The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War

By Brett Gary | Go to book overview
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Harold D. Lasswell and the
Scientific Study of Propaganda

Harold Lasswell embodies the central tensions and divisions defining U.S. intellectual culture in the interwar era, especially within the social sciences. Lasswell claimed that John Dewey had more intellectual influence over him than any other thinker, especially in his belief in science as a tool for democracy. But in the split between the democratic realists and idealists, Lasswell's thought and language—including his metaphors of mastery and control—bear much greater resemblance to Walter Lippmann's. Indeed, one can argue that Lasswell became the veritable fulfillment of Lippmann's image of the social science technocrat, armed with “technic” and ready to serve rationality and power. His abundant writings from the mid-1920s through the early 1940s express the confidence of an unabashed social engineer making governance more efficient and scientific. His defenders contend, however, that his interests in the relationship between science and power and the role of expertise in that equation had primarily to do with the question of how experts could best serve democracy; he was, they argue, thoroughly committed to the Deweyan idea that the people were capable of good decision making, as long as they had access to adequate materials, providing which was the job of the highly skilled.1

One can identify in Lasswell's thinking and career trajectory a shift away from a sustained critique of democratic theory's weaknesses to a toughminded appraisal of democracy's moral strength and U.S. society's weaknesses during the wartime emergency. Political scientist Ronald Brunner argues that Lasswell began with the assumption that morals preceded science and as the nation moved toward war in the early 1940s, he understood that his job, as Brunner quotes him, “was to be ruled by the truth,” especially the moral truths of democratic theory and practice. Brunner reports that his mentor's main purpose was “preserving human dignity,” especially against totalitarianism.2

Lasswell's unquenchable desire for new approaches to the scientific study of politics and society made him both a pathbreaking thinker and a prolific but often cumbersome writer. Mastering a range of literatures and draw


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The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War


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