Thursday, June 14, 2012


For anybody who wants to read it. From Aldous Huxley's 1957 essay "Brave New World Revisited":

The political merchandisers appeal only to the weak­nesses of voters, never to their potential strength. They make no attempt to educate the masses into becoming fit for self-government; they are content merely to manipulate and exploit them. For this pur­pose all the resources of psychology and the social sciences are mobilized and set to work. Carefully se­lected samples of the electorate are given "interviews in depth." These interviews in depth reveal the uncon­scious fears and wishes most prevalent in a given so­ciety at the time of an election. Phrases and images aimed at allaying or, if necessary, enhancing these fears, at satisfying these wishes, at least symbolically, are then chosen by the experts, tried out on readers and audiences, changed or improved in the light of the information thus obtained. After which the political campaign is ready for the mass communicators. All that is now needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look "sincere." Under the new dispen­sation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The person­ality of the candidate and the way he is projected by the advertising experts are the things that really mat­ter.

In one way or another, as vigorous he-man or kindly father, the candidate must be glamorous. He must also be an entertainer who never bores his audience. Inured to television and radio, that audience is accustomed to being distracted and does not like to be asked to con­centrate or make a prolonged intellectual effort. All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy. The great issues of the day must be dealt with in five minutes at the most -- and prefera­bly (since the audience will be eager to pass on to something a little livelier than inflation or the H-bomb) in sixty seconds flat. The nature of oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among politicians and clergymen to over-simplify complex is­sues. From a pulpit or a platform even the most con­scientious of speakers finds it very difficult to tell the whole truth. The methods now being used to merchan­dise the political candidate as though he were a deo­dorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.

Much more here.

This is something I continue to have difficulty in fully grasping, but that Huxley knew all too well five decades ago: modern American politics, at the electoral level, have far less to do with actual issues than they have to do with emotion, symbols, and narrative.

As a college educated citizen, it is extraordinarily difficult for me to abandon the notion that if I just articulated the right argument, if I just appealed to my fellow citizens' sense of reason, using facts and argumentation, we could, in the long run, have a much better nation. But reasoned argumentation is nothing compared to the modern day advertising campaigns, which make full use of irrational human psychology, that envelop and drown us every day in a sea of mass media. Indeed, such an approach effectively reduces us to a sort of herd mentality. And when I say "effectively," I really do mean it. Most Americans essentially vote their feelings, without realizing that their feelings have been heavily manipulated.

Brand Obama: an intelligent guy who's one of us, who will go to Washington to show us how to all get along, creating the American utopia we've always dreamed of. Brand Bush: a regular guy who you can have a beer with, a guy who listens to country music and works on a ranch, a guy who's one of us. The actual arguments are kind of meaningless. I mean, sure, there are arguments, but you already know where you stand on those so why bother working your way through them? My candidate's like me, so he's going to be right on the issues.

I know this is how it works. I know that this is the approach I need to take, myself, if I'm going to persuade people with whom I disagree. But it drives me nuts that this is counter to the entire notion of democracy, drives me nuts that politicians embrace this, rather than attempting collectively to diffuse it. Mass communications have made us take a horrific wrong turn, something that our Founding Fathers could have never possibly foreseen. And we've known about it for decades, but it's only gotten worse.

Is there any way out of this trap?