Recent militant protests in all fifty states suggest Americans are finally waking up that the US government is captive to Wall Street interests and incapable of addressing the serious global issues that confront us in the 21st century. Obama's continuation of Bush's conservative policies has been a cruel object lesson. However it has served to convince a critical mass of Americans that it makes little difference whether we have a Republican or Democrat in the White House. Unchecked US military aggression will continue to drain the faltering US economy; the US government will continue to subsidize oil, coal and auto companies, rather than forcing them to join in a united effort to stave off catastrophic global warming; and skyrocketing food prices and looming water shortages will be ignored. Beholden to powerful Wall Street interests who fund their campaigns, our current political leaders are helpless to address these life or death issues. Any real solution will have to come from the people, via a citizen-led grassroots movement.
Many of us are firmly believe we saw the birth of that movement this past month in our state capitols. At the moment its members consist of a rarefied minority of educated Americans with Internet access. The key question that confronts us is how to expand that movement across the digital divide -- to the roughly 50% of Americans who have withdrawn from the political process and who derive their knowledge of national and world events from reactionary pundits on Fox News.
In my lifetime, crossing this divide has always been the major stumbling block for American progressives. The past three decades have witnessed the launch of many fantastic grassroots initiatives around a multitude of critical issues. All engendered considerable energy and enthusiasm, flourished briefly and then, for the most part, fizzled and died.
In contrast to Europe and the Middle East, it seems very difficult for American activists to make the commitment to the grueling, sustained organizing required in a period of severe repression. They are too easily discouraged by personality and sectarian squabbles that are part and parcel of grassroots organizing and find it far too tempting to withdraw to comfort of a life focused exclusively on personal and family needs.
The Public Relations Industry: Systematic Pro-corporate Propaganda
In my mind, this relates to the sophisticated psychological conditioning all Americans are bombarded with from an early age. In the US, it isn't enough to win people to our views about the train wreck corporate controlled government has caused. Getting them to commit to ongoing grassroots activism will also require millions of American to think very differently about most aspects of their lives. Simply put, we will have to start thinking like our grandparents and great grandparents. Because their lives centered around community and interdependence, rather than consumption and material possessions, they automatically turned to collective action when they and their families were threatened by powerful interests.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the public relations industry was deliberately created by the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1920s to counter the community-centered view of American life that predominated at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not only did it tend to decrease consumption -- there was a discouraging tendency for friends and neighbors to share washing machines and other major appliances -- but it strongly biased public opinion in favor of workers and unions and against corporations.
Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays is considered the father of public relations. As the late Alex Carey describes in Taking the Risk Out of Democracy , Bernays was responsible for Woodrow Wilson's campaign to "sell" Word War I to a profoundly isolationist American public. Bernays himself coined the term "public relations" when he set himself as a Public Relations Counselor in 1919. He published his seminal work, Propaganda, in 1928, but went on to be heavily influenced by Heinrich Himler, the propaganda minister who "sold" Hitler's Third Reich to the German people. Bernays' corporate clients included , Proctor & Gamble, CBS, the American Tobacco Company, Standard Oil, General Electric and the United Fruit Company. His propaganda campaign for the United Fruit Company is said to have led to the CIA's overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 1954.
The Hard Sell
Over the next 10-15 years, a gigantic public relations industry, through its major influence over advertising, news reporting, film and TV entertainment and popular magazines, would succeed in totally transforming the majority of Americans from engaged citizens to passive consumers. This major attitudinal shift, also known as "consumerism," came about largely through bombarding them with thousands of messages designed to create an overwhelming desire to purchase an endless array of corporate products.
The "pressure" American consumers feel to buy merchandise they don't really want or need (and often can't afford) is based on two powerful psychological messages. The first plays on instant gratification as an entitlement: "You're worth it." The second plays on insecurities about being regarded as inferior and rejected by peers and/or the opposite sex. In essence the public relations industry has reduced American adults to insecure teenagers, by artificially inducing a continual state of anxiety akin to the overwhelming peer pressure that is a normal phase of adolescent development.
How the PR Industry Shapes Attitudes and Beliefs
Aside from the psychological hard sell tactics used to reduce Americans to passive consumers, the public relations industry bombards Americans daily with a host of other ideological messages. During the cold war, the American public was constantly bombarded with pro-military messages demonizing communism, socialism and the Soviet Union . With the launch of the War on Terror in 2001, the target of this xenophobic propaganda shifted to Muslims, Arabs and other dark skinned non-Christians.