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.