Propaganda is a nasty word, but like fascism it’s also a somewhat poorly understood word that is used more as a popular insult than an accurate description of something. That’s a shame because fascism is a thing that has been happening in America for years and propaganda may be the only thing that President-Elect Joe Biden can do to fight it once he takes office.
Democrats have the advantage in that facts are generally on our side in debates, but facts alone do not win arguments between people unless they both agree that facts exist. As I said recently, denying reality is how Trumpists pray, and that makes the whole national debate we’re having a matter of faith. Though the right loves to say, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” the opposite has proven true as well. The aggrieved sense of persecution conservatives have at the moment cannot be countered with graphs about racial injustice or the failures of capitalism any more than pointing out the fallacies in the myth of Noah’s Ark will make people stop believing in it. Faith, by definition, is something you have when facts don’t support it.
So, what’s left? Propaganda.
Remember, propaganda doesn’t have to mean lies. The famous Shepard Fairey Obama Hope poster was essentially propaganda, and there was nothing sinister about it. No Democrat wants to be seen as making propaganda because we’re supposed to be above that, but really, we aren’t.
The reticence to propagandize goes back a long way. Franklin Roosevelt was very aware of how important it was to intervene in Europe as World War II began, but America was still reeling from what they felt was a needless bloodbath from entering the Great War. Richard Steele wrote about FDR’s hesitancy to engage in the propaganda campaigns that Woodrow Wilson did to get America behind the fight. He felt that doing the same would make the country angry, a point that became moot after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Still, his delay meant that the few steps he had taken to try and win the hearts of the populace to the cause ultimately, “proved totally ineffective in dealing with the morale-building needs of wartime America.”
We’re not at a war right now, at least in the traditional sense. However, we’re dealing with a nexus of different crises that are as big a threat as most wars. There is the ongoing debate about health care and whether we should move to a more socialist system, the rampant income inequality that has hamstrung the average American for the pleasure of the top one percent, and also the frightening rise in American fascism that has occurred over the past decade. The three combined have the power to tear the country apart as sure as slavery did.
These are not problems that can be won with guns and tear gas, although the authoritarian aspects of the government do seem to be trying their best. These are ideas, and ideas are bulletproof. To fight ideas, you have to have better ones. At the very least, you have to have ones that can sell.
Merely stating the facts will not make America healthy or more prosperous or turn back the rise of reactionary and violent right-wing activism. If it could, Hillary Clinton would have been president four years ago. The left cannot simply demand that people read books to understand them and look down on those who won’t. Done openly and truthfully, a well-crafted propaganda campaign can be a mobilizing force for good that empowers the average American into action. When FDR did finally embrace the practice, it had the effect of making civilians feel a part of the struggle instead of helpless bystanders.
As we all sit here cowering in our homes from the virus, that’s the thing we most need right now. It can be the path that leads us into real progress and change. At the very least it can counter the highly effective propaganda the right continues to produce. We can’t just pretend that is beneath us because if we do it will continue to swallow the country in chaos and pain.
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