Vol II no. 3 February 4, 2003  
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To Save the World

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.

      Sonny: How's Pauli?
      Fat Clemenza: Oh, Pauli. Won't see him no more.
      Gangsters speaking of a "traitor" they have murdered, in The Godfather.

Public relations, properly understood, will save the world. That's a kind of mantra I use with my PR students, to stimulate them into positive applications for the tricks I teach. PR isn't just about corporate coercion, I explain. It's the modern version of the rhetoric that the Greeks thought inseparable from the other skills of democracy.

In fact, PR is a recent phenomenon, dating only from the turn of the last century. It is true that our founding document was a PR instrument, motivated by "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Fourscore or so years later, we were told that "Public opinion in this country is everything," by Abraham Lincoln. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed," the Republican liberal said.

But while public opinion has always been central to democratic theory, public relations as a discipline is newer, and still under development. As a tool of right-wing extremists, it can be a weapon of terror.

Now that we are engaged in a great public relations war with life and death consequences, a PR war that spans the globe and makes allies of aliens, adversaries of countrymen, we are freshly reminded of how important it is that we learn the techniques of communicating effectively -- against a tide of often vituperative verbal assaults.

But first, as to the origins of PR:

A century ago, the field of public relations was invented -- as profession and as academic discipline -- not to promote a corporate agenda but to combat it. As historian Katherine Adams has recently described it in Progressive Politics and the Training of America's Persuaders, PR was conceived as a tool for citizen action, against the depredations of the robber barons. It was fostered at the University of Wisconsin by Bob La Follette, governor and then Senator, and leader of the Progressive reformers.

Adams writes, "By the 1890s, reformers hoped to create a new style of national democracy, involving strong but more trustworthy leaders responsible to an educated electorate." Teddy Roosevelt, another liberal Republican, who exemplified their ideal, was greatly aided by the publicists and polemicists trained in the Wisconsin system.

"In their vision of progress," she says, "new leaders would work with a well-educated populace, giving them the right information to choose the right nominees, laws and national reforms. The newly reconceived 'people' would thus gain a new type of national power."

Public relations worked -- so well that the banks, railroads and corporate trusts realized they needed PR to combat the populists and progressives. In 1882, railroad tycoon William Henry Vanderbilt could get away with a terse "The public be damned!" By the turn of the century, the muckrakers and reformers had educated and galvanized public opinion.

Today, most histories of PR begin with the stories of "PR pioneers" Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee and others who were employed by corporations to improve their image and to steer public opinion away from the "foreign," "socialist" ideas circulating in the labor unions and among immigrant populations. And Woodrow Wilson's war propaganda machine, operated by his political campaign publicist, George Creel, was so effective it was an inspiration to the master publicist Adolf Hitler, who initially saw himself as the "drummer" of a movement and only later reconceived himself as the horrific creation of his own publicity.

But despite the turn of events, a sordid history, and most current applications, PR began as a tool for citizenship. And it is still the best alternative to brute force as the method of democracy.

PR in an age of vituperation

Sen. Tom Daschle and other sulking Democrats responded to their electoral wipeout of November 2002 by wondering out loud what kind of broadcast offensive the liberals could muster to combat the effectiveness of Rush Limbaugh and other popular conservative talk-show hosts. As readers of this column know, I think that's a misguided priority.

Liberals need to stand for intellectual integrity, which is slower but surer than demagogic rhetoric, and far more effective in the long run. For this to work, they need to be careful not to commit the very offenses they criticize; and they need to be cheerfully adamant in challenging misdirection and mendacity.

There is no razor sharper than a five-year-old's sense of fairness. All of us, no matter how cynical we have become, retain some of that edge. As liberals learn to appeal to that innate moral sensibility, they will encounter, first, surprise and irritation -- "How did you get this phone number? -- then a more sustained anger at the intrusion on an unready conscience by "hypocritical and arrogant liberal idealists;" and ultimately an acknowledgement of responsibility as a member of a community, global and national and local -- an acceptance, in other words, of the liberal world-view and terms of debate -- even when there is no agreement on the specific issues being argued.

This will never be accomplished in a pissing match with the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

First, we have to realize that the 30 million self-styled "ditto-heads" are never going to be our friends. There's no point in trying to nurture a politics that will include everyone. For a world-view that believes in redemption, and human perfectibility, this is a bitter acquiescence, but it will spare you hours of agonizing over the stray sheep. "Good enough for government work" is a maxim that means you don't need to save every soul, only 51 percent. We have to accept that, even though it means adopting a tactic of the right, a tactic, it should be mentioned, that saves them lots of time and energy. (By the way, "ditto-heads" refers to the protocol Rush established: callers are to save airtime and keep things lively by saying "ditto" rather than repeating the wisdom of the previous caller, so they can move on to new controversy.)

Second, rather than try to mimic talk-show entertainers who trade in derision and hate, what liberals need to do is bring to the field a new kind of rhetoric, one that respects both intelligence and common sense, one that will survive logical evaluation as well as the healthy irrational instincts of people of good will (by which I mean the feelings most of us used when choosing a career or a mate) -- a rhetoric grounded in the core values of a liberal political philosophy.

Demagogic rhetoric works by leveraging public attention from a hot topic to a premise only partially related, and on to another even more logically remote, in a kind of hand-over-hand retrogression from a truism "everyone knows" to something insupportable by reason or even the sense of right and wrong. In a well-planned campaign, executed with discipline, a sequence of public ideas can be played out, to lead public opinion to a new "conventional wisdom." In each case, there is a inarguably sound premise serving as a stepping-off point.

For example, demagogic rhetoric can convert general agreement on the need for righting racial inequities, into the conviction that we have done enough to redress past errors and should now become color-blind in our policies. Or it can conveniently recast victims of economic injustice into indolents who brought it on themselves. Or it can foster the notion that the new millionaires of the '90s somehow carved their fortunes out of the wilderness, rather than set up shop on the shoulders of a tax-supported social infrastructure that has a right and responsibility to insist that all the incidental social costs be covered. Or it can allow a "patriot" to move his corporation to a tax-free foreign island without a shrug of guilt or shred of irony.

Counterrevolution vs. Reform

Not that long ago FDR could rail against the plutocrats and stir the American spirit with lines like, "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics." (FDR, by the way, was a vilified liberal who early on realized he was not going to be everyone's president, and didn't let it bother him.)

Those who were unreconciled to the reforms of both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt have succeeded, since the Truman era, in moving American public opinion to the right, not through their "think tanks" or Newt Gingrich's catechizing, but through crass public relations techniques. From Ike's 1952 Madison Avenue "crusade" which rolled right over Adlai Stevenson's campaign of ideas, to "The Selling of the President" in 1968, to the presidential marketing of a B-movie actor in the 1980's -- a campaign that continues because the "legacy" is important to future objectives -- their demagogic appeal has depended on a weakening of natural inhibitions that formerly put a brake on greed and "public be damned!" individualism.

Politics were still civil through most of that devolution, but when a deeply flawed but essentially liberal president threatened to slow down the conservative counterrevolution, things got vicious, and the politics of vituperation really took hold. The centerpiece was a multi-million-dollar campaign, funded by Richard Mellon Scaife and others, to defame Clinton, beginning back when he was still governor of Arkansas, and finally to impeach him.

Conservatives' standards of civil behavior have continued to sink. TV coverage of politics is now mostly entertainment, rarely journalism. And entertainment consumers apparently enjoy a lot of nasty shouting. The decline is reflected not just in political discourse but in official behavior.

Bob Woodward tells us (in Bush at War) how Roger Ailes, chairman of the Fox News Channel, advised the president to get tough. The Washington Post described his "back-channel message [shortly after 9-11]: The American public would tolerate waiting and would be patient, but only as long as they were convinced that Bush was using the harshest measures possible." Ailes "added a warning: 'Support would dissipate if the public did not see Bush acting harshly.'"

Rush Limbaugh, about whose virulence books could be (and have been) written, has all but called Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle a traitor: "Now he's decided to roll the dice and align himself with Iran, North Korea and Hussein. In essence, Daschle has chosen to align himself with the axis of evil."

A celebrated conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, exemplifies the maniacally mean-spirited tenor of the times. Her most offensive column for National Review Online is still posted on the Web. In an obvious reference to the possibility of collateral damage in Afghanistan, she wrote, "This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack. Those responsible include anyone anywhere in the world who smiled in response to the annihilation of [our] patriots [on 9- 11]."

She digresses to dilate on airport inspections of people who look like you and me: "Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now."

And then she delivers the line that she has enjoyed defending whenever it is raised: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war."

Last year she targeted liberals more directly: "We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors."

Ann Coulter's excesses amount to a cry for help and inspire a charitable concern for her mental health. But the pundits set the stage for the public officials. When the discourse percolates up to the highest office in the land, the real damage has been done.

George Bush's language has degenerated from that of Marlboro Man to mobster. In last week's State of the Union message he sounded like a character from "The Sopranos" when he told us, "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies."

PR, properly understood, will save the world.

Liberals will not succeed in trying to match this kind of language. We need, instead, a new rhetoric based on a coherent agenda that derives from our core values.

You can't beat something with nothing. The president, any president, has the bully pulpit to himself. For now, liberals have their principled opposition to Bush's war as a point on which to center. Our first priority must be to rally at that point.

Next, at a time when conservatives hold majorities in both houses of Congress, our legislative agenda will necessarily be driven by what we oppose as much as what we support. But if what we support is based on the best liberal traditions -- on measures that would have moved FDR to eloquence -- we don't mind having our priorities dictated by the conservative game plan.

Meanwhile, we must continue to develop a "central idea," or message, to inspire public opinion. Without a central idea, articulated forcefully, we are casualties of centrifugal force. Abraham Lincoln, in his Address to the Republican Banquet in Chicago on December 10, 1856, observed:

Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, on any subject, always has a "central idea," from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That "central idea" in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, "the equality of men." And although it was always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress towards the practical equality of all men."

We have come a long way in our descent from those ideals, but we are no less in need of a central idea to guide us. Discovering, or uncovering, our central idea is the next task at hand, if we are to save the world.

© 2003 Alton Miller
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