Deception and Democracy: Convincing the Masses to Help the Rich

There is widespread agreement on the proposition that people act according to their self-interest. Marx went further to suggest that people subscribe to ideologies conforming to their class interests. For example, agricultural laborers would believe in land reforms, while big landlords would believe that small farms are inefficient. Gradually the weight of strong empirical evidence has led me to understanding that this proposition is false. Large segments of the population can be brought to believe in, and act according to, ideologies extremely harmful to their self interest. As Dani Rodrik has written in How the Rich Rule, political scientists Gilens & Page found that on issues where there was a conflict between the interest of the elite and that of the public, Congress voted in favor of the elite and against the public interest. In the past, the elites have enforced their interests by the use of power. In a democratic age, the same effect is achieved by the use of propaganda. This is striking because the propaganda must convince the public to act against their own self-interest, in favor of the ruling elites. It would seem that you can fool most of the people most of the time. Here is some empirical evidence for my thesis:

  1. At a time when social services were being cut, and the budget was termed insufficient to repair decaying infrastructure, the public was persuaded to spend trillions of dollar to fight the non-existent threat of weapons of mass destruction, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One obvious result of this folly was the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina, widely judged to be a disaster which could have been prevented with sufficient spending on repairs of existing infrastructure for flood prevention.
  2. When widespread defaults on mortgage backed securities led to a threatened collapse of the financial system, the public was persuaded to spend trillions of dollars bailing out the bankers who had caused the crisis. As Mian and Sufi have shown, bailing out the distressed homeowners could have been done at much lower cost, and would have prevented the Great Recession which continues to this day. However, media hype generated strong sentiment against bailing out the “irresponsible” borrowers (but not the criminal bankers). Thus the public was manipulated into taking actions disastrously contrary to their self-interest.
  3. Clever propaganda has created an allergy to the term “socialized medicine,” when such a system would be hugely beneficial to the vast majority of the public. In Canada, UK, and Europe, far more cost efficient systems take care of virtually 100% of the public, while health outcomes of the poor in the USA compare unfavorably with third world countries in key areas like infant mortality and life expectancy. Despite the disastrous outcomes documented in “Sicko” by Michael Moore, the public continues to favor private healthcare system due to false propaganda.
  4. A highly inefficient and unequal educational system ensures perpetuation of inequality, since local funding ensures that public schools in poor neighborhoods have fewer resources. This contrasts with nearly all advanced countries which make efforts to equalize educational resources in public schools. Strong correlation of educational outcomes with income and race shows that an effective but invisible class and race based apartheid maintains solid barriers between the rich and poor. The trillion dollar plus debt owed by students who received a higher education ensures that the poor who borrowed to get a higher education will slave their lives away working for the wealthy who loaned them the money.

All four of these examples show that on issues of critical importance, the public opinion has been molded to ensure majority support for positions which are against the public interest, and favor a tiny elite – the top 0.1%. Thus the public believe in ideologies, and take actions (like voting in Republican representatives), which are highly damaging to their collective interests.

Studying how this is done, and how it can be reversed, is essential. The title of the book by Mian and Sufi is illuminating: House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again. (see also, Review & Summary of House of Debt). Basically, manipulation of public opinion led to our collective assent to a trillion dollar banker bailout, instead of bailing out of the distressed mortgage holders. This is like applying medicine to the knife which caused the wound, instead of the wound. By failing to address the cause, the wrong remedy led to the Great Recession which continues to this day. We can only cure the recession by learning the causes, and taking collective action to achieve effective policy goals, which center on debt forgiveness.

10 comments
  1. Barbara Bohr said:

    Reblogged this on Die Vorbänker – Ethical Finance and commented:
    Einmal mehr interessante Gedanken und gute Lektüretipps vom WEA Pedagogy-Blog. Und natürlich, weil die Finanzkrise mit das beste Beispiel für die These des Beitrags ist: wie die breite Öffentlichkeit manipuliert werden kann, um gegen die eigenen Interessen zu handeln bzw. zu wählen.

  2. ronaldmulder said:

    Sicko is by Michael Moore. Roger does a different kind of movies 😉
    Excellent piece, though.

    • Thanks for the correction — I edited the post to fix this.

  3. Marx, I think, was well aware that subordinate classes could be inculcated with convictions or values that would lead them to act in ways or accept public policies that went against their own welfare or self-interest.

    To quote:

    “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

    ― Karl Marx, The German Ideology

    Nevertheless, I agree: ‘Excellent piece, though.’

    And with your kind permission, I would like to ‘Reblog’ this fine article.

    • I think Foucault’s idea of Power/Knowledge has roots in Marx, so I agree with you completely. I was just setting up a convenient straw man to knock down because ideas are best understood when contrasted with their opposites. You are most welcome to reblog it and thanks for the compliments.

  4. Rhonda.Kovac said:

    Excellent article, excellent point. In addition to propaganda, other powerful insidious tools are at work.

    One is limiting the discussion. In the U.S. presidential debates, for example, only two candidates–the Democrat and the Republican–are permitted to debate, and the questions asked of them are highly pre-filtered. (The League of Women voters, which had hosted the debates until 1988, cited their disgust over these manipulations in their public statement explaining why they chose not to continue. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_of_Women_Voters#Debates])

    Another is limiting choice in public decision-making. For example, in the U.S. the two major parties have a lock on elective government office. And their candidates continue to be elected almost exclusively despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of the voting public views office-holders from either party as doing even a minimally tolerable job.

    Another is that, majority opinion, even when it aligns with the majority interest, is often simply ignored and bypassed. For example, most Americans favor a ban on private ownership of assault weapons, but that has been taken completely off the table by the legislature.

  5. sup5222 said:

    The human mind doesn’t work on enlightenment reasoning, that’s why. People vote against their interests because the human mind doesn’t think with reason but with emotion. Once you understand that, all the elite has to do is condition them through school/university and advertising. Since most people believe their brain lives in reality, problem is, science shows that’s not the case sadly.

  6. Bruce E. Woych said:

    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-century-of-the-self/
    Part 1:
    “Happiness Machines. Part one documents the story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays who invented Public Relations in the 1920s, being the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses.”
    Part 2:
    “The Engineering of Consent. Part two explores how those in power in post-war America used Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind to try and control the masses.”
    The series goes on to include the polemical “mind police” made popular in the 60s and continues to include:
    an episode explaining “…how politicians turned to the same techniques used by business in order to read and manipulate the inner desires of the masses. Both New Labor with Tony Blair and the Democrats led by Bill Clinton, used the focus group which had been invented by psychoanalysts in order to regain power.”
    a list of additional titles from this open library of documentary films here:
    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/search/?results=Engineering+of+consent

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