Fuelling ignorance – the key to success in modern politics?

We can’t say that we weren’t warned. In his 1928 book Propaganda, the pioneering Austrian-American publicist Edward Bernays unblushingly wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country.

Bernays also coined the term “public relations”, and among his most lucrative coups as a publicist was his marketing of cigarettes as “torches of freedom” for women in the 1920s.

More recently, his 2003 book The Political Animal, famed broadcaster Jeremy Paxman made the following eye-catching observation about manifestos:

For party leaders, they can be an unnecessary nuisance, because they give a yardstick by which to judge performance. Margaret Thatcher produced the most curious argument against them.

‘If the elector suspects the politician of making promises simply to get his vote, he despises him, but if the promises are not forthcoming, he may reject him. I believe that parties and elections are about more than rival lists of miscellaneous promises – indeed, if they were not, democracy would scarcely be worth preserving.’

This is a remarkable position, simultaneously naive and knowing.

Come again, Jeremy? Naive and knowing? Well, perhaps, but an alternative and more likely interpretation of Mrs T’s attitude to democracy could be ‘All this business about having to honour your promises, it’s such a drag, don’t you think? Why can’t the masses just be more conveniently amnesiac or thick? It would make our job so much easier.’

Of course, the Iron Lady was not the only British or other leader to prefer a more stupid and thereby more pliant electorate, but in a year that could see Donald Trump enter the White House, and with the EU In-or-Out referendum just a month away, it is worth thinking for a bit about wallowing in stupidity and how, far from being a liability, it could actually pay handsome political dividends. It has worked in America, after all, and quite recently.

For eight years in the 2000s, after all, the most powerful man in the world was a college dropout whose insightful quotations included ‘Our nation must come together to unite,’ and ‘The vast majority of Iraqis want to live in peace and harmony, and we will find these people and bring them to justice,’ while also rhetorically asking ‘Is our children learning?‘ and effectively answering his own question. If it is remarkable enough that George W Bush was elected to the White House in 2000 (though certain murky goings-on in Florida polling stations also had something to do with it), it is perhaps more remarkable that he was re-elected four years later. Then again, perhaps not – not when you factor in the input of his chief advisor, Karl Rove. Not for nothing was he dubbed “Bush’s Brain” at one point, as Matt Taibbi recently wrote in Rolling Stone magazine:

Rove correctly guessed that a generation of watching TV and Hollywood movies left huge blocs of Americans convinced that people who read books, looked at paintings and cared about spelling were either serial killers or scheming to steal bearer bonds from the Nakatomi building. (Even knowing what a bearer bond is was villainous).

The hero in American culture, meanwhile, was always a moron with a big gun who learned everything he needed to know from cowboy movies. The climax of pretty much every action movie from the mid-eighties on involved shotgunning the smarty-pants villain in the face before he could finish some fruity speech about whatever.

Rove sold Bush as that hero. He didn’t know anything, but dammit, he was sure about what he didn’t know. He was John McClane, and Al Gore was Hans Gruber. GOP flacks like Rove rallied the whole press corps around that narrative, to the point where any time Gore tried to nail Bush down on a point of policy, pundits blasted him for being a smug know-it-all using wonk-ese to talk over our heads — as Cokie Roberts put it once, “this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.”

It is no coincidence that the term “metrosexual” started to appear in the English language round about the time of the ’04 presidential election. The Democratic candidate John Kerry owned Bush in all their televised debates, but Rove’s strategy, of depicting Kerry and his party as people who talk a lot and think a lot but are basically urban types who don’t understand the lives and values of real Americans (and, for all we know, may not be traditional family-oriented folks, nudge, nudge, wink, wink), obviously did pay off politically, as that year’s result bore out.

What’s more, there was a precedent for such a strategy: during the 1980 presidential campaign, whenever Ronald Reagan was being bettered by Jimmy Carter in the debates he would contemptuously reply ‘There you go again’ – as if being better informed about issues were automatically boring. It was essentially the use of primary-school playground taunts as political weapons. More recently, in February 2012, in the run-up to that year’s contest, Republican hopeful Rick Santorum blurted out the following statement:

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!

Yeah, Rick, because wanting the people in your country to learn more about the wider world around them is so elitist, isn’t it! (Although, in fairness to Santorum, he did later apologise for what he said)

Of course, anti-intellectualism is not a problem confined only to the United States. There has been a degree of it in Northern Irish political life. In his book The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed, the Order’s former Education Committee head Brian Kennaway writes of former Orangeman Willam Sibbett remarking ‘In my opinion if you can read a book you are not wanted,’ and of another Orangeman dismissing former Grand Master Robert Saulters at the time of his appointment in December 1996 as “a millionaire from the Malone Road”. The Alliance Party arguably suffer from being on the receiving end of such inverted snobbery: a familiar complaint about them in focus groups is that ‘they’re too middle-class‘ – is this just another way of saying ‘they sound too educated‘?

Nor is the tactic of fuelling ignorance and attacking the educated for political ends solely one used by the Right against the Left: among the first people to be murdered in Pol Pot’s extreme-left-wing reign of terror in Cambodia in 1975-8 were teachers, lecturers, lawyers and professionals. In China in the 1960s, to divert attention from his disastrous economic policies that had condemned millions of his people to death by starvation, Chairman Mao Zedong launched his Cultural Revolution, in which he and his inner circle blamed the country’s ills on the disruption and obstructionism of “intellectuals” and “revisionists” (for which read teachers, students, artists, and writers), and encouraged the most fanatical members of the Communist Party, known as “Red Guards”, to rise up against them. It is thought up to 3 million Chinese people died as a result of this campaign.

But back to the present-day United States, and the current Moron Who Might Be President is known to believe that vaccines cause autism (a myth that was shattered several years ago) and honestly trusts a ten-metre-tall wall on the Mexican frontier (for which, he assures us, the Mexicans will pay. So presumably, if they don’t pay, it’s war with Mexico, then, Don…?) instantly to solve the problems of the drugs trade and illegal immigration. Remember, though: if Dubya can get into the White House, so can The Donald. In the coming televised debates, almost certainly with Hillary Clinton, you can bet that Trump will invoke the same Hove-honed tactics of inverted snobbery and imagined elitism in order to sway swing voters his way.

Probably no amount of reason or logic is likely to cut much ice, if any, among some American voters when addressing the issues, when political debates in the States are increasingly reminiscent of Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy. In the movie, Luke Wilson’s US army librarian Joe Bauers wakes up from a suspended-animation experiment five centuries into the future – a future in which the average level of intelligence has plummeted, and in which America’s head of state is a former tag-team wrestler (President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho). When Bauers is invited to the White House to offer his ideas on how to solve the dust-bowl-related food shortage (because, inevitably, he has scored well above the national average in IQ tests), he ends up going round in circles trying to explain to the cabinet why spraying crops with the nation’s favourite fizzy drink (called Brawndo) is not a good idea:

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So wait a minute. What you’re saying is that you want us to put water on the crops?
JOE: Yes.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Water. Like out the toilet?
JOE: Well, I mean, it doesn’t have to be out of the toilet, but, yeah, that’s the idea.
SECRETARY OF STATE: But Brawndo’s got what plants crave.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It’s got electrolytes.
JOE: Okay, look. The plants aren’t growing, so I’m pretty sure that the Brawndo’s not working. Now, I’m no botanist, but I do know that if you put water on plants, they grow.
SECRETARY OF ENERGY: Well, I’ve never seen no plants grow out of no toilet.
SECRETARY OF STATE: Hey, that’s good. You sure you ain’t the smartest guy in the world?
JOE: Okay, look. You want to solve this problem. I want to get my pardon. So why don’t we just try it, okay, and not worry about what plants crave?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Brawndo’s got what plants crave.
SECRETARY OF ENERGY: Yeah, it’s got electrolytes.
JOE: What are electrolytes? Do you even know?
SECRETARY OF STATE: It’s what they use to make Brawndo.

Back in January, the Daily Telegraph‘s Tim Stanley, after observing the Trump roadshow in action, wondered whether Mike Judge’s celluloid prophecy was coming true. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone reckons that it is:

We’re about to enter a dark period in the history of the American experiment. The Founding Fathers never imagined an electorate raised on Toddlers and Tiaras and Temptation Island. Remember, just a few decades ago, shows like Married With Children and Roseanne were satirical parodies. Now the audience can’t even handle that much irony. A lot of American culture is just dumb slobs cheering on other dumb slobs. It was inevitable, once we broke the seal with Bush, that our politics would become the same thing.

Madison and Jefferson never foresaw this situation. They knew there was danger of demagoguery, but they never imagined presidential candidates exchanging “mine’s bigger than yours” jokes or doing “let’s laugh at the disabled” routines. There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.