The New Science of Politics

Harold Lasswell stands out as an influential scholar in the study of propaganda and an intriguing figure in the development of political consulting. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, Lasswell studied with the political scientist Charles Merriam, who pushed the discipline toward larger theoretical aspirations and greater scientific precision.79 Merriam worked for the CPI in Italy during World War I, an experience that left him interested in mass psychology and the sociology of nationalism.80 Merriam believed these subjects would form the basis for a new science of politics, and he challenged his student Lasswell to take up the study of propaganda as a topic for his doctoral research. As Lasswell later recalled, Merriam “focused my own interest on political propaganda of which the origin, effects and (particularly) the psychology were to become the subject matter of my life work.”81

In 1927, Lasswell published his dissertation under the title Propaganda Technique in the World War. In it, Lasswell distanced himself from those who were “puzzled, uneasy, or vexed at the unknown cunning which seems to have duped and degraded them.” By contrast, Lasswell approached the study of propaganda as a scientific enterprise: “To the somber curiosity of the discouraged democrat must be added the analytical motive of the social scientist,” he wrote.82 His purpose was to “discover and report, not to philosophize and reform.”83 Accordingly, Lasswell detailed the various ways countries on both sides of the war endeavored to shape public sentiments. Lasswell concluded that propaganda methods were an unavoidable (and indispensable) aspect of modern life, observing that “propaganda has become a profession. ... the modern world is busy developing a corps of men who do nothing but study the ways and means of changing minds or binding minds to their convictions.” In the future, Lasswell predicted that “governments will rely increasingly upon the professional propagandists for advice and aid.”84

In other words, propaganda was simply a tool, an instrument of social control that operated through persuasion rather than coercion. In fact, it was precisely this reliance on persuasion that made propaganda an essential component of democratic government. Writing in the American Political Science Review in 1927, Lasswell noted how “that which could formerly be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion. . Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of the palaver, and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda.”85 More precisely, propaganda was “the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.”86 Walter Lippmann’s influence is notable in Lasswell’s work. As Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion, “The leader knows by experience that only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd.”87 Extending the metaphor, Lasswell insisted that this “technique of controlling attitudes ... is no more moral or immoral than a pump handle.”88 It was the purpose to which propaganda was put that mattered; it could be used for good or for ill.

Lasswell’s work was broadly influential in building a new science of politics. Scholars of interest groups in particular saw propaganda as a key feature of the political dynamics they observed. Pendleton Herring, the Harvard political scientist and future president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), discussed propaganda as a strategy of political influence in his study of group representation before Congress.89

Similarly, Peter Odegard’s book Pressure Politics documented how the Anti-Saloon League employed propaganda “as a political weapon ... to spur into action those voters who believed the liquor traffic to be an evil.”90 For Odegard and others, an interest in propaganda sparked broader theoretical and empirical investigations into the nature of public opinion and its susceptibility to crafted appeals. Odegard’s book The American Public Mind (1930) asked, “What are the forces which mold our minds?” Like Lasswell, Odegard sought to disabuse his readers of the view that propaganda had a “sinister meaning.” “Propaganda in itself is not bad,” Odegard summed up, adding cryptically, “It never tells the whole truth, but who knows the whole truth to tell?”91

Propaganda remained a central scholarly focus for Lasswell and others, aided by foundations like the SSRC that provided much-needed financial support to the new science of politics. In 1931, Odegard and Herring joined Lasswell on an SSRC committee on the study of propaganda that included political scientist Harold Gosnell, sociologist Kimball Young, journalism professor Ralph Casey, and historian Merle Curti.92 Under the committee’s auspices, Lasswell compiled an annotated bibliography entitled Propaganda and Promotional Activities that included an introductory essay, “The Study and Practice of Propaganda,” in which Lasswell reiterated many of his earlier ideas about the management of opinion through the manipulation of symbols.93 In 1935, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science published an issue titled “Pressure Groups and Propaganda.” As Princeton political scientist Harwood Childs wrote in the foreword, “The struggle for power, domestically and internationally, is in large part a struggle for the minds of men. The groups which excel ... will be those most effectively implemented with the techniques and tools of opinion leadership.”94 Lasswell also focused scholarly attention on what he saw as an emerging profession of paid persuaders, especially the criticisms they faced in a society suspicious of propaganda techniques. “The public’s discovery of propaganda has led to a great deal of lamentation over it,” Lasswell observed in 1928. As a result, “propagandists have sought protective coloration in such names as ‘public relations counsel.’ ”95 In his contribution to the Annals issue in 1935, Lasswell further noted how the propagandist tried to “change the name of the activity and associate it with dignified symbols” in order to raise “the prestige of a somewhat vulnerable occupation.” More specifically, “The lowly press agent gives way to a profession” that further “seeks to associate itself with universities, which stand in our culture for high measures of truth and sincerity.”96 As Lasswell explained, the propagandist was both the subject and the object of propaganda.

Lasswell almost certainly had Edward Bernays in mind as he wrote about these struggles.97 In fact, Bernays worked hard to establish his professional credentials as a public relations counsel by projecting himself as an expert trained in the science of human behavior and the “workings of public opinion.”98 As Bernays told an audience in 1934, “The development of history, sociology, psychology, social psychology, journalism, advertising and politics has made possible the work of a new type of technician, whose function it is ... to deal intelligently with the group mind.”99 Drawing upon this new “science of propaganda,” Bernays described his work as “applied sociology in the broad field of influencing public opinion.”100 By linking public relations to a behavioral social science, Bernays sought credibility for his nascent profession.

To that end, Bernays cultivated a relationship with Lasswell and other academics. Bernays often wrote for academic audiences, including an essay in the 1935 Annals issue in which he offered “a dispassionate outline of the techniques and the media involved in the molding of public opinion.”101 A year earlier, in 1934, Bernays accepted an invitation from Pendleton Herring to sit on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association on the topic “The Public Relations of National Administrative Agencies” along with prominent academics Marshall Dimock, John Gaus, and Louis Brownlow. Ever the promoter, Bernays wrote to Herring, “If you will let me have some further details of the meeting, I shall be glad to work out a plan to attempt to focus public attention upon it.”102 Bernays was indeed both the subject and the object of propaganda.

Bernays maintained an even closer relationship with Princeton University professor Harwood Childs, who invited Bernays to lecture his class on public opinion on multiple occasions. When Childs established the journal Public Opinion Quarterly in 1936, serving as its first managing editor, Bernays contributed the article “Recent Trends in Public Relations Activities” to the inaugural issue. Bernays also wrote a preface to Childs’s book A Reference Guide to the Study of Public Opinion (1934). In the acknowledgment, Childs wrote that “Mr. Edward L. Bernays is among those whose genius enables them to bridge the chasm between laboratories of academic endeavor and the world of practice.”103 As these accolades suggest, a mutually beneficial relationship could promote the research of the scholar while furthering the professional aspirations of the practitioner.

Academic disciplines confer power and prestige, helping to legitimize professional work. Consequently, professions frequently assert their expertise as a strategy of occupational control.104 Similarly, Bernays put forward a professional claim that public relations was the practical application of social scientific knowledge about the workings of public opinion and political behavior. To that end, Bernays surveyed prominent academics and university administrators about the study of public opinion and the possibilities for professional education in public relations. He received thirty-four replies from individuals at twenty-six universities, compiling a list of sixty-eight different courses on propaganda, public relations, and related subjects.105 Bernays published his findings in a slim volume entitled Universities—Pathfinders of Public Opinion in which he detailed “the scope of academic attention to the subjects of public relations and opinion management.”106 To Bernays, the public relations counsel was a professional trained in a field of practical knowledge much like lawyers, accountants, or engineers.

In asserting his status as a professional, Bernays pursued a more immediate goal. In 1936, Bernays learned from his accountant that he faced a 4-percent tax on business income in the state of New York unless he could claim a professional exemption, defined by the state as “any occupation or vocation in which a professed knowledge of some department of science or learning is used by its practical application to the affairs of others.”107 Because the public relations counsel was not currently included in the list of recognized professions, the accountant urged Bernays to petition the state for an exemption in order to avoid paying “a substantial sum.”108 Writing to Henry Epstein, solicitor general of New York, Bernays claimed “parity with the other professions exempted under the law” by pointing to the fact that “leading universities are teaching the subject” of public relations.109 Bernays went on to compare his work as a counsel on public relations with the counselor at law: like the attorney who stands before a court, the public relations counsel labors at “the bar of public opinion.”110

Even if tax evasion was his principal motivation, Bernays was profoundly influenced by the behavioral turn in the social sciences, especially its insights into the nature of individual identity and the plural quality of contemporary life. Bernays frequently discussed the techniques of public relations in terms of the complex composition of society and the myriad groups to which individuals belong. In particular, he described the “interlapping” nature of group affiliation, by which he meant the composite character of identity and the various social, political, ethnic, and religious attachments of individuals.111 For Bernays, propaganda was a tool for selectively activating or suppressing aspects of individual identity, creating and recreating group attachments as needed. The creative construction of a public was the essence of his technique.

This vision of the public and the role of the public relations counsel is illustrated in the work Bernays performed on behalf of William O’Dwyer, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City in 1941. Using survey research and other social scientific data, Bernays crafted a media strategy for O’Dwyer that tailored the personal qualities of the candidate to the hopes and fears of the various ethnic groups that made up the mosaic of New York City politics. This was fertile ground for Bernays, and the campaign foreshadowed the kind of political work that would characterize American elections in the years to come.

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