Propaganda and Democracy



Published 16-11-2016
Allen Wood


We are surrounded by communication of many kinds whose aim is to persuade rather to convince, to manipulate rather than to reason. We are being constantly manipulated into forming beliefs or attitudes, or to have feelings of certain kinds; or beliefs and attitudes we already have, but ought to criticize and perhaps reject, are instead being reinforced rather than questioned.  Advertising and much public discourse is like this. How should we react to this fact? Perhaps even more importantly, how should we understand it? What does it mean that this is so?

Not all persuasion is regrettable or to be disapproved. Our feelings as well as our rational judgment are part of our humanity; emotions even constitute an essential part of our rational capacities themselves. Not all persuasion is propaganda. And perhaps not even all propaganda is necessarily bad.

This last point was the focus of a controversy between W. E. B. Du Bois, who held that propaganda could be used for good, and Alain Locke, who held that all propaganda corrupts our thinking. My own view is that propaganda can be used for good, but Locke was perfectly right to be worried about it. More specifically, Du Bois maintained that artistic propaganda could encourage self-respect among African Americans, while Locke argued that propaganda can never reframe the issues in a debate, but must accept the received perceptions of them, and can contribute to any debate only on those terms.

How to Cite

Wood, A. (2016). Propaganda and Democracy. THEORIA, 31(3), 381–394.
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propaganda, democracy, Jason Stanley