I’ve started assembling a syllabus focused on propaganda and politics.  The creation of the syllabus will take place on this blog, and it looks like it will be useful for the 2nd edition of The Honest Broker as well.

This post takes a step back to offer a definition of the term propaganda so that readers and collaborators know what I mean when I’m using the term.

Propaganda, according to a widely cited 1927 definition offered by political scientist Harold Lasswell, “is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.”

There is a lot in that little sentence, so let’s unpack it. By “collective attitude” Lasswell means a bit more than what is commonly called “public opinion,” to refer to a “tendency to act.” Propaganda thus focuses not just on what people believe, but on how what people believe influences how they act. An obvious example is the vote. Election propaganda is focused on collective attitudes in an effort to favor one candidate over another at the ballot box.

To understand symbol we turn to Edward Sapir’s classic entry on “symbolism” in the 1934 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Sapir distinguishes referential symbols from condensational symbols. The former are “economical devices for purposes of reference” – such as the abbreviation CO for Colorado, or a STOP sign to mean stop.

A condensational symbol is imbued with meaning. The swastika is such a symbol. So too is “Make America Great Again.” We are in fact awash in symbols, which is how we interpret that part of the world that we do not experience directly. Walter Lippmann wrote in 1922: “The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event.”

Lippmann explains why symbols matter in politics:

Because of their transcendent practical importance, no successful leader has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his following… Because of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand.

Significant symbols are those that play a key role in politics. Political actors manipulate such symbols in hope of shaping collective attitudes. This is propaganda.

Lasswell, H. D. (1927). The theory of political propaganda. The American Political Science Review, 21:627-631.

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. (Free Press, New York).

Sapir, E. (1934). Symbolism. Encyclopedia of the social sciences, 14:492-495.