Polarization and the Battle for Our Minds


April 2016
Ivan Obolensky

Many, including a surprising number of its citizens, consider the USA to be a democracy. Strictly speaking, it is not. It is a republic. A republic is defined as a form of government in which the citizens elect representatives who do the actual governing according to a set of laws as laid out in a constitution.1 Citizens do not have a direct say in how they are governed. That is a democracy. There are currently none in existence.

How is that many forms of government are now considered ‘democratic’ when they are not? The term has, over time, been broadened to include republics through the expedient of redefining a democracy as a system of government in which supreme power lies with its citizens, and the power they hold is exercised by the periodic use of elections.

Elections are not governing. They are choices of who will govern, and it would not be remiss to quote Joseph Stalin’s pithy observation regarding them:

“It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”2

Words, including ‘democracy,’ can mean many things. One need only read: The “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (North Korea) to know that it is possible to use people, democracy, and republic in the same phrase and have it mean dictatorship instead.

How is that even possible?

It is possible because of the nature of language, how we use it, and how we think.

Korzybski wrote that “the map is not the territory”, by which he meant that the world outside and the world we think we see are not the same.3 We make decisions on only a fraction of the information the outside world contains. By emphasizing one element, adding another, or deleting still another, we can alter our maps and, therefore, change how we see the world. We can generalize, form opinions, and change them because we are good at abstraction. We can turn the specific into a generality and then change it to whatever we think fits best. In the paragraph above, we have taken one word (democracy) and had it mean three different things, including the opposite, with no difficulty.

On one hand this can be useful, on the other it can be detrimental. If the mind can be changed by us internally, it can also be influenced externally by others when they persuade us to change it ourselves. Done well, we don’t even realize it. Words can mean anything if they are redefined, particularly over an extended period of time. History supplies context, but not for everything.

Books about history contain numerous examples of wars between peoples and nations. Yet perhaps the most significant conflict of the last century has rarely been mentioned. It is not only intangible; it is still ongoing. It is the battle for our minds, and how we should think.

The use of propaganda (biased information to promote a particular cause or point of view) is thought to be relatively modern. The word, not by coincidence, came into widespread use around 1914 as WWI began. Propaganda was used by all parties in the form of posters, films, writings, and public appearances. The term was usually restricted to the media of the opposing side. For the home team it was considered efforts to promote patriotism. Propaganda has an unusual property in that it can change from one thing to another depending on where it comes from.

The word “propaganda” is a shortening of the phrase: congregatio de propaganda fide, Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. This was a committee of cardinals formed by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Its purpose was to counter the ideas of the protestant reformation by training, sending out, and supervising priests who made up the foreign missions in areas that had rejected Catholicism.4

Propaganda comes from the word “propagation”, which derives from the Latin: propagare, to set forward, extend, spread, breed, increase; from propago, that which propagates, offspring, from pro– forth and pag (pangere) to fasten.5

Although the word is relatively recent, the techniques of propaganda were known and used well before the 17th century.

In ancient times, when populations were governed by a single ruler, propaganda was unnecessary. It was only when groups and factions formed, held some potential power, and then competed with each other for all of it, that propaganda became necessary.

Propaganda is different from Public Relations, which could be defined as the management of public opinion through specialized communications.

The ancient civilizations knew well its importance.

One of the earliest allusions to the use of PR is from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which he composed during the latter part of China’s Warring States period just before the Qin state established the first Chinese empire in 221 BCE.

He wrote: “When government is carried out properly, people feel close to the leadership and think little of dying for it.”6

How did people feel close to their leadership so they would die for it without protest?

People felt close to their leadership because those in power managed public opinion. They established lines of communication and a message or campaign that showed that the leadership was doing its job and deserved a supportive response from the populace. This was public relations at work. The only difference today is the means and the methods.

Propaganda is a more focused tool of Public Relations with the added emphasis on partisanship, prejudice, and bias. It presupposes factionalism. Propaganda is needed when there are different power blocs vying for control, a state of affairs that has only revealed itself in modern times, with one exception: Ancient Athens.

In this venue, around 450 BCE, propaganda techniques were developed to a sophisticated level.

Ironically, propaganda was not possible without a democracy of some sort because authoritarian regimes held power absolutely. There were no factions under despotic regimes that were free to voice their agendas. If they existed at all, it was because the ruler tolerated them, and they served some purpose that aligned with authority.

The need for well thought-out, focused propaganda that we would recognize today only became a necessity when citizens acquired the right to vote. Athens was the first democracy. It was a unique idea that has not been duplicated since. Ancient Athens was an amalgamation of vested interests in the form of influential families, those located in specific areas, and members of distinct economic and social classes. Aligning these interests required communication skill. Citizens were well informed and voting by those eligible was compulsory. Differences in political and religious views gave rise to propaganda and counter-propaganda. The tools of propaganda were oratory, religious festivals which included epic poetry performances. Many of the plays performed, both comedy and tragedy, contained political messages that influenced the population, even when Athens was embroiled with Sparta in a life-and-death struggle for supremacy of the Hellenic world. It is no wonder that “demagogue,” a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires, biases, and prejudices is an Athenian term. Influencing the course of the city meant being able to influence the vote.

With the collapse of the Athenian empire, it wasn’t until Roman times that propaganda campaigns once again became necessary, but these were focused on and carried out by the members of the Senatorial class against each other. Much of the writing of the Republic—by Julius Caesar and Cicero, for example—was propaganda, in spite of its literary genius. It forwarded political messages and was meant to influence how the actions they undertook should be perceived.

One of the biggest propaganda breakthroughs until this century was the printing press. It proved to be one of the most useful tools for those who wished to push their factional points of view. It is likely that neither the American nor the French Revolution would have taken place without the rise of the pamphlet, which in a few pages helped shape opinion regarding the British and French monarchies.7

In more modern times, propaganda has become a necessary tool for those who seek either to take power or retain it. The avenues of communication from Twitter to search-result rankings, social media and news channels have greatly expanded propaganda opportunities. Propaganda is persuasion. In today’s global electronic world, it has taken on a refinement and sophistication that makes it almost invisible. A dispassionate survey will find that 90% of every message, news item, editorial, TV show, film, and book we experience are in fact propaganda of some sort.

How is that true? When you experience these messages, what do you feel? Are you persuaded to be sympathetic to a certain point of view? Does it conform with yours, and thus you agree with it? Who originated it? What do they want from you? How are they trying to influence you?

How about this article?

Who would have thought that it is possible to live in a democracy that is not a democracy, have freedoms that are not freedoms, electronic relationships with hundreds of strangers that are not relationships, jobs that aren’t jobs, money that isn’t money, food that is not food, yet we are happy to experience it? Is it surprising that the world has become so polarized and fractured? Have we been persuaded by propaganda?

You decide.



  1. A. (ND) Republic vs. Democracy. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from https://www.1215.org/lawnotes/lawnotes/repvsdem.htm.
  2. Stalin, J. (ND) Joseph Stalin Quotes, Brainy Quotes. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/josephstal109571.html.
  3. Korzybsky, A. (2010) Selections from Science and Sanity. Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics
  4. A. (ND) The Story of Propaganda, American Historical Association. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/what-is-propaganda/the-story-of-propaganda.
  5. A. (ND) Propagation, Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=propagation&allowed_in_frame=0.
  6. Sun Tzu (1991) The Art of War, translated by Thomas Cleary. Boston, MA: Shambhala
  7. A. (ND) The Story of Propaganda, American Historical Association. Retrieved April 6, 2016 from https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/what-is-propaganda/the-story-of-propaganda.



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  1. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin04-22-2016

    Good article. It’s interesting to think about how much of our own personal communication is propaganda. The moment we try to persuade a friend to try a particular restaurant, see a certain movie, or vote for some guy or gal — we use propaganda. And it all starts with a self-created belief that one person, place or thing is better than another. Fascinating.

    • Ivan

      Hi Craig,

      It is fascinating. Another reader mentioned spin which is also like propaganda in the sense that it is pushing an agenda. The difference to me is that propaganda originates from a group, usually small and marginalized, that attempts to overthrow the status quo and grab what power they can. Spin is used by the established power as well as by propagandists through judicious use of framing, omitting certain facts, and emphasizing others.


  2. Ron

    Good article. As you discuss the modern era, though, you leave out a phenomenon perhaps unique to our times… Spin. Obviously “Spin” is pure propaganda, but what may be unique about it is everyone knows it is propaganda and accepts it as objective fact anyway. Candidates say things in speeches and debates, most of it propaganda, and we listen with half an ear. Then they retire to the “Spin Room” where they blatantly deny what they just said or put a “spin” on it that makes it more favorable to their point of view. We not only watch the “spin doctors” we somehow credit them with being communicators of a higher order. My favorite example is The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News. Bill O’Reilly calls his show “the no spin zone,” then proceeds to spin every subject to a consistently conservative point of view. Viewers know in advance his exact take on every issue, yet they somehow accept that his spin is no spin.” Pure genious.

    • Ivan

      Hi Ron,

      Thank you for your comment. I failed to add several elements, spin being one of them. Thank you for pointing that out.

      Spin is PR at work: how to take a story and frame it in a particular way. A good example might be the Civil War in the US. The issues were fundamentally the result of the constitution. The founding fathers wanted a republic not a democracy. They distrusted the common man and thought little of his ability to make up his mind in a sensible manner (Jefferson being an exception). The way the government was setup led to factionalism very similar to that of the late Roman republic which coincidentally also resulted in a civil war. The growth differential between the northern industrial states and the southern agrarian states led to political polarities. The human issue which galvanized the people to action was of course slavery. It was the spin (in this case slavery) that took the smoldering fundamental economic and socio economic differences and added the gasoline. See https://dynamicdoingness.com/democracy-and-the-founding-fathers/?la=us.

      The outcome of the Civil War was a new paradigm that has been with us for a time: Government for the people by the people. The current election cycle is pointing out the fact that the structure as reflected in government as set up by the founders (a republic) is not in alignment with the “for the people…” paradigm. This could and probably will be the spark that opens the door to a constitutional crisis or at least a rework of it. No one wants that because it is such a third rail issue. We could end up in a dictatorship rather easily and some things are just too contentious to be let loose.

      I also failed to note (in my opinion) that one way to test for propaganda (or spin campaign) being effectively worked is the degree of polarity present in a population. Since the US is so polarized (as is the world) propaganda machines are in high roar.

      Just as an added note one of the main issues with the constitution as reflected in the federalist papers is the whole issue on the Supreme Court. I might do that as an article next.

      I love the spin free zone concept. That is so brilliantly spinful it is sinful.

      Best to you and Joan,

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