PR and Politics

A look at recent civic paralysis at the hand of public relations: The black arts of psychology put to work for political ends

TVR Books | Dardis McNamee | March 2009

Edward Bernays at the age of 90, was still influential on the national scene (Photo:


This article is based on the following:

State of Confusion, by Bryant Welch (2008) 

Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1928)

PR! A Social History of Spin, by Stuart Ewen (1996)


In the International Herald Tribune in late February, readers were startled to see an article outlining how, in spite of embarking on the largest bailout and stimulus package in history, President Barack Obama plans to cut the annual deficit at least in half by the end of his 4-year term. The reduction, the article said, would come mostly through Iraq troop withdrawals and higher taxes on the wealthy.

How was this possible? After eight years of being trapped in an ever-deepening swamp of war and misadventure, of deficits spiraling out of control, the speed with which this new president appeared to be getting a grip on things almost defied belief.  But we thought the Iraq War – with its independent contractors, its outsourcing of military functions, its torture, its graft – was essential to national security? We thought tax cuts for wealth industrialists and investors were essential for the health of the economy? We thought the massive leveraging of debt was necessary to a growth economy…

Given the chronic misrepresentations of defining issues, it’s hardly surprising that Americans were befuddled. It was nearly all misrepresentations, of the progress of the war on Fox News, of science from the Christian Fundamentalists, and of reality itself at the hand of President George Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove – who engaged in a pattern of covert dishonesty that began before Watergate and later caused the first president Bush to fire Rove from his campaign on two separate occasions.

But now that it’s over, now that the fog has lifted, it is all the more important to understand what happened to Americans as a society, and how they, how we, could be so badly fooled.

The answer lies, at least in part, in the masterful use of Public Relations, the black arts of psychology put to work for political ends – and the subject of a brilliant cultural portrait by Stuart Ewen PR! A Social History of Spin. Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, in the departments of History, Sociology and Media Studies, Ewen has poured a lifetime of research and thought into this remarkable book, which traces the evolution of the profession of Public Relations from its earliest seeds in the Committee of Public Information during World War I, to its effective dominance of the public sphere in the modern era.

"Living in a society in which nearly every moment of human attention is exposed to the game plans of spin doctors, image managers, pitchmen, communications consultants, public information officers, and public relations specialists, the boundaries of my inquiry appeared seamless," Ewen writes, "Nearly every arena of public communication – the windows through which we come to know our world – is touched by the deliberate activities of  "compliance professionals."

World War I America, however, had never seen anything like it. Developed to rally support for the country’s involvement in a European war President Woodrow Wilson had sworn to avoid, Public Relations was the brain child of Edward Bernays, twice nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his mentor, the distinguished journalist and political analyst Walter Lippmann. Put to work for the wartime Committee of Public Information, theirs efforts to demonize the German "Huns" were successful beyond even their own predictions – and it was another decade that the manipulations and outright lies where catalogued in the masterful exposé Falsehoods in Wartime by British MP Arthur Ponsonby.

However Bernays had no such scruples and saw the role of Public Relations both as positive and as politically necessary. In the vast social shifts that had taken place in the United States over the course of the 19th century, he saw the creation of an urban working class that was poorly educated and ill informed, and in their view unqualified to fulfill its role as responsible citizens in a democracy. They saw herd behavior, governed by instinct rather than thought, by emotion rather than discourse. In this they saw danger, and the risks of social upheaval that were uprooting societies in Europe. Thus, they saw a public that needed to be guided, to give its mandate to a leadership class that would rule wisely on its behalf.

"Intelligent men," Bernays wrote in 1928, "must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help bring order out of chaos."

At the same time, the wrenching changes were tearing loose traditional ideas of truth. Thinkers like American philosopher William James challenged the assumption that there were any such things as "timeless verities." In his 1907 book Pragmatism, A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking, he insisted that there was no consummate gospel by which people could live.

"The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it," James wrote. "Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.

This is not exactly a new insight; historians have long understood that history is written by the victors. In Hungary, Attila the Hun is considered a national hero. It was his defeat by Theodoric the Goth at Orléans in 451 that made him Europe’s ultimate Barbarian at the Gates.  In England, Henry Tudor defeated the Plantagenet Richard III, a progressive and enlightened ruler, on Bosworth Field in 1485 and had him written into history as the incarnation of evil. And then there were the American Indians…

But it is arresting to realize the extent to which pragmatism has become the defining philosophy of 20th century thought, that with all our education, our mobility and our wealth, we continue to be vulnerable to the manufacturers of invented reality. Today, we are so used to this it can become nearly impossible to see.

These distortions of reality that have characterized the right-wing media, religious leaders and spin doctors of the Bush years are what psychiatrist and attorney Bryant Welch calls "gaslighting" – a term that comes from a 1944 movie Gaslight in which a psychopathic husband tries to drive his wealthy wife insane by secretly manipulating her environment. Confused and upset, she becomes more and more dependent, believing she is losing her mind.

In psychology, gaslighting refers to a series of mind games that prey on people’s limited ability to tolerate ambiguity. When things get too complicated or confusing, people turn to someone they see as powerful, and cling to answers that are simple enough to understand, even if they don’t make sense.

"This," says Welch, "is what has been done to large segments of America" in the fear and confusion following Sept. 11, 2001, a psychic disturbance to Americans sense of reality that they were willing to suspend fundamental constitutional rights, withdraw from international agreements and finance a disastrous war that weakened U.S. standing abroad and left a deep gulf of bitterness in one of the most resource rich and least stable regions of the world.

Welch breaks our current vulnerabilities down into three highly charged emotional states: paranoia, envy and sexual perplexity.

We are perhaps most familiar with the logic of paranoia: Faced with a terrorist threat, Americans had to construct a new reality in a hurry to cope with their new situation. So when they were told that Saddam Hussein was close to Al Qaeda and with his WMDs was an immanent threat to the United States, Americans were ready to believe that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis were responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Envy is the second vulnerability, a deep frustrated desire that lives on as unexpressed resentment. This is the drive behind white men’s belief in the exaggerated sexual prowess of black men; it is the energy behind the conspiracy theories about an international dominance of Jewish bankers; it is passion behind domestic violence. And it is also, according to Welch, the power behind negative campaigning, reflecting a feeling, actively encouraged by hate-filled radio, that liberal think they are superior. Hence the resentment of John Kerry for being able to speak French, and the comfort, even affection, with the rhetorical blundering of George W. Bush.

The last is sexual perplexity, perhaps least discussed directly, but the key to the power of enduring hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage and bewildering 1970s failure of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The theory of gaslighting, as Welch makes clear, links back directly to Edward Bernays, whose work clearly showed "how readily the mind could be manipulated to for new constructs of reality when in the hands of a clever manipulator."

Despite operating with limited tools Bernays created a feminine and even healthy image of smoking for women. Retained by the United Fruit Company, he convinced Americans that it was in the national interest to overthrow a democratically elected government in Guatemala.

Welch’s analysis is a relief to read. It is the explanation for the success of Karl Rove, Fox News, of Ann Coulter and Jerry Fallwell. It is also why the techniques described in The Shock Doctrine, by Canadian political scientist Naomi Klein’s – the exploitation of wars, crisis and natural disasters for private or political ends – are so effective. It is the explanation for tragedies like the Nazi Holocaust.

We would perhaps do better taking advice from Mark Twain, who listened to everything that came out of the mouths of politicians with a grain of salt.

"It’s not what they don’t know that scares me," he quipped, "it’s what they know for sure that just ain’t so."

Other articles from this issue