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  • Propaganda, ideology, and democracy: A review of Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works
  • John B. Min (bio)

Jason Stanley’s book, How Propaganda Works, is a welcome and needed work in social and political philosophy. It creatively weaves political philosophy, social theory, analytic epistemology, feminism, philosophy of language, philosophy of education, formal semantics, and social psychology. The central goal of the book is to explain how propaganda works in a liberal democratic society. Propaganda exists in totalitarian regimes through the mechanisms of social control like the mass media. That is not surprising. But, does propaganda exist in the United States? The fact that propaganda exists in the United States is perhaps not novel; the novelty of Stanley’s book is its philosophical explanation of the mechanism behind propaganda. Stanley does this with the rigor, clarity, and depth that you would expect from such a distinguished philosopher. In what follows, I will provide a brief description of the main arguments of each of seven chapters and offer several observations. These observations are an invitation for further reflection and investigation.

I begin by situating Stanley’s book in the broader literature. How Propaganda Works situates itself in at least three different terrains of philosophical inquiry. First, Stanley’s book is a welcome and important addition to the type of theorizing that blurs the distinction between sub-disciplines of philosophy. For instance, Miranda Fricker’s groundbreaking book Epistemic Injustice blurs the distinction between analytic epistemology (virtue epistemology), and ethics and politics.1 Stanley’s work also blurs the line between analytic epistemology and contemporary [End Page 210] social and political philosophy. It would be interesting to see analytic epistemologists working on pragmatic encroachment issues (or what Stanley calls interest-relativism about knowledge) to probe the social-political implications of their apolitical postulates. Second, Stanley’s book is a welcome addition to the methodological debate in political philosophy regarding the ideal and nonideal theories. The consequence of this methodological commitment leads Stanley to scour the vast fields of behavioral, social, and human sciences to answer the question of “how propaganda works.” Third, and this may be a hopeful speculation on my part, Stanley’s work might legitimize marginalized areas of philosophy, including critical theory and pragmatism. Stanley, for instance, though not uncritical of John Dewey, legitimately recognizes Dewey’s contribution to democracy and its culture.

How Propaganda Works is comprised of an informative introduction and seven substantive chapters. In what follows, I will briefly discuss the main arguments of each of seven chapters.

The goal of chapter 1 is to provide a historical account of the prevalence of propaganda in the history of political philosophy, from Plato to Rousseau to the twentieth century. According to Stanley, one of the central reasons philosophers have endorsed democracy is because of its stability over other political arrangements. Democratic ideals demand that a regime affords liberty to all of its citizens. But having liberty makes it possible to use propaganda or demagoguery to seize power that ultimately makes democracy unstable. This classic problem of propaganda drops out in contemporary political philosophy because of its insistence on political ideals. This reveals the central contention of Stanley’s book: ideals can be used to mislead democratic discourse. This also reveals the methodology of the book: we need to connect normative political philosophy with social theory.

In chapter 2, Stanley defines propaganda as a means by which the language of democratic ideals is used to undermine the very ideal that it is purported to serve. Stanley attempts to undermine the common belief that propaganda must be false and insincerely made. That propaganda can be true is exemplified by an example that “there is a Muslim in the room.” The assertion is true because it is true that there is a Muslim in the room, but this is an instance of propaganda because it elicits fear about Muslims, that is, all Muslims are potentially terrorists. So, propaganda can be true. [End Page 211] This point will be picked up in my discussion of chapter 4. That propaganda can be sincerely made is exemplified by the example of Hitler, who asserted derogatory statements about the Jews. Hitler sincerely held this belief, yet it was...


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pp. 210-217
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