Who Won the Presidential Debate? Edward Bernays!
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…Invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four.
These are the opening words to Edward Bernays’ first chapter of his 1928 classic book Propaganda. Bernays, known as the father of public relations, goes on to say:
It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the [First World] war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind…the manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental cliches and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror and the tyranny of the enemy. It was only natural, after the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possible to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace.
Last night, during the first of a string of debates for the nation’s top political office, you experienced again chunks of propaganda intensely seasoned with Bernays’ sauce: spicy words and images meant to subtly, and not so subtly, stir up mind control and crowd control.
When the Chosen Two ignored more than recognized those patent questions on the economy from the Chosen Source (moderator Jim Lehrer), didn’t you wonder what our nation’s come to?
Mitt Romney, the chirpy kid so excited about having memorized his arithmetic, just couldn’t be held back. He spouted out statistics on every issue, as if knowing numbers would grant him power to reason with a mangled Congress mired in gridlock and nearly single-digit approval ratings.
Barack Obama appeared the exhausted executive, having slumped out of his Oval Office chair and slogged to the stage, forcing a smile, slow on responses, and repetitive in arguments.
But aren’t they both such nice guys. They sprinkled us with examples of being men of the people, citing their sensitive individual conversations with struggling citizens-images so obviously calculated rather than sympathetic. Obama even tried to woo us with memories of his grandmom. Made you want to call both guys by their first names.
Meanwhile, neither man would tiptoe near specifics about the three main villains of our economic collapse and shadowy future: Wall Street banks, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and the Federal Reserve Board. Oh, they got their brief mentions, but let’s not dwell on the past, right Barack?
Ol’ Mitt sounded closer to wanting to help homeowners, savers, and the shrinking middle class. But can we really believe that of the former head of Bain Capital and a rich member, in fact now the chosen leader, of the One Percent?
What seemed most clear is this: Romney, having spent months jousting in “debates” with Republican rivals for the nomination, was in shape and prepped for another go at the game. Obama, four years away from his verbal bouts with Hillary Clinton, and with no real propaganda sparring for ages, wasn’t in shape.
But the propaganda was plentiful, and if either man truly convinced somebody that his rehearsed lines will lead this country out of endless war and back to economic prosperity, then may Howdy Doody’s wooden spirit help us all.
We’ve fallen a long way from those first TV debates when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon didn’t snap at each other but looked into the camera and addressed the American public. It was conducted by a group of TV journalists, with a moderator seated between the two candidates. At times, it was almost like a trial, at one point with Kennedy responding to a question about his experience. When he finished, Nixon was asked for a response, and he said, “I have no response.” Nixon then took and responded to the next question, which was directed at him.
It was obvious then, from both candidates’ demeanor and tone, it was a serious time, and both men really seemed to take the president’s responsibilities seriously and with understanding. Later, of course, we realized they too were feeding us Bernays.
Yet it would be nice to see candidates someday partake in actual, traditional debates, where they take on one issue, state their views at length, then rebut each other directly to the people.
And wouldn’t it be nice to move past Bernays and let the American people hear from more than the Chosen Two, and experience views of other political parties too, as they do in Europe? Democracy Now! on its TV news program took a shot at that last night. It would delay the debate broadcast segments long enough so that candidates from the Green Party and Justice Party could spend two minutes each also commenting on issues covered by Obama and Romney.
Americans deserve more of that.
Roger Armbrust's articles and columns have covered labor and management, Congressional legislation, and federal court cases, including appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He formerly served as national news editor of Back Stage in New York City, where he also taught a professional writing course at New York University. His recent book of sonnets -- oh, touch me there: Love Sonnets -- is available from Amazon and other book sites. He is a co-curator of The Clyde Fitch Report.