Each of these candidates is vilified by the opposing party in hopes of gathering enough traction to bolster their own case. What’s fascinating, however, about how both of the parties have presented their candidates is that they have relied heavily on emotional appeals to strengthen their respective bases. From the campaign slogans to the highlighted issues and the rhetoric regarding the opponent all showcase masterful uses of propaganda. This isn’t a new occurrence, mind you, but it’s been converted into an art-form when considering the individuals being promoted in this election cycle. In this last leg of the campaign, a close examination of the rhetoric and imagery of the campaigns is helpful to understand how each candidate is being presented to the American voters.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was under FBI investigation this year regarding the use of a private email server to send classified documents. She denied any wrongdoing, barely recanting even after the FBI announced that she was responsible. Yet no indictment was brought forth, something that could have ended her campaign overnight. Ironic that the candidate of choice for the equality-seeking “Black Lives Matter” would receive favoritism in the face of criminal offenses, which is why her campaign slogan isn’t about political issues but gender. “I’m With Her” draws a hard line in the sand, reminding her base that her opponent is a man—the gender of the status quo—lest they are considering casting a vote for a rich, white candidate.
Businessman Donald Trump is a contradiction of similar magnitude. A life-long Democrat who expressed dissent towards Republicans less than a decade ago, Trump has claimed he believes marriage to be between a man and a woman and has built his platform criticizing immigrants, even though his third wife happens to be one. In fact, a recently surfaced video revealed Trump crudely gloating about making sexual advances on women, which led to theologian Wayne Grudem recanting his support for Trump. Yet the slogan that drives his campaign, “Make America Great Again” has helped him draw voters who buy his rhetoric, which centers on an anti-establishment sentiment. The slogan also begs the question as to what greatness he’s appealing to, since it would be easy enough to connect his words and actions to the highly publicized sexual indiscretions of former presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, a rather unlikely scenario considering that both happened to be Democrats. Yet this message has connected with a base that holds the opposing party responsible for the current state of political disarray.
With unanswered questions and issues surrounding both candidates, one would imagine the electorate would move away from the two parties to seek outward, yet nine out of ten voters polled were leaning towards one of these two candidates. Curious that an educated and informed electorate would stand for this, the likely reason is that American politics relies heavily on targeting the compartmentalized nature of western education, and the rather binary nature in American culture. Coke vs. Pepsi. Capitalism vs. Socialism. Republican vs. Democrat. As Edward Bernays eloquently explained in Propaganda, an influential book which brought together psychology, democracy, and power published in the late 1920s, compartmentalization allows for “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses [which] is an important element in democratic society.” In another vein the binary nature makes it easier to mobilize the masses to, say, vote instead of getting frustrated and giving up on the system altogether.A common thread in political demagoguery on both sides of the aisle has revolved around the failure of politicians to effectively safeguard the public interest. While the right wing has identified this as an inherent flaw in a system that allows for career politicians, the left believes this to be a byproduct of corporate interest manifesting as lobbying. The Republican National Convention brought many excited about a political outsider winning the nomination. Little concern was expressed regarding his moral failures, and his penchant for conveniently changing his stance on issues based on the audience he’s speaking to. In a nutshell, Trump was presented as the anti-establishment solution that America needed.
The Democratic National Convention was hardly any different. In the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders regularly criticized Hillary Clinton for running a campaign funded heavily by Wall Street. Yet after Clinton won the nomination, a parade of wealthy celebrities—political and otherwise—marched on stage to support her. Comedian Sarah Silverman even talked down to Bernie’s supporters, expressing that they were being ridiculous for voicing their frustration with the nomination of an establishment candidate. If Edward Bernays had been alive today, he would have applauded the brilliance of both parties. After all, it was he who organized the very first public relations display for Calvin Coolidge a century ago, inviting Hollywood celebrities for breakfast with the candidate in order to show him as a likable candidate to the press. Press and media play crucial roles in the building up—as well as the tearing down—of propaganda.
In the early days of television, the first-ever televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was held on September 26, 1960. Political pundits who heard the debate on the radio felt that they were evenly matched with some even giving the Republican incumbent a slight edge over his younger rival. But those who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy trumped Nixon. He had a tan, a wide smile and an easy nature, whereas Nixon had just recovered from a knee surgery, looked pale and ineffective. Many felt that his live performance in the debates helped clinch the presidency for Kennedy in a tightly contested election. But we needn’t look to the last century to see the effects of visual imagery in helping shape public opinion.
It was early 2008 when Shepard Fairey created the iconic “Hope” poster. It arguably became the tipping point in Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign. Few know that the original iteration of the poster read “Progress,” and included Fairey’s signature “OBEY Star” over the campaign’s sunrise logo. Commissioned by the Obama campaign and managed by publicist (or propagandist, as Bernays would call him) Yosi Sergant, Fairey adapted the poster to read “Hope.” He was also asked to remove the “OBEY Star,” which has been a part of his brand for decades. “The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in phenomenology, [which] attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation,” reads the manifesto on Fairey’s website.
Incidentally, what was right before his eyes was the rather conscious removal of what had manifested as an anti-authoritarian symbol, a byproduct of that very experiment. As it originally stood, the “Progress” poster with the word “Obey” made a far more accurate observation than its revision, at least according to Fairey’s interview in 2015: “There have been a lot of things that [Obama has] compromised on that I never would have expected. I mean, drones and domestic spying are the last things I would have thought [he’d support].” While authority had a new color in tow, the machine itself remained intact. Had Fairey’s art intuitively captured the conflict he sensed between the man and the machine when “Obey” was featured? If so, his experiment in phenomenology (simplistically described as the objective study of subjective topics like perception and emotions) was derailed when he gave in to the propagandizing of his art.Yet therein lies the problem. Humans are highly subject to their own emotions. This is the underlying premise for psychology, economics, even politics. While it’s easy enough to point out that greed and fear are to be legislated against, Lord Acton observed, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Those in power seek to hold on to it, employing any and all means necessary. They leverage the very emotions they condemn. The two campaigns use emotional triggers to bolster their cases. It’s easy when her campaign can invoke the fear of a Trump presidency that deports every immigrant. Likewise, someone who has bragged about committing some form of sexual abuse continues to have support behind him because his opponent cannot be trusted. And the media outlets perpetuate these manipulations.
In 1999, the Journal of Educational Psychology published a study labeled, “Effects of Repeated Exposures to a single episode of the television program Blue’s Clues” on the viewing behaviors and comprehension of preschool children. While the age range was certainly limited, the experiment found that continuous repetition led to higher audience retention, and the recalling of transmitted information more readily. This might shed light on why 24-hour news channels recycle content regularly. It’s also why it’s become increasingly difficult to dispel myths and even lies from political discourse. One of the most prevalent ones concerns the “wage gap.” While it is true that there is a twenty-cent gap between men and women, that number is an average across all types of jobs. When looking at the same job, however, the gap shrinks to less than five cents. But after a misleading statistic has been repeated by demagogues incessantly, reality is simply the reiteration of a propagandist’s well-crafted narrative. Of course, this cuts both ways.
The bases of both parties have consistently made it clear that they rely on talking heads to help decision-making easier for them. But genuine change doesn’t come easily. It’s not a bumper sticker or even a cast ballot. It starts with accepting the inconvenient truth that those you were taught to trust, could betray that trust if it helped their careers. While Mitt Romney was criticized in 2012 for saying that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes, Hillary Clinton has seen little backlash for claiming that Bernie Sanders’s supporters live in their parents’ basements. Likewise, President Obama’s policies are often criticized by Republicans who don’t seem to realize that he would be considered a moderate Republican just a couple of decades ago. “But when … the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of cliches, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences,” Bernays observed rather accurately. Neocon. Socialist. Communist. Fascist. It’s much easier to compartmentalize another human being that way, after all.
The reality and influence of propaganda in American politics is unlikely to change overnight. The Internet age has fueled that to an even greater extent. As search engines learn about the individual conducting the search, the results are curated to display links that would interest someone of their political leanings. Further use simply reinforces an echo chamber for most. Compounding this issue is when social media giant Facebook comes under fire for promoting left-wing issues by fraudulently pushing them to the top of their “trending topics.” For these reasons and more, it is increasingly important for Americans to do their research instead of regurgitating what they heard or read. Settling for the chain of command to deliver talking points in bite-size pieces is the very reason this election looks the way it does. So the next time someone suggests voting, ask them who would benefit from the execution of such carefully crafted propaganda: the voters or the establishment?
Based in Southern California, Arpit Mehta is an international visual artist, writer, and a consultant to creatives. As a polymath he is fascinated by the exploration of the human psyche from both a philosophical and a logical perspective, which is why he’s often drawn to topics like politics, economics, and technology.