Experts discuss the distorted impeachment debate at a propaganda forum — and how real debate can untangle it
Robert Mueller, Donald Trump (Photos: Screen captures)

“Would you be upset if the Democratic nominee called on China to help in the next presidential election?” That’s the concrete question we should ask ourselves about Robert Mueller's report and the issue of impeachment, according to University of California, Santa Cruz, social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis, speaking at a recent Zócalo Public Square event, “Is Propaganda Keeping Americans From Thinking for Themselves?

This was a week before President Trump’s interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, apparently welcoming foreign interference in the 2020 election. Impeachment wasn’t the ostensible subject of the event — which also featured Texas A&M historian of rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca and UCLA marketing scholar and psychologist Hal Hershfield — but it was never far from mind.

Not only did impeachment-related comments surface during the discussion, but both Pratkanis and Mercieca shared further observations with me afterwards, by email, phone and direct message. My preconception going in was that Trump’s repetitious claims of “no collusion” had shaped public perception in a way that Democrats, for a number of reasons, had not even begun to challenge, and that this was a problem for democracy even more than for Democrats. What did these experts think?

“There is currently a debate about what is in the best interest of each political party in terms of impeachment — whether it helps Trump to mobilize his base; whether or not the Democrats would gain or lose support if they go forward with impeachment,” Pratkanis told me afterward by email. “That is the wrong question. As citizens first, we should be asking: What is in the best interests of the Republic? Specifically: What are the rules we should all follow in an election? What is fair in terms of persuasion?”

Hence, the question he posed about the Democratic nominee seeking aid from the Chinese, and the one after that: “What steps should be taken right now to prevent that from happening?” Pratkanis said his answers include:

(a) Understanding how a foreign adversary attacked our election in 2016 using propaganda and cyber-warfare and to develop our defenses against future attacks and (b) Reinforcing our norms of citizenship which includes fairness and transparent process in our elections, part of reinforcing those norms involves holding accountable those who violate those norms.  This is what I meant by democratic virtú.

Pratkanis says he's not giving political advice, just trying to focus our attention. “We just got a foreign adversary basically determining our elections. Now what are we going to do? It's like being bombed in 9/11 or Pearl Harbor [and] just saying, well, okay, let's ignore that,” he said. It's the one thing we should be able to agree on and prioritize, “and the fact that is not happening is troublesome.”

Mercieca had related concerns. At the Zócalo event, she contrasted ancient Greek society, where citizens saw themselves as “officers of the government,” with America today, where “we don’t think of ourselves as having an office as citizens” but instead “act more as partisans than we do as citizens.”

I asked her, “How does one argue for impeachment as a constitutional necessity?" Especially since the conventional wisdom holds that it can only be an act of partisan politics.

“The citizens versus partisans thing is very important to me. It comes from my research in my first book, 'Founding Fictions,'” Mercieca told me. “I don't think that the calculus for impeachment should be whether or not it helps or hurts the Democratic Party in 2020. I think the question is about the preservation of the nation and whether or not Trump has possibly committed high crimes and misdemeanors and/or violated his oath of office,” she said.

“If the Democratic Party is thinking about its election chances rather than thinking about the stability of the nation, then the republic is already lost. Because it means that party interest has superseded the law.”

There’s the irony. Acting "nonpartisan" is the most partisan move the Democrats seem to have. Mercieca had more thoughts on citizenship, norms, accountability, fairness, and so on. But first I want to return to the beginning of the Zócalo event, where some important points were made about defining propaganda. There are various definitions, Hershfield noted, and in the broadest sense, propaganda “can actually help people do the things that they say they want to do.”

Pratkanis employs a specific definition: Propaganda is “a message that plays on your emotions and prejudices,” but also agreed it can be used for good. “You could raise fear about tooth decay, and maybe that will get somebody to go to the dentist.”

But there are two problems with propaganda, he went on, regardless of immediate benefits: First, there's a backlash when people feel manipulated, and second, “You're not getting a discussion of the issues. A democracy is founded on having deliberative persuasion, discussion, debate, negotiation, understanding the core issues that the nation faces. If I'm constantly appealing to your emotions, one after another, that debate's not happening.”

It’s partly a matter of eroded civic capacity, Mercieca said. “We fail to join organizations that teach us, or that used to teach us, democratic skills, democratic decision-making.” Communication departments like hers “have labs for civil discourse, where students learn how to organize processes for fair deliberative discussion,” she said. “So we can join organizations that teach this. The Kettering Foundation is a great one. They have civil issues forums and teach these skills, of how to design a process that's fair to all sides, that allows people to actually contribute to decision making that allows people a fair amount of time to talk and to reach consensus.”

Although such knowledge exists, it’s not widely dispersed. “Largely, we are taught to communicate as propagandists,” Mercieca said, and part of this is built into the social media world where "algorithms are designed to promote the most emotive, most outrageous content. The notifications that you get on your apps, those are designed to ping the dopamine receptors in your brain to get you addicted to having notifications."

What's more, she continued, "Sometimes those apps withhold those notifications, so you'll go back, over and over again, looking  for more positive feedback, because you're addicted to it." This reiterative process "literally trains you to speak as a propagandist on social media. It will only show your content if you’re outrageous.”

This is a level of social media dysfunction that goes far deeper than the problems that have drawn most attention since the 2016 election. It affects all sorts of communication, not just what’s political. And this is a world where Donald Trump excels Not as well as Barack Obama, certainly — who has 40 million more Twitter followers — but better than he does in running casinos, winning trade wars or getting his beloved wall built (much less getting Mexico to pay for it).

To illustrate what he meant by propaganda, Pratkanis cited the example of Nazi propagandist Fritz Hippler. In a Bill Moyers interview from 1984,“Hippler said that his role was to simplify, make it agreeable and entertaining, and then repeat, repeat, repeat." Pratkanis explained. That’s Trump’s Twitter feed in a nutshell.

“I distinguish propaganda (plays on emotions/prejudice; the Hippler approach) from other forms of persuasion, such as deliberative persuasion, debate, argument, discussion, dialogue, negotiation, conflict resolution, minority influence and thoughtful analysis,” Pratkanis told me afterwards. “This sort of persuasion can help develop insight into issues as well as build consensus. A republic and a democracy needs that latter form of persuasion.”

Mercieca echoed that view. “What Trump does isn't persuasion,” she told me. “It's compliance-gaining. It's propaganda.”

There’s a real downside to Trump’s reliance on propaganda, as Pratkanis points out. “Even if you agree with Trump's policy, his goal, you may say, ‘Wow, his means of getting there can come up short.’” Say you agree with him on the need to deal with China, he said. “But the way he puts tariffs on often inflicts more damage to the Midwest than it does to China. So this kind of simplifying has its cost in terms of understanding issues.”

Turning to the Democrats, Pratkanis quoted Will Rogers' famous wisecrack: “I don't belong to any organized party; I’m a Democrat,” pointing to the chaotic presidential campaign as an example. In fact, that’s only one part of the picture. Democrats are inherently less organized because they’re concerned with meeting the needs of a more diverse coalition, as political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins argued in “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats” (Salon review here).

There’s also something deeper to the asymmetry between Trump's excessive propaganda from Trump, and the deficit of other forms of persuasion from Democrats. In “The Republican Brain” (my review here), Chris Mooney argued that liberals inspired by the Enlightenment are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of human reason. Our brains are shaped more by the need to make persuasive arguments than to arrive at objective truth. Liberals tend to put fact-finding first with persuasive communication as an afterthought — as they have with their muddled messages about the Mueller report. While Trump was tweeting “No Collusion!” over and over again, the Democrats' main message has been, "We're fighting amongst ourselves."

It's not that liberals or Democrats are incapable of persuasion. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a master communicator, as were Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. Barbara Jordan and many others. But it’s not the primary everyday way they reach out to the world. As Pratkanis noted, “A democracy is founded on having deliberative persuasion, discussion, debate, negotiation, understanding the core issues that the nation faces.” Facts matter, to be sure, but they matter in a communicative context. That context itself is now under threat in a deeply inhospitable climate.

“We know what works and what we should do," Mercieca said, "but we're in another ‘age of catastrophe’ where we can't get a handle on how to conduct politics within so many shifts and changes to the other parts of life. Traditional leadership, trust, ways of communicating, the economy, migration, climate change, etc. are all destabilizing. Within that instability a group of people have emerged to try to take advantage of the chaos.” She means both the Trump current within American conservatism and the "right-wing populism" visible in all parts of the globe.

There are things we can do, both individually and collectively. At the Zócalo event, Mercieca advised being “super-vigilant” about propaganda in general, which can be difficult, since social media is designed to limit or discourage critical thinking. One helpful tool is to ask Cicero's classic question, “Cui bono?” (“Who profits?") of all the messages you receives.

When it comes to the question of impeachment, Mercieca said, the path of “super-vigilance" requires deciding for yourself whether Trump should face impeachment proceedings. "Don't let the news tell you. Don't let your party tell you. Read the Mueller report, read about Trump's financial dealings, and decide for yourself whether or not you think Trump has committed crimes worthy of impeachment.”

Later, she ticked through a list of things a citizen should do in a moment like this: “Gather information to make an informed decision, talk to their neighbors and friends to try to make sense of what is really happening (as much as that is possible), pay attention to credible news sources and research who best represent their interests and preferred policies, and plan to vote in 2020.” In addition, she said, “Citizens can work within political parties or campaigns, join nonprofit or nonpartisan issue groups, petition and protest.”

When it comes to the predicament of House Democrats, Mercieca has clear advice: Obsessing about appearances is misguided. "There is the accusation or appearance of partisanship and there are the facts,” she said. “If the republic is legitimately threatened, then the public relations about impeachment don't matter. If your house is on fire, you wouldn't worry about whether the fire department would think that your kitchen needs to be cleaned, would you? You'd just call the fire department and hope that you had a kitchen when the fire was put out.”

“There is a real danger with impeaching Trump," she continued. The danger that "he is defiant will not submit or acquiesce. He is an unaccountable leader (a dangerous demagogue) and if he is impeached he will stop at nothing. So, in a way, the republic is in danger either way.” That, too, is something Democrats could communicate more clearly and coherently about.

“If Democrats are trying to persuade the nation to support an impeachment inquiry, then they should lay out the standard for judging (what is impeachable) and prove that Trump either has met that threshold or that an impeachment inquiry is necessary to determine whether or not Trump has met that threshold,” Mercieca explained.

“They should repeat those messages (standard, evidence, judgment) and they should defend those messages,” she said. “They should not repeat Trump's frames or talking points,” an all-too-common failing. “They should use their media to amplify that message. They need to show an accumulation of the evidence against Trump,” she said, using the rhetorical term accumulatio,  defined by BYU's Silva Rhetoricae site as “Bringing together various points made throughout a speech and presenting them again in a forceful, climactic way. A blend of summary and climax.”

“Mueller provided the data,” she said. “He left the accumulatio to Congress.”

These questions of how to resolve dispute and debate go back to ancient Greece, as Mercieca noted at the Zócalo  event. In 2008, when George Will charged that Barack Obama's election on the basis of his persuasive skill "represents the final repudiation of the Founders' intentions regarding the selection, and hence the role, of presidents,” she argued otherwise. “The Founders feared corruption and instability, not oratory,” she wrote. “The Founders were excellent orators who prided themselves on their ability to persuade with republican dignity.”

Mercieca went on to say:

If the government is based upon the will of the people, then oratory is necessary to create community, negotiate difference, and resolve problems. Whenever we hear political observers like Mr. Will disparage “the popular art of oratory,” therefore, they are also dismissing popular rule.

Rhetoric is an art of storytelling, and the world is story-made, as I put it to Mercieca. If we ignore that, we can never build anything lasting, except by accident or grace.

“The world is definitely story-made, but stories aren't necessarily propaganda,” she replied. “Stories can be co-created, they can be dialogic."

She then a note of hope. “There may be more of a dialogue happening than it would appear. Maybe that is part of the delay with impeachment. It would certainly be more efficient to do it the propaganda route, but also less democratic.

“I see a conversation happening about impeachment. I see advocates for impeachment on Twitter. I see people urging people to read the Mueller Report. I see people urging hearings. I see people putting pressure on their representatives. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to work?”

Perhaps, then, the agonizing struggle involved in urging Congress to do its job needs to be seen in a larger time frame, as part of a multifaceted struggle to create a new narrative shaping America’s future — a struggle reflected in significant gains for progressives and liberals in general, as well as rising recognition of the need for profound structural reform along with dozens of more specific battles. Maybe we need some patience and long-term vision, fused with the fierce urgency of struggle.