Opinion

The Link Between Propaganda, Multiple Realities, and Political Instability

What happens when a unifying reality maintained by propaganda dissolves into an ideological system made of a variety of realities vying for dominance? Most likely, instability.

By Om Joshi

The dawn of the 21st century has been marked by the emergence of figures on the political fringes and the resurgence of certain political ideologies that were believed to be extinguished. The increasing prominence of those figures and ideologies has caused a turbulent climate which has translated into political chaos and instability. The cause of the above phenomena can be attributed to a withdrawal of propaganda which has enabled the rise of multiple realities instead of a singular, unifying reality. 

Propaganda in this article will refer to the ideas or concepts that are repeated and legitimized to such an extent that propaganda and truth become synonymous to individuals in society. In particular, this article explores the concept of propaganda as an idea that no longer needs justification and instead is simply regarded as the universal truth. Examples of such propaganda can notably be found in past and present American discourse. Through the repetition of the idea that the USSR and communism were inefficient and ‘evil’ in conventional media, the vast proportion of American citizens simply accepted this claim to be the undeniable truth. For example, in an attempt to dilute the spread of communism, the US passed the Hatch Act of 1939. This act outlawed the hiring of federal workers who advocated for the “overthrow of our Constitutional form of government”. In translating the idea of anti-communism into law, anti-communist ideas gained legitimacy and enabled the metamorphosis of an idea into the irrefutable truth. Through outlawing communism, anti-communism had become the reality. This claim can be supported by a 1983 NORC poll stating that 61% of US citizens in 1982 believed that “communism was the worst of all forms of government”.

To demonstrate how propaganda can lead to stability, the idea of the ruling center developed by McCoolin in the early 1990s can be used. McCoolin refers to the ruling center as the set of ideas and values that is accepted by the majority of people in society. He further explains that ideas that constitute the ruling center are accepted as the universal truth in the minds of individuals. Relative to the example of anti-communism in the USA, the legitimization and repetition of ideas caused the concept of communism being ‘evil’ to form the ruling center. McCoolin further states that as the ruling center develops, individuals will simply conform to the ideas it propagates. As such, since the majority of individuals will have adopted the ruling center as reality, friction between the individuals will be limited, causing overall stability. However, the dawn of the 21st century has witnessed a resurgence of ideologies that were thought to be extinguished, leading to greater political instability. 

The model developed above can be used to understand the outcome of the Brexit referendum through the concept of the ‘core’, which refers to a shared ideological reality. As one can see in Figure 1, the presence of a strong ruling center draws in Individual A, B and C into accepting idea x. This conformity forms the core of society. As such, the probability of conflict decreases as there is only one core, shielded from interference from opposing ideas. However, if the ruling center grows weak, it will no longer have the power to retain the conformed individuals. This may cause certain individuals to break away from idea x and formulate their own opinion or join a rivaling core as shown in Figure 2.

Prior to the financial crisis, the primary core was that trade, immigration and economic dependency were to be celebrated as it aided the country’s development. However, the financial crisis caused this assumption to lose its power. As the primary core lost its relevance, a second core emerged. This new reality ran counter to the fundamental ideas of the first and supported the notion of being an independent economy without the interference of foreign groups. As such, given that the first core had experienced a decrease in power while the other was growing in prominence, the majority of the individuals supported the divorce of the UK from the EU. Therefore, events such as Brexit are the consequences of power shifting from the first to the second core.

With regards to wider ideological debates, it could be argued that the ruling center after the Cold War was the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies and democratic political values. Politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher promised a world filled with prosperity and economic growth due to neo-liberal economic policies working in concert with democratic values. These promises drew in individuals and the first core as seen in Figure 2 was formed. 

Despite the initial success of neo-liberal policies, they also contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. In the wake of the crisis, the increasing unemployment, rising inflation and general undermining of welfare systems caused a backlash against the failed promises of neoliberalism. The ruling center therefore began to lose its power. As shown in a 2018 Gallup poll, the amount of American citizens who viewed socialism as an ideology promoting equality jumped from 12% to 23% from 1949 to 2018.

What also contributed to the decline of neoliberalism as the ruling center was US interventionism. During the Cold War, democracy was viewed as an ideology which would free the oppressed and ensure the prosperity of the people. However, military interventions conducted by the US and its allies causing widespread chaos and human suffering may have led individuals to question whether democracy could truly liberate and provide a better standard of living to people. Both events – the financial crisis and the increase of foreign interventions – caused the stronghold of the ruling center to weaken, leading to the development of a second core. 

As such, there was no longer one core, meaning there was no longer a singular reality. Instead, there are now two cores and the probability of conflict drastically increases as two competing ideas are trying to become the ruling center. The competition between the two cores causes turbulence and chaos as we witness the disappearance of a de-facto reality, of one single unifying idea. 

Having explained the emergence of the two cores, one can explain the resulting political turbulence through the lens of neo-classical economic concepts of market competition. To present the concept of market competition, certain assumptions need to be asserted. Firstly, the political ideologies will be modeled as goods to be consumed and the voters modeled as consumers. Secondly, for simplicity, the model will be limited to two political ideologies which will be labeled as ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’. The traditional political ideology will consist of the classical liberal economic and political ideologies whereas the contemporary ideologies will include all the ideologies that run counter to traditional political and economic concepts. Such ideologies include far-right ideals as well as policies that oppose neo-liberal economics. The third assumption is that the two goods enter a quasi-perfect competition wherein they will spend considerable time advertising their respective benefits to the consumer. Finally, the cost to the voter will be the opportunity cost of not consuming the second ideology. 

Having stated these assumptions, the model can be presented. In a system in which there is no longer one dominant core, the appearance of the second core will threaten to dilute the market power of the first, which holds the traditional values. As such, to combat the rising market power of the second core, the first core will retaliate through releasing propaganda promoting the benefits of consuming the ideas of the first core. Such a strategy was at work in the various speeches and public outreach programs that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conducted to showcase the advantages of getting rid of tariff barriers. Responding to the retaliation of the first core, the second core will follow the same self-promoting strategy. This counter-retaliation is visible in the surge of voters turning away from neo-liberal economic policies and instead pushing for far-right ideas such as curbing immigration. In response, the first core will retaliate again by pushing their agenda forward and attempting to de-legitimize the power of the second core. A never-ending to and fro between two ideas that are competing for market dominance therefore emerges, causing a friction that leads to much of the political turbulence witnessed in contemporary politics. 

Therefore, it could be argued that it is the emergence of multiple realities and the following competition for dominance in the market of ideas which has caused the political instability we are currently experiencing.

Om Joshi is a final year Politics and Economics student at the University of Surrey.

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