The essence of political propaganda...is that it is a kind of speech that fundamentally involves political, economic, aesthetic, or rational ideals, mobilized for political purpose...
Supporting Propaganda: A contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to increase the realization of those very ideals by either emotional or other nonrational means.
Undermining Propaganda: A contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals. Jason Stanley (2015) How Propaganda Works, 52-3 (emphasis in original).
There are three distinct features of Stanley's approach to propaganda: first, that propaganda amplifies (or reduces) ideals; second, that it does so by nonrational means.* These first two are illustrated by the characterization of propaganda quoted above. A third distinct feature is that Stanley recognizes that propaganda is also possible, even endemic, in liberal democracies (49ff). In fact, by Stanley's lights propaganda is endemic as such in political life. A key benefit of Stanley's approach is that propaganda can be true and/or sincere. I do not agree with Stanley's general analysis of propaganda, but he is absolutely right that propaganda can be true and/or sincere, and that this is a significant contribution to reflection on propaganda. I want to accentuate Stanley's insight that propaganda can be true and sincere. For Stanley, it is flawed ideology that facilitates the uptake of true (or sincere) propaganda and (thereby) the failure to recognize propaganda as propaganda.
In the past, I have treated some bits of empirically apt economics as an instance of ideology because it has a status quo bias built into it by presupposing existing background institutions and norms. In my view when such economics is used to motivate policy in public then we are dealing with an instance of propaganda. So, on my way of understanding propaganda it can be speech that presents itself as rational. In fact, often such propaganda insists about itself that is exemplary of rationality or impartiality. What is characteristic of such status quo bias is that certain alternatives and modalities are made invisible and not explored (in part by taking a purportedly impartial stance). And it is this suppression of alternative possibilities (sometimes by way of amplification or diminution of ideals) that is, I submit, intrinsic to propaganda (which, of course, can also be highly emotive).** It fits with my general argument against denials/suppression of uncertainty in political life, which is, in effect, a denial of alternative possibilities. Controversially, this is why I think that when mathematical and philosophical technologies are applied to generate consensus in political life, these can be viewed as instances of ideology that are being put to propagandist use. By contrast, Stanley may allow (let's stipulate) that some economics is ideology, but not thereby a species of propaganda when used to justify public policy (unless, of course, it also invokes some ideals -- e.g., freedom or markets etc. -- and then undermines these.)
One further reason to be cautious about embracing Stanley's approach is that he presupposes that democratic politics ought to be rational. For, what makes something propaganda for him is, in part, that it (recall) "mobilizes" by "nonrational" means. He inherits this commitment from what he calls the "classical sense of propaganda" (48), which is "manipulation of the rational will to close off debate." To be sure, Stanley's account of propaganda is not identical to the "classical sense." But his account of propaganda presupposes a kind of deliberative understanding of public life with accompanying ideals of "fair deliberation and equal participation." One does not need to be an enemy of democracy to see that Stanley's account of propaganda can be rejected by those that have a different conception of the political or of democratic life (including those of us that agree with Stanley that in some non-trivial sense propaganda is intrinsic to actual, political life also in liberal democracies). The problem here is not that Stanley's account is not neutral -- tomorrow I discuss his Tarski-style defense of this --, but, rather, that we do not want to hang a "metaphysical" account of propaganda on a conception of democracy that is itself just one of several.
A final reason to question Stanley's analysis of propaganda is that it does not facilitate the detection of propaganda. For his emphasis on the ways in which propaganda undermines (or promotes) ideals involves contested and contestable empirical facts as well as time to discern the real life pattern of consequences from propagandist speech. Stanley is very honest about this feature of his approach and acknowledges the limitations on the "political usefulness of the characterization of propaganda" that he provides. "Insofar as the facts are under dispute, so too will be many claims about what falls under the category of propaganda." (75) Now, Stanley is clear that he is offering a metaphysics (76) not an epistemology or pragmatics of propaganda, but it is a perhaps decisive, desideratum on an analysis of a social (and contestable) concept that it can be applied in real time.
Stanley may respond that Schliesser's alternative approach to propaganda -- recall this involves suppression of alternative possibilities (sometimes by way of rational or nonrational amplification or diminution of ideals) -- also may have limited application. After all, we are not always in the position to know what the alternative possibilities that are being suppressed are. But that's okay: my approach has the virtue of unmasking any public speech that offers itself as 'inevitable,' 'necessary,' 'optimal' or 'uniquely rational or sane' (etc.) as 'propaganda.'*** That's true even if we do not know better. That is to say, one way to understand the (contested) designation of something as 'propaganda,' is to see it not as a claim that the propagandist is undermining (or promoting) ideals, but rather as a call to explore more options and not to be fooled.
*Stanley recognizes that emotions can be rational, but here we pretend that emotions are a-rational.
**My approach has a family resemblance to the understanding of propaganda as biased speech (a view Stanley identifies with Chomsky's analysis (49)), but this approach has a tendency to entail that impartial speech could not be propagandist--and that's what I reject.
***This entails that I reject technocracy or epistemocracy. But that's okay. On my view of the political it is distinct from the technocrat or the expert.