Book Review: How Propaganda Works

Our democracy today is fraught with political campaigns, lobbyists, liberal media, and Fox News commentators, all using language to influence the way we think and reason about public issues.

Even so, many of us believe that propaganda and manipulation aren’t problems for us—not in the way they were for the totalitarian societies of the mid-twentieth century.

InHow Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid. He examines how propaganda operates subtly, how it undermines democracy—particularly the ideals of democratic deliberation and equality—and how it has damaged democracies of the past.

Focusing on the shortcomings of liberal democratic states, Stanley provides a historically grounded introduction to democratic political theory as a window into the misuse of democratic vocabulary for propaganda’s selfish purposes. He lays out historical examples, such as the restructuring of the US public school system at the turn of the twentieth century, to explore how the language of democracy is sometimes used to mask an undemocratic reality.

Drawing from a range of sources, including feminist theory, critical race theory, epistemology, formal semantics, educational theory, and social and cognitive psychology, he explains how the manipulative and hypocritical declaration of flawed beliefs and ideologies arises from and perpetuates inequalities in society, such as the racial injustices that commonly occur in the United States.

How Propaganda Works shows that an understanding of propaganda and its mechanisms is essential for the preservation and protection of liberal democracies everywhere.

Jason Stanley is professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of Knowledge and Practical Interests,Language in Context, and Know How.


“”[T]he book crackles with brilliant insights and erudition, while also managing to explain the arcane preoccupations of analytic philosophy in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience.”Bookforum

How Propaganda Works deserves huge praise and should be read by anyone who cares about politics and language. Its trove of tools and insights is impossible to completely summarise here.”The National


“Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works is a novel and significant contribution that should revitalize political philosophy.”–Noam Chomsky

“Filled with compelling examples, this book examines what propaganda is and what threat bad propaganda poses for democracy. The case it makes—which is conceptual, normative, historical, and empirical—is persuasive and provocative. Stanley is tackling an important topic that many philosophers ignore but shouldn’t.”–Tommie Shelby, author of We Who Are Dark

“This ambitious book brings Stanley’s insights from epistemology and philosophy of language to bear on the self-masking role of propaganda in democracy. Generous use of concrete political applications enliven the book’s arguments and drive home the topic’s normative importance.”–Rae Langton, University of Cambridge

Table of Contents:

Preface IX
Introduction: The Problem of Propaganda 1
1 Propaganda in the History of Political Thought 27
2 Propaganda Defined 39
3 Propaganda in Liberal Democracy 81
4 Language as a Mechanism of Control 125
5 Ideology 178
6 Political Ideologies 223
7 The Ideology of Elites: A Case Study 269
Conclusion 292
Acknowledgments 295
Notes 305
Bibliography 335
Index 347



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