Harold D. Lasswell was a 20th-century political scientist and communication theorist. Lasswell acted as president of the American Political Science Association. He is best known for his theoretical grouping of psychology and politics, specifically as it relates to political propaganda. The American Political Science Association, the International Society of Political Psychology, Policy Sciences, the Policy Studies Organization, and the Society for Policy Sciences all stand as legacies of Lasswell's revolutionary ideas. He died in 1978, esteemed as an original and progressive political scientist.
Lasswell was born in Donnellson, Illinois, in 1902 to a Presbyterian family. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922. Just 24 years old, Lasswell wrote his groundbreaking dissertation, Propaganda Technique in the World War, which was considered an exceptional study on communication theory. Thereafter, he studied at various universities in Europe where he was highly influenced by Freud's psychological theories.
Lasswell became a professor at the University of Chicago and then studied at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry. During World War II, he worked at the Library of Congress as the director of war communications research. He was particularly intrigued by the propaganda techniques used by Hitler and the Nazi Party to obtain the loyalty and faith of the German people. After the war, he became a professor of law and political science at Yale University.
In 1930, Lasswell published Psychopathology and Politics, in which he argued that psychoanalyzing politicians can lead to further understanding of politics. This theory cemented his position as a leading researcher of behavioralism. He believed that Freudian psychoanalytic methods would revolutionize the future of politics and offer foolproof insights into the truth. He termed his approach as the "idea of preventive politics."
Many detractors of his work objected to the idea that social scientists like Lasswell would be able to manipulate the political spectrum. Such criticism prevented a number of Lasswell's works from being published in major political science journals. Lasswell founded his own journals: Public Opinion Quarterly and Policy Sciences.
Lasswell wrote World Politics and Personal Insecurity in 1935, a work that was lauded as a "tie between state symbolism and the individual psyche." Lasswell would go on to define political terms in his 1936 book, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. Lasswell pinpointed the driving forces of politics as being income, security and respect. Other major works by Lasswell include The Garrison State and Power and Personality.
Lasswell's fixation on political terminology reached a climax in his 1950 publication. Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry. Many critics accused Lasswell of promoting his own political values in his work, while others considered him ahead of his time. By employing content-analysis techniques, he postulated that certain political terms were laden with psychological tones that evoke specific emotional responses in the public.
William Ascher and Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher, authors of Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell, attribute Lasswell with introducing psychology into the political arena. Ascher asserts that "Lasswell's true contribution was in adapting and disciplining the Freudian (and related) psycho-dynamic functional approaches by recasting reductionist, absolutist propositions into pragmatist hypotheses, securing a much stronger empirical base, and wedding psycho-dynamic functional insights with the broadest range of political, economic, and sociological explanations."
Lasswell was instrumental in turning politics into a pragmatic and empirical focus of study. According to Lasswell, the average person is motivated by both personal background and the social or political context of his/her time. Varying environments will stimulate specific priorities.
As there are infinite factors contributing to the individual psyche, there is no universal formula that can predict the motivations and priorities of individuals. This renders Lasswell's theories hypothetical. Lasswell's work does hint at the effect the subconscious may have on political drives.
Yet Lasswell did offer a formulaic approach to motivations in political leaders. Jacob Heilbrunn examines the drive behind power-hungry politicians using Harold Lasswell's psychoanalytical prism. Heilbrunn writes: "After conducting a series of interviews with leading political figures, [Lasswell] concluded that three types existed: the Agitator, the Administrator, and the Theorist."
Lasswell even came up with a formula that took into account all the factors that would compel a person to become politically active. He claims that private motives influence displacement onto a public object. thereby leading to rationalization in terms of public interest that in turn, results in the political figure.