore to political discourse the clarity and order of a natural language – what Confucius called a “recitfication of names” – which is pre-requisite for open, intelligent and productive political debate.



Conclusion:

From this analysis we may conclude that the lies of the Bush Administration, the Republicans and the radical right are not simply moral lapses added on the routine business of politics (though they are that too). Much more than that, the lies of the right issue from the very foundations of right-wing theory and practice. In an enterprise that prizes winning above all else, moral qualms about fair-play and truth-telling drop far down the list of priorities, and perchance off that list entirely. Right-wing campaign strategists feel no more obliged to tell the truth to the public than tobacco marketers feel obliged to publicize the health risks of their product to the teen-agers they are endeavoring to “hook.” Indeed, many of the advertising agencies that hawk cigarettes also work for the Republican National Committee.

Neither the public in general, nor the Democratic party in particular, are helpless in the face of the propaganda barrage from the right. First of all, the founders of our republic set up a system of “checks and balances” in the structure of the government that might serve to curb the abuses of government. Unfortunately, the onslaught from the right has severely crippled these institutions – the Congress, and the courts. Even so, they are not beyond recapture by an aroused and determined public and opposition party.

The founders also looked to the press as a remedy against the abuses of power, wealth and privilege. The press – or “the media” as we now call it – are likewise also severely compromised as organs of opposition and reform, due to their ownership by fewer and fewer corporate conglomerates. But the public is sensing the dangers of media concentration and is resisting it. Witness the public outcry against the FCC decision to relax ownership rules. Note too the emergence of the Internet as a medium of dissent.

There is much more to be said about counter-measures against the right-wing propaganda machine. But that must be the topic of another essay.  (See my  “Don’t Give Up on the Media,”  and “The Dragon at the Gate,”).
 


NOTES and REFERENCES:

1.    Eric Boehlert,  "Gore's too-willing executioners," Salon, (October 27, 2000), Molly Dickerson,  "Who's lying, Gore or the media?"  TomPaine.com, (October 8, 2000), and Robert Parry, "He's no Pinnochio,"  Washington Monthly, (April, 2000).

2.    Jake Tapper, "Getting Ugly,"  Salon, (November 14, 2000), and PBS, Online News Hour, "Showdown in South Carolina,"  PBS, (February 17, 2000).  ]

3.    Orwell, George: 1984, (New York: Signet Classic, 1992), pp 246-7.

4.    Elaine Cassel, "The Bush administration and the end of civil liberties,"  CounterPunch. April 27, 2003,  Jennifer van Bergen, "Repeal the USA PATRIOT Act,"  Truthout, April 1, 2002, and The Crisis Papers, "USA Patriot Act".

5.    Ann Coulter, "Treason :Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism," Crown Forum, 2003 (The full title says it all!)]

6.    Joe Conason, "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth," Thomas Dunne, 2003, pages 2-3.

 

Copyright 2004 by Ernest Partridge

 


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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".

 

 

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances