NEW YORK -- In his novel 1984 , George Orwell chillingly described a totalitarian regime in which all communication is controlled by a Ministry of Truth and dissidents are persecuted by political police. The United States remains a democracy governed by a constitution and the rule of law, with pluralistic media, yet there are disturbing signs that the propaganda methods Orwell described have taken root here.
Indeed, techniques of deception have undergone enormous improvements since Orwell’s time. Many of these techniques were developed in connection with the advertising and marketing of commercial products and services, and then adapted to politics. Their distinguishing feature is that they can be bought for money. More recently, cognitive science has helped to make the techniques of deception even more effective, giving rise to political professionals who concentrate only on “getting results.”
These professionals take pride in their accomplishments, and may even enjoy the respect of an American public that admires success no matter how it is achieved. That fact casts doubt on Karl Popper’s concept of open society, which is based on the recognition that, while perfect knowledge is unattainable, we can gain a better understanding of reality by engaging in critical thinking.
Popper failed to recognize that in democratic politics, gathering public support takes precedence over the pursuit of truth. In other areas, such as science and industry, the impulse to impose one’s views on the world encounters the resistance of external reality. But in politics the electorate’s perception of reality can be easily manipulated. As a result, political discourse, even in democratic societies, does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality.
The reason democratic politics leads to manipulation is that politicians do not aspire to tell the truth. They want to win elections, and the best way to do that is to skew reality to their own benefit.
This insight should lead us not to abandon the concept of open society, but to revise and reaffirm the case for it. We must abandon Popper’s tacit assumption that political discourse aims at a better understanding of reality and reintroduce it as an explicit requirement. The separation of powers, free speech, and free elections alone cannot ensure open society; a strong commitment to the pursuit of truth is also required.
We need to introduce new ground rules for political discourse. These cannot be identical to scientific method, but they should be similar in character, enshrining the pursuit of truth as the criteria on which political views are to be judged. Politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception. And the public should care about the truth because deception misleads people in choosing their representatives, distorts policy choices, undermines accountability, and destroys trust in democracy.
Recent history provides convincing evidence that policies based on a misrepresenting reality backfire. The Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – declaring a War on Terror and treating criticism as unpatriotic – succeeded in gathering public support, yet the results were the exact opposite to what the Bush administration intended, both for itself and the United States.
The practical difficulty is in recognizing when political professionals are distorting reality. There is an important role here for the media, the political elite, and the educational system, which must all act as watchdogs. In addition, the public needs to be inoculated against the various techniques of deception. The most effective techniques operate at the subconscious level. When emotions can be aroused by methods that bypass consciousness, the public is left largely defenseless. But if the public is made aware of the various techniques, it is likely to reject them.
One influential technique – which Republican pollster Frank Luntz says that he learned from 1984 - simply reverses meanings and turns reality on its head. Thus, Fox News calls itself “fair and balanced,” and Karl Rove and his acolytes turn their opponents’ strongest traits into their Achilles’ heels, using insinuations and lies to portray the opponents’ achievements as phony. That is how insinuations of cowardice and foul play helped defeat two highly decorated Vietnam War veterans, Senator Max Cleland in 2002, and John Kerry in 2004, while Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney – both of whom avoided military service – were portrayed as true patriots.
Another technique is transference: accusing opponents of having motives or using methods that characterize the accuser himself. For example, David Horowitz, who accuses me of being “the Lenin of the anti-American conspiracy,” is a former Trotskyite for whom opponents are never adversaries to be debated, but rather enemies to be crushed.
The American public has proven remarkably susceptible to the manipulation of truth, which increasingly dominates the country’s political discourse. Indeed, a whole network of publications, some of which manage to parade as mainstream media, is devoted to the task. Yet I believe that it is possible to inoculate the public against false arguments by arousing resentment against Orwellian Newspeak. What is needed is a concerted effort to identify the techniques of manipulation – and to name and shame those who use them.
Now is an ideal time to begin that effort. Americans are now awakening, as if from a bad dream. What we have learned from recent years’ experience – what we should have known all along – is that the supremacy of critical thought in political discourse cannot be taken for granted. It can be ensured only by an electorate that respects reality and punishes politicians who lie or engage in other forms of deception.