Lasswell & Lippmann on Propaganda

‘The murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts‘ was a phrase attributed to various writers and thinkers —including Benjamin Franklin.  It tries to get at the basics of scientific and rational thinking— and how people hold on to ideas or are controlled by them.  But how does it relate to what we call ‘propaganda’ and another common word: ‘stereotypes’?  Below we explore the work of Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell on Propaganda and what they tell us about how pictures get in our heads and how prevalent stereotypes are —and what they are.

The phrase is also a formulation of the tragedy we set ourselves by taking charge of how we see the world.  But what are facts really?  Who says such and such is so and so?  And what if the theory owners take revenge or won’t submit to execution?  What if those who find particular theories useful and lucrative gang up and plot their own forms of murder less abstractly inclined.  This process: understanding the reality of life and death, its relation to misguided theory admiration and adherence and the consequences and effects of the ‘brutality of facts’ has been dealt with in the literature on how we perceive and how this relates to processes of socialization —how the powers-at-be perform the age old magic act of deciding what version of events calls the shots.  How we are told the emperor is clothed.  How we people will go along with saying those robes look so fine but can’t quite admit it to themselves that they are lying.

No one wants to think of their mind as some sort of pliable strip of soft material upon which some definition of reality is stamped routinely as if it was on a conveyor belt.  But we’re an impressionable lot.  So who’s doing the stamping, what is the mould, is it our fault? Is what I have been provided with (or can find) enough material to even think with? What do I know of the mental processes I tend to use whereby I can reliably know that they will be sufficient to think with —without missing the whole point or some key part of whatever it is I’m trying to comprehend?  How has my thinking been got at? Or am I kidding myself: how can I pretend to know much about anything including reasoning itself?

Walter Lippmann

‘Public Opinion’[1] by Walter Lippman introduced his conception of the ‘Stereotype’ in Chapter One, “The World Outside And The Pictures In Our Heads,” which is reproduced in a brilliantly edited form in C. Wright Mills’ ‘Images of Man’.  This concerned how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live and how whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.

When we think of famous people, even during their lifetime they are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality, and we imagine them to really be like that, whatever they were: good guys/bad guys.  But Lippmann is really getting at how the pictures which arise spontaneously in people’s minds come to be.  It is quite simple.  For Lippmann, the only feeling that anyone can have about an event that they do not experience is the feeling aroused by their mental image of that event.  That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts: Lippmann gives this poignant example (emphasis added):

I have seen a young girl, brought up in a Pennsylvania mining town, plunged suddenly from entire cheerfulness into a paroxysm of grief when a gust of wind cracked the kitchen window-pane. For hours she was inconsolable, and to me incomprehensible. But when she was able to talk, it transpired that if a window-pane broke it meant that a close relative had died. She was, therefore, mourning for her father, who had frightened her into running away from home. The father was, of course, quite thoroughly alive as a telegraphic inquiry soon proved. But until the telegram came, the cracked glass was an authentic message to that girl. Why it was authentic only a prolonged investigation by a skilled psychiatrist could show. But even the most casual observer could see that the girl, enormously upset by her family troubles, had hallucinated a complete fiction out of one external fact, a remembered superstition, and a turmoil of remorse, and fear and love for her father.

For Lippmann, even although we can see the irrationality of it in others, we all engage in this process integrally.  Whatever they might be, we trust what we have judged to be the authentic message (and messenger) yet the nature of this is socialised into us.  In all these instances, and within this process we must note one common factor, what happens when we act upon this data dream:

…the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates.

Lippman also states that if the behavior is thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world:

But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment. For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

Although Lippmann’s ‘picture’ here is a little incomplete (cognitive dissonance persists), the model that he puts forward has influenced how we think at a very basic level: Lippmann, like Harold Lasswell, who we will discuss below, introduced psychological elements into political science just as Freud’s ideas were emerging and this is the basis for Lippmann’s concept of the strereotype and how it is such a building block of not just what we understand but how we understand.  But let us look at the above statements on the insertion between man and his environment of this pseudo-environment in diagrammatical form and then we will outline the general ‘stereotyping’ process that underlies what we call ‘propaganda’ (which acknowledges and plays with this process)  and then after discussion of that we will turn to Lasswell to examine the component items specifically used to create propaganda: from there on in you are on your own.

By his mention of ‘fictions’ Lippmann did not mean lies: we might now observe the use of the ‘postmodernist’ term ‘narratives’ as a replacement, its the jumble of stereotypes and stereotypical observations you have in your head that makes you think the way you do. But Lippmann puts it very simply: he means a “representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree [was] made by man himself.”  The range of these ‘fictions’ extends all the way from the complete hallucination of certain states of mind to the scientists’ perfectly self-conscious use of a schematic model.  A work of ‘fiction’ may have almost any degree of fidelity, the escape from all this relativity is that so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not necessarily misleading.

The alternative to our everyday use of fictions would be direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation: all of it.  However, the real environment is too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct experience —although the problem is we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage to deal with it: this simpler model is the stereotype.

To follow Lippmann’s analysis of ‘public opinion’ (and what is that now that we are trying to establish all this?) we must begin by recognizing the on-going cyclical relationship between (1) scene of action, (2) the human picture of that scene, and (3) the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene of action as represented in the diagram.

As analysts of governmental processes we have to comprehend the complexity of what we are studying:

It is to these special worlds, it is to these private or group, or class, or provincial, or occupational, or national, or sectarian artifacts, that the political adjustment of mankind in the Great Society[2] takes place. Their variety and complication are impossible to describe. Yet these fictions determine a very great part of men’s political behavior. We must think of perhaps fifty sovereign parliaments consisting of at least a hundred legislative bodies. With them belong at least fifty hierarchies of provincial and municipal assemblies, which with their executive, administrative and legislative organs, constitute formal authority on earth. But that does not begin to reveal the complexity of political life. For in each of these innumerable centers of authority there are parties, and these parties are themselves hierarchies with their roots in classes, sections, cliques and clans; and within these are the individual politicians, each the personal center of a web of connection and memory and fear and hope.

Lippmann’s conception of a pseudo-environment is a hybrid compounded of “human nature” and “conditions.”  His argument is that what we do is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by us or more likely given to us.  He also perceptively extends his theory into our interior world:

The very fact that men theorize at all is proof that their pseudo-environments, their interior representations of the world, are a determining element in thought, feeling, and action.

Lippmann argues that the world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.  It has to be explored, reported, and imagined:

Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters.

Lippmann offers us what he believes are the chief factors which limit our access to the facts:

  • Artificial censorships
  • The limitations of social contact
  • The comparatively meager time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs
  • The distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages
  • The difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world
  • The fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of our lives

This trickle of messages from the outside is also affected by the stored up images, the preconceptions, and prejudices which interpret, fill them out, and in turn powerfully direct the play of our attention, and our vision itself.

In the individual person these limited messages from the outside, form into a pattern of stereotypes, which are identified with our own interests as we feel and conceive them.  Taken together these opinions are crystallized into what Lippmann called Public Opinion, a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, things we take as a social reality as another level of the stereotyping process.

Politically, Lippmann also argued that representative government can not be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions.   He found it an “intolerable and unworkable fiction” that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs.  He said that the problem of the Press (we would now say media) is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the Press to realize this fiction, and for it to make up for “all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy”, and that the readers “expect this miracle to be performed at no cost or trouble to themselves.”  He thought that newspapers were not remedies for these defects, and that analysis of the nature of news and of the economic basis of journalism indicated that the newspapers reflect, and in greater or lesser measure, intensified, the “defective organization of public opinion”.

He concluded that public opinions must be organized for the Press if they are to be sound, not by the Press as is so often the case today.  This organization was the task of a political science that was is in place as a formulator “in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made.”  For Lippmann the “perplexities of government and industry” were conspiring to give political science this opportunity to serve the public.

Harold Lasswell

The political scientist who probably most embodied Lippmann’s outline was Harold Lasswell who created a cycle, whereby the public are limited in the information that is presented to them, and also apprehensive to accept it.  However, it is still that information that is affecting their decisions within the democratic system, and still that information that is being presented to them by the government.  Let us then, now turn to examine the basic outline of Laswell’s work.

Lasswell provided a common-sense, open-ended idea of what political science might be when he wrote his (1936) Politics: Who Gets What, When, How.  The title is his famous mapping sentence for the study of politics:

How — requires us to cope with the power aspects of any situation

When — suggests the need to chart the results through time

What — raises the question of which value conditions are being sought, gained, and lost

Who — poses the task of identifying elites —that is, those in any situation who have the most of what there is to get.[3]

Lasswell noted that study (and understanding) of this kind of ‘allocative process’ requires the skills of a practicing politician: the ability to calculate probable changes in the nature of influence and in the identity of the influential.  This approach differs from the political science approach because ‘political sociology’ looks for the answers to these questions in the social formation, in social institutions that underpin both the social and the political.

In Laswell’s (2005) ‘The Future of Political Science’, he cites C. Wright Mills as the rare exception in his study whereby political and social scientists had artificially restricted their investigations to the middle and lower classes: “intimidation by powerful and wealthy elites had resulted in timidity.”[4] Although he acknowledges that Mills did not look at the influence of propaganda considerations in policy formulation and its corollary—the manner in which the propaganda process was governed by political decision makers.

This circumscription is also evident in a different form in Laswell’s definition of propaganda techniques:

At best the propagandist is selective. He discerns a potential reservoir of discontent or aspiration and searches for ways of discharging the discontent and harnessing the aspirations so that they harmonize with his policy’ objectives. The available means of mobilizing collective action depend, in turn, on words and word equivalents whose signification is already circumscribed by the predispositional patterns present in the political arena. Furthermore , the existing predispositional patterns themselves set limits on what can be done.[5]

These patterns include:

Value structures —   who is elite , sub-elite , or rank- and-file in terms of power, wealth, and other preferred  outcomes

Myths —   doctrines, formulas , and that  which is to be admired in the  popular imagination (Laswell uses the term ‘miranda’)

Techniques —  distribution of operational  routines affecting behavior and  the resource environment

Culture materials —   raw resources, processed  resources in the environment

This can be related to the concern sociologists felt that, after the Second World War, private foundations and the US government were more interested to fund research deemed useful to policy-makers, rather than expose the questionable propaganda techniques they used.

Laswell described propaganda generally as the management of collective attitude by the manipulation of the significant symbols.  Dorothy Ross contextualises this with the observation that for Laswell, propaganda was the inevitable accompaniment of the argument and persuasion that existed in democracy adding that: “Indeed propaganda was not only necessary, but salutary.  It would puncture “eulogistic democracy” and promote the “engineering frame of mind.”  Ross adds that, drawing on Mary Follet’s notion of ‘obliteration’ (of the distinction of elite direction and democratic initiative):

The political implication of this cultural iconoclasm lay not simply in its Menckenesque[6] desire to debunk “the will of the people,” but more deeply in its aims to substitute technocratic social control for political conflict. The political philosophy of conflict, of “nation versus nation, class versus class, leader versus leader, party versus party,” is out of date […] The propagandist understands that society is rather a “process of defining and affirming meaning,” that by use of cultural symbols, the situation can be redefined, so that what occurs is neither a victory nor defeat for conflicting parties but rather a new “integration.”[7]

For Ross, then, the problem for elites is one of redefinition: with the processes of redefinition behind the scenes.   Laswell’s model covers seven functional distinctions which would be deployed with the elite direction obliterated:

Intelligence : the giving or withholding of  information about plans and  occurrences

Promotion : the mobilization of policy  support

Prescription: the crystallization of general  objectives and the assignment of means

Invocation : the provisional application of   prescriptions to concrete  circumstances

Application : the final application

Termination : the ending of prescriptions

Appraisal :  the assessment of past and  present successes or failures

Yet for all his stated influence Laswell’s books seem mostly out of print. Those who seek to survey Political Science as a discipline find him, like Mills, almost forgotten.

If the public are influenced to such a high degree, which seems a reasonable assumption, we should also relate this to Walter Lippmann’s ideas that the public are unable to take in all of the knowledge from their environment that would truly be needed to affect their governance.

Michael Schudson argues that the picture of Lippmann as an arrogant critic who found democracy an inadequate system of government, and proposed to remedy these inadequacies by turning governance over to the experts, is misleading.  It can be said that with Santanyana, Lippmann argued that ‘democracy’ would result in a tyranny of the majority, and in the Phantom Public (1925) Lippmann supported this by demonstrating that public opinion caused little influence on a democratic system that was controlled by the educated elite: “…it is hard to say whether a man is acting executively on his opinions or merely acting to influence the opinion of someone else, who is acting executively.” [8] So to some extent, the Marxist claim that mass media is used as a tool by the elite to control society is subtly evident as a theme in Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), which argued that it was the mass media that determined what information the public could access, and that the limitation of this shaped public opinion.

Laswell’s disciplinary legacy[9] influenced the beginnings of the psychological treatment of politics, which Farr (2003) describes as the forth stage of the development of scientific methods (the previous being a priori and deductive, historical and comparative and the ‘present tendency’ of observational measurement).

This forth phase is said to have mainly identified the study and control of attitudes, opinions and personal character, and it is argued by Farr that this, like Behaviourism, spawned a “special political science” which, it is claimed, was “control-orientated and ostensibly value-free”.  Quoting Merriam’s ‘New Aspects of Politics’:

But this is fundamental — that politics and social science [including psychology] see face to face; that social science and natural science come together in a common effort and unite their forces in the greatest task that humanity yet faced — the intelligent understanding and control of human behavior.[10]

Merriam’s input into the ‘Chicago School’ included teaching Laswell, who according to Farr, was influenced in respect of making science synonymous with methods.[11] Lasswell developed out of Marx, Weber, Mosca and Pareto and Michels, such approaches as configurative analysis, elite analysis, cohort analysis around power and psychology which “appealed to a discipline disabused of juridical notions in a world lurching again towards war.” Farr states:

Propaganda lay at the core of politics and political science for Laswell, who defined it as “the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols,” or again as “control over opinion by significant symbols.” Lasswell’s dissertation on the topic was followed by numerous studies during the 1930s and 1940s, including World Revolutionary Propaganda: A Chicago Study (1939) on the methods of domestic communists. These studies spawned still more methodological “skills” like content analysis. Straddling theory and practice, propaganda, while value-neutral, could yet be instrumental in the service of any cause. It was a “mere tool …no more moral or immoral than a pump handle.”

For Laswell democracy (the “dictatorship of palaver”) needed propaganda more than fascism or communism given its emphasis on speech and deliberation, and he would go on to direct the Experimental division for the Study of war-time Communications at the Library of Congress.  In the early 1950s a network of institutes and centres would spring up, more or less influenced by the Behavioral direction which included the Survey Research center at the University of Michagan, the National Opinion Research Center, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation as well as various agencies of the US government.

Bernard Susser (2006) states that the ‘behavioural revolution’ can be divided into three more or less identifiable groups:

  • The pre-behaviouralists who retained traditional methods such as legal-institutional analysis and normative theory.
  • The behaviouralists who emphasized the need for scientific method.
  • The post-behaviouralists who felt that exclusive reliance upon scientific method threatened the ‘relevance’ of the discipline.[12]

According to Andrew Heywood, the attraction of Behaviouralism was that it gave the study of politics reliable scientific credentials.  For Heywood, this fuelled the belief that politics could adopt the methodology of the natural sciences through the use of quantitative research methods in areas such as voting behaviour and the behaviour of legislators, lobbyists and municipal politicians.  Criticisms of Behaviouralism are given that “it significantly constrained the scope of political analysis, preventing it going beyond what was directly observable.”[13] Which of course leads us back to the obliteration of elite direction.


[2] Lippmann is referring to ‘the great society’ as put forward by Adam Smith in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’, here peoples’ specialized activities are not coordinated by direction to perform various tasks, but by an impersonal mechanism of the market. Through the pursuit of economic self-interest, and by the price system, people are led to meet the needs of others who they will never meet, by means of mechanisms that they do not fully comprehend.  For Lippmann the highest social set consists of those who embody the leadership of the Great Society.  In so far as it is bound together, the hierarchy is bound together by the social leaders who at any one level are involved in a social set of the social leaders, the ‘radiant points of conventionality.’ Here the big decisions about war, peace, social strategy, and the ultimate distribution of social power are “intimate experiences within a circle of what, potentially at least, are personal acquaintances.”  See: Lippmann ‘Public Opinion’, p. 35-36.  This is akin to C. Wright Mills’ conception of the ‘Power Elite’.

[3] Dwaine Marvick’s (1980) The Work of Harold D. Lasswell: His Approach, Concerns, and Influence in Political Behavior Vol. 2, No. 3.

[4] Laswell, Harold (2005) ‘The Future of Political Science’, p. xiii, Transaction Books.

[5] Lasswell, Harold (1971) ‘Propaganda Technique in World War I’, p. xv, the MIT Press.

[6] Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken (1880–1956), an American journalist and magazine editor, known for his acerbic wit on American life, known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, he is regarded as an influential American writer, influenced by Ambrose Bierce, the author of the brilliant ‘Devil’s Dictionary’.

[7] Ross, Dorothy (1992) ‘The Origins of American Social Science,’ p. 456, Cambridge University Press.

[8] Lippmann, Walter (1925) ‘The Phantom Public’ p. 110, Transaction Books.

[9] Lasswell’s disciplinary legacy was influenced by Merriam and is seen in James Farr’s (2003) Political Science, in Lindberg, David C. et al, (2003) ‘The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Social Sciences’, p. 318, Cambridge University Press.

[10] Lindberg, David C. et al, (2003) ‘The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Social Sciences’, p. 319, Cambridge University Press.

[11] At this juncture we might recall Poincaré’s remark that social science was the science with most methods and fewest results (whether that is true of propaganda is another matter).

[12] Susser, Bernard (2006) ‘The Behavioural Ideology: a Review and a Retrospect’, p. 271-288, Political Studies, Vol. 22, Issue 3.

[13] Heywood, Andrew (2000) ‘Key Concepts in Politics’, p. 85, Palgrave.

4 Responses to “Lasswell & Lippmann on Propaganda”

  1. omalone1 Says:

    Epic find
    We are bookmarking this for later

  2. Could you please tell me who is the author of the “Lippmann’s stereotype” figure? I am writing my BA based on Lippmann and I would like to use it, but I don’t know who to give credit for it.

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