Friday, May 29, 2015

Jason Stanley's "How Propaganda Works"

Jason Stanley is Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. Before going to Yale in 2013, he was Professor II (Distinguished Professor) in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He has also been a Professor at the University of Michigan and Cornell University.

Stanley has published four books, two in epistemology, one in philosophy of language and semantics, and the newly released How Propaganda Works, a work of social and political philosophy.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to How Propaganda Works and reported the following:
In a democracy, we expect our politicians to pursue policies that further the common good; a politician who straightforwardly argued that all the goods of society should go just to her largest campaign donors would not win broad support. Of course, politicians in a democracy often do push policies that favor a narrow class of voters, for example their campaign donors, over the interests of others. However when politicians are advancing the interests of their campaign donors at the expense of others, they must at least openly pretend otherwise. For example, they must argue that serving the interests of their major campaign donors is what serves the interests of everyone. This is because we expect politicians and the media in a democracy to represent everyone. Page 99 of my book occurs in the middle of a discussion of different theories philosophers have given of what it is to take everyone’s interests into consideration; the three philosophers I most rely on in this discussion are W.E.B. Du Bois, Susan Stebbing, and John Rawls.

Understanding the kind of attitude that we expect politicians and media to have, taking everyone into consideration, is crucial to an understanding of political communication. Political debate is a contest between candidates each of whom seeks to convince opinion makers that she really has everyone’s interests at heart. The difficulty is that politicians must often try to win this contest, while simultaneously advancing an agenda that benefits a favored group at the expense of others, as is typically the case in politics (though perhaps not, as Carl Schmitt might suggest, invariably).

An example of how to compete under these constraints can be found in Frank Luntz’s “Wexner Analysis: Israeli Communication Priorities 2003”. This document is an effort to find a way to communicate the message to American “opinion elites” that Israel is genuinely interested in peace and Palestinian well-being, while simultaneously undermining support for the Palestinian leadership. In polling, Luntz discovered that the sound bite “[w]e are hoping to find a Palestinian leadership that really does reflect the best interest for the Palestinian people” was an effective way to communicate the message that Israel is a reasonable negotiating partner, but the Palestinian leadership is not. The sentence suggests that the Israeli politicians are the reasonable ones, the ones who actually have the Palestinian interests most at heart, while simultaneously undercutting the Palestinian leadership position.
Learn more about How Propaganda Works at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue