Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works (2015) and
How Fascism Works (2018)
Krisis 42 (1): 144-152.
Review of
Propaganda, Politics, Philosophy: A Critical Review Essay on Jason
Stanley’s How Propaganda Works (2015) and How Fascism Works (2018)
Maarten van Tunen
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
Jason Stanley, Propaganda, Liberalism and Democracy,
Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory
Propaganda, Politics, Philosophy: A Critical Review Essay on Jason
Stanley’s How Propaganda Works (2015) and How Fascism Works (2018)
Maarten van Tunen
Ever since Plato and the Sophists argued about the relations between reason and rheto-
ric, the topic of political propaganda has been at the heart of the Western philosophical
tradition. Today, given the recent profusion of “misinformation” and “fake news”, the
topic is anything but diminished in importance. In his 2015 book How Propaganda
Works, Jason Stanley pursues a primarily philosophical investigation of the phenomenon
of propaganda in which he integrates a wide range of work from the elds of political
philosophy, analytical epistemology, philosophy of language, and the social sciences.
The book oers a thought-provoking analysis of how the phenomenon of propaganda
interacts with ideology, inequality, and democracy. However, while Stanley succeeds
in oering a timely analysis of some of the pressing dangers that contemporary liberal
democracies face, his book is less original and deeply ambiguous in its conceptual
taxonomy of propaganda.
Despite the relevance of the study of propaganda today, it has received little
attention in recent philosophical debates. In the rst chapter of his book, Stanley
explains this shallow academic state of the art by appealing to a distinction that has
become popular in recent moral and political philosophical discourse: the distinction
between “ideal” and “non-ideal” theory. The reason for the lack of scholarly philosoph-
ical interest in propaganda Stanley locates in the presently ourishing “conception of
normative political philosophy” of which the purpose is to describe “the normatively
ideal components of an ideal liberal democratic state” (2015, 28). As Stanley notes,
there is no propaganda in such an ideal state, where speech behaviour is presumed
to be cooperative. It is a consequence of the constraint to ideal theory in mainstream
moral and political philosophy – undoubtedly under the inuence of John Rawls’s
resurrection of the eld in the 1970s in an explicitly ideal theory fashion – that the
topic of political propaganda has disappeared from sight.
Stanley aims to oer a welcome antidote to this tendency: his purpose is to think
through what it entails to argue for the central social democratic ideals of freedom and
equality in our actually ill-ordered and structurally exploitative (hence “non-ideal”)
societies. As he rightly recognizes, “political philosophy without social theory involves
extreme idealization in the construction of its models” (2015, 31). As such, in Stanley’s
study of propaganda, it is the explicit aim to descend from the realm of ideal theory to
the real-world social and political facts of human speech that is so often propagandistic,
manipulative, deceitful, oppressive, or violent. In order to do so, he draws on the work
of analytical feminism, which he says “has laid the theoretical basis” (2015, xvi) for the
book, and critical race theory, to which he says he likewise owes “an enormous debt”
(2015, xix). Stanley’s aim to pursue a non-ideal theory makes of the book a praisewor-
thy initiative and – at least in its aspirations – a valuable intervention in contemporary
analytical political philosophy, which indeed largely continues to engage in ideal theory.
Despite this hopeful stage-setting, however, Stanley nonetheless seems to revert
to the practice of an ideal way of doing political philosophy in his ensuing analysis.
That is, he does think it is possible “to frame the problem of propaganda in terms of
the transition problem (2015, 29) – the problem within ideal political liberalism of “how
to move from an actually awed state guided incompletely by liberal democratic ideals
to an ideal liberal democratic state” (2015, 29). This problem, however, only looms for
ideal theorists and cannot be understood in inferential terms – this is one of the central
claims of Charles Mills in his inuential 2005 essay in which he criticizes ideal theory
(Mills 2005). So, while Stanley cites approvingly from Mills’s inuential castigation
of ideal theory, he fails to do justice to that very paper when it comes to the issue
of the interrelationship between the two approaches. After all, Mills argues that the
relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory is not inferential (and thus not to be
understood in terms of the transition problem). Instead, the revisionist enterprise of
non-ideal political philosophy – the project that substantively rethinks what it means
to argue for equal rights and freedoms in our structurally oppressive and exploitative
historical and political contexts – cannot be satised within the domain of ideal theory
as an extension of it (Mills 2005, 177).
This fallacy brings to the surface a deep tension in Stanley’s overall project. On
the one hand, it is his explicit aim to drive his energies towards non-ideal circumstances
in which practices of propaganda, manipulation, exclusion, and oppression are pervasive.
Yet, on the other hand, in his recourse to ultimately Kantian norms – distilled through
Rawls and Habermas – of liberalism and communication to account for the question of
why and how propaganda threatens our (nominal) liberal democracies, he turns out to
be much more conservative. Stanley subscribes to the traditional philosophical distinc-
tion between “objective claims of reason [and] biased and self-serving opinion” (2015,
xvi), and he adheres to the “truth-conditional, cognitivist picture” of language in his
conceptualization of propaganda (2015, 126). He holds that this picture gives us an
elegant account not only of what happens when communication succeeds, but also of
what happens when it fails, such as in the case of propagandistic speech. This is what
draws Stanley to the Rawlsian appeal to “reasonableness” as a norm that governs “public
reason” as a way to account for propaganda in liberal democracies (see chapter 3) and to
the Habermasian ideals of deliberative democratic deliberation to explain how perverted
language can be used as a propagandistic mechanism (see chapter 4).
It is, of course, true that Rawls rejected philosophical foundationalism in pursu-
ing a liberalism that is “political not metaphysical” and that Habermas put social theory
centre stage in the project of political philosophy. Nevertheless, these sources manifest
the ambiguity that runs through Stanley’s analysis: Rawls and Habermas are clearly ideal
theorists. It is well-known that Rawls’s central question in A Theory of Justice is “what
a perfectly just society would be like” (Rawls 1999, 8), and, analogously, Habermas’s
deliberative conception of democracy is built on the idea of unobstructed rational debate
between well-informed citizens. This debate takes place in what Habermas has called
the “ideal speech situation” in which only “the unforced force of the better argument”
(Habermas 2001, 94–95) will prevail. The critique of non-ideal theorists levelled against
these constrictions in the study of justice and democratic legitimacy is that they idealize
actual real-world human political and linguistic behaviour, thereby being counterpro-
ductive when it comes to their shared hopes, as politically engaged theorists, to achieve
concrete social justice and actual democratic debate. By forging his account of pro-
paganda on the ideal principles of liberalism and social democracy that undergird the
philosophies of Rawls and Habermas, Stanley makes himself vulnerable to the critique
of non-ideal theory with which he at least putatively sympathizes. He rst applauds
the critical principles of non-ideal philosophy, but then regresses to the old-fashioned
theoretical apparatus of ideal theory in his analysis of propaganda. Hence my main
critique is internal: he fails to practice what he preaches.
This ambiguous theoretical-methodological background has repercussions in
Stanley’s central analysis of propaganda. Today, this word has a clear pejorative conno-
tation. It may seem as if this moral connotation is exhibited in Stanley’s introductory
chapter, where he connects it to “manipulation” and “political rhetoric” (2015, 4), as
opposed to reasoned argumentation. Likewise, it seems to be in this fashion that he
writes that propaganda poses an “obstacle to the realization of liberal democratic ideals”
(2015, 19) and that he closes the book by stating his hope that his book will “play some
positive role” (2015, 294) in preventing propagandistic subversion of democratic ideals.
If one studies Stanley’s conceptual typology of propaganda carefully, however, one nds
that it does not allow solely for a negative connotation. He characterizes the practice of
political propaganda in general terms as “the employment of a political ideal against itself
(2015, xiii). But this denition does not say anything about the desirability of the ideal
involved. Stanley thus construes a conception of propaganda that is morally neutral,
thereby opening up the space for occurrences of good as well as bad propaganda, and as
he later conrms: “my characterization [of propaganda] is perfectly general” (2015, 41).
Suppose one must think of an instance of political propaganda that accords
with Stanley’s denition. In that case, one will probably come up with something like
an invocation of liberal and democratic ideals that are meant to disguise a practice that
is, in reality, illiberal and undemocratic: one which appeals to freedom in the service
of a goal that tends to undermine freedom covertly, for example. (Stanley gives the
example of an appeal to “scientic experts” in order to wrongly suggest that climate
science is awash in uncertainty; (2015, 60)). This is what Stanley demarcates as “the
most basic problem for democracy raided by propaganda”; that is, “the possibility that
the vocabulary of liberal democracy is used to mask an undemocratic reality” (2015,
11). But since Stanley’s characterization of propaganda is in itself perfectly general, it
allows for propagandistic practices that are corrosive not only of presumably attractive
ideals (such as freedom or equality) but also of presumably unattractive ideals (such as
obedience or domination).
Stanley surely is aware of this point, and to illustrate it, he narrates how W.E.B.
Du Bois calls on propaganda “to win the respect, empathy, and understanding of
whites” (2015, 38). Propaganda is understood here as an emotional mechanism that
bypasses reason (“rational deliberation” [p. 12], “the rational will” [p. 48], or “auton-
omous decision” [p. 49]). Additionally, he reproduces an interesting interpretation of
John Coltrane’s jazz version of the famous Christmas song “My Favorite Things” from
the lm The Sound of Music, which is described as an “iconic cinematic celebration
of whiteness” (2015, 64). Stanley writes that “Coltrane takes the song and gives it a
powerful subversive twist, presenting a white aesthetic ideal in a fashion that subverts
it to reveal Black experience and Black identity” (2015, 65). According to his own
denition, as he acknowledges, this is an instance of propaganda; Coltrane employs the
aesthetic ideal of whiteness against itself. As Stanley later writes about this example: “in
some sense, this is misleading” (2015, 114) and therefore propagandistic. This shows
how propaganda can be used for bad as well as for good purposes. To change people’s
minds, irrespective of whether they hold morally approbative or disapprobative ideals
in high esteem, sometimes some form of manipulation will be helpful. In Stanley’s
words, “It is hard to see how direct challenges to the ideals will be eective” (2015, 66)
and he argues, a fortiori, that in our non-ideal circumstances propagandistic rhetorical
strategies are even a prerequisite for achieving the liberal democratic ideals of freedom
and equality for all (2015, 115).
Stanley’s conceptualization of propaganda contrasts with what he sees as the
“classical sense” of propaganda, dened as “manipulation of the rational will to close o
debate” (2015, 48). By denition, this moral understanding of propaganda goes paired
with the idea that propagandistic speech violates the Kantian norms of discourse,
which consist of the assessment of reasons as the ultimate justifying source of knowl-
edge. But paradoxically, as I indicated, this is the model of normativity (or at least the
Habermasian version of it) which Stanley himself employs throughout his defence of
liberal and deliberative democratic communication. Stanley slides into murky waters
here. If there is good and bad propaganda, there is no a priori way to decide which
propagandistic practices we should condemn as morally bad and which should we praise
as morally good. Nevertheless, Stanley does try to distinguish between democratically
unacceptable propaganda (what he calls “demagoguery”) and democratically acceptable,
or even democracy-enhancing, propaganda (what he calls “civic rhetoric”) (2015, 82).
In his typology, propaganda undermines democracy if its purpose is to support what
he calls “awed ideologies” (2015, 5) and “awed ideological belief (2015, 179). This,
in turn, suggests that he believes that not all ideologies or ideological beliefs are awed,
and indeed, he holds that, like “propaganda, the notion of “ideology” is also morally
impartial. He thereby aims to delineate a revisionist concept of ideology which can be
both true and false. Contrary to how the concept of ideology came to be understood
in the Marxian “critical theory” tradition as perforce epistemically decient, Stanley
thus forges a revisionist conception of ideology as a set of beliefs, values, and norms
that can be both true and false. However, this only changes the question of how to
distinguish between good and bad propaganda into how we may decide what makes
certain ideologies and ideological beliefs awed.
Since Stanley characterizes ideological belief (both true and false) by “its resis-
tance to rational revision” (2015, 187), the criterion of correctness for an ideology is not
just the extent to which it resists bypassing deliberative ideals. Rather, Stanley seems to
believe that this criterion lies in the extent to which ideological belief either enhances
or erodes susceptibility to rational argumentation. As he pictures it: while pernicious
demagogic speech employs awed ideologies “to cut o rational deliberation and dis-
cussion” (2015, 47), civic rhetoric “can repair awed ideologies, potentially restoring
the possibility of self-knowledge and democratic deliberation” (2015, 5). The idea is that
whereas demagoguery decreases our susceptibility to the deliberative democratic norms
of discourse that consist of giving and asking for reasons, civic rhetoric increases this sus-
ceptibility. (As we have seen in the Coltrane-case, in our non-ideal circumstances, the
circumvention of rationality is even a necessity for the advancement of liberalism and
social democracy: “There is a structural problem in certain imperfectly realized liberal
democracies that necessitates civic rhetoric” (2015, 115)). The synthetic dependency of
the correctness of an ideological belief on our resulting susceptibility to reasons suggests
that Stanley believes that the knowledge about this correctness, if ever, comes only a
posteriori. But this renders his analysis self-contradicting, for the latter belief radically
contravenes the Kantian framework (in which Rawls and Habermas postulate their
theories) in which ideological belief and propagandistic speech are a priori violations of
the rational will. Stanley’s analysis begs the question here: he aims to defend the ideals
of liberalism and democracy by warning of the threat posed by harmful propaganda
(demagogic speech), which in turn is being warned about by appealing to the ideals of
liberalism and democracy.
It is my contention that at the heart of Stanley’s conceptual taxonomy there
is a fork in the road that he neglects. Either propaganda and ideology are understood
as non-moral phenomena, making them qua philosophical phenomena impossible to
pin down without circular reasoning – then, there is no fruitful way in which we can
distinguish between propaganda and ideology on the one hand and the use of reason on
the other. Or, the alternative route, adopting an understanding of propaganda and ideol-
ogy as pejorative terms for morally bad phenomena, which are so, then, on the Kantian
philosophical basis that renders propagandistic speech a moral violation because it is a
tool that by denition bypasses rationality. Stanley ambiguously shifts between these
alternatives: he does at least claim to employ the terms “propaganda” and “ideology”
as morally impartial, while simultaneously, paradoxically, in his delineation of what
distinguishes bad propaganda and awed ideological belief from good propaganda and
correct ideological belief, he relies on the principles of reasonableness and democratic
deliberation that preclude moral neutrality of these very phenomena. (It is interesting
to see, if only briey, what happens when we do justice to the supposed neutrality of
propaganda that Stanley initially purports to conceptualize. Then, the concept’s utility
disappears, for there would be no criterion to dierentiate between propaganda and the
use of reason. Perhaps the conceptual void of the novelty of his denition of propaganda
makes Stanley withdraw from it in his actual analysis).
For my present purposes it does not matter much that I believe the radical
contingency of our theorizing practices renders a strict philosophical dichotomy
between propaganda and rationality not very useful. (This is what initially made me
enthusiastic about Stanley’s revisionist denition of propaganda). It is beyond the scope
of this review to investigate the details of this revisionist belief, and where it leaves
us is in combatting moral cynicism, political irresponsibility, harmful ideologies, and
pernicious propaganda. As I said, my main critique addresses the internal inconsistency
in Stanley’s analysis. As it turns out, he does want to maintain a metaphysical distinction
between propaganda and the use of reason. He asserts that his book is “about the nature
of propaganda and propaganda generally, that is, about the metaphysics of propaganda”
(2015, 76). He seems to believe this is what the ultimate rationale of his book requires:
to map how propaganda works and, more particularly, how demagogic speech is pres-
ently threatening our (nominal) modern liberal democracies. Obviously, this is not an
original project; the old Greeks were already concerned about the endangerment of
political stability by the exploitation of people’s emotions. (This undergirds Plato’s con-
demnation of a democratic form of government). Stanley is well aware of this, and as he
admits: “[t]he argument of this book is not new” (2015, 192). Apart from situating the
discussion in the context of the present century by using interesting recent empirical
data and fascinating novel insights from the social sciences, Stanley contributes nothing
substantial to the more than two-thousand-year-old philosophical conversation on the
relations between reason and rhetoric.
Given the rarity of much-needed analysis of morally and politically signicant
real-world phenomena in recent academic discourse, the aspirations of Stanley’s project
are praiseworthy. Yet I am sceptical about how he pursues his analysis – that is, about
whether it is possible to do justice to the phenomena of propaganda and ideology as in
themselves morally neutral while at the same time cherishing the hope for construing a
“metaphysics of propaganda” that helps to prevent the occurrence of these phenomena
as subverting liberal and democratic ideals. It seems to me that we do not need Stanley’s
taxonomy of propaganda in order to be able to observe that societies with “awed social
structures give rise to awed ideological belief (2015, 179). This observation leads to
the bold but important and pressing – yet again not really original – political argument
that Stanley forges: that liberal democracy is so in name only if political equality is not
supported by a fairer distribution of wealth. Based on a rich body of recent subject
matter, especially from social psychology, Stanley persuasively argues that substantial
material inequality leads to epistemic barriers to acquiring knowledge and to false
legitimation narratives by the wealthy elite, thereby clearing the ground for eective
democracy-undermining propaganda.
This overt political argument also informs Stanley’s later work, in particular his
2018 book How Fascism Works. Most importantly, what he shows there is how fascist
politics is not dependent on an institutionalized self-identifying fascism. It thus decou-
ples a specic form of government from governing practices; “fascist politics does not
necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state” (2018, xiv). In this way Stanley is able to
argue how fascist tactics are increasingly being employed by leaders in many Western
countries that self-identify as democracies, in particular in the recent history of the
United States. Besides propaganda, the fascist tactics Stanley distinguishes include the
appeal to a mythic past, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and
order, sexual anxiety, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. What binds these
tactics, Stanley insists, is the idea of a politics of “us” versus “them”, or a politics of fear.
Beginning where he left o in How Propaganda Works, his book on fascism is more
social and political than philosophical, for it is written as an explicit warning against
fascism, that is, “in the hope of providing citizens with the critical tools to recognize the
dierence between legitimate tactics in liberal democratic politics on the one hand, and
invidious tactics of fascist politics on the other” (2018, xvii).
Stanley’s work is engaging, persuasive, and beautifully written. Still, let me
address two critical points about Stanley’s political analysis, before commenting on its
broader relationship to his previous work. First, given Stanley’s explicit contemporary
political orientation, it unfortunately lacks a treatment of the recent information tech-
nology revolution. Stanley discusses the fascist tactic of spreading conspiracy theories
and “fake news, but he neglects to reect on the vital inuence of the inltration of
big tech and social media which have transformed our social and political lives since
the onset of the present century. It is hard to see how one can understand the political
world today – in particular its (proto-)fascist tendencies – without seriously engaging
with the enormous role played in it by big tech and social media platforms. (By contrast,
in the same genre, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends (Runciman 2019) contains a
much more in-depth engagement with the information technology revolution).
Secondly, it remains unclear to what extent the fascist tactics Stanley investigates
strictly limit themselves to the realm of illiberal and anti-democratic politics. Consider,
for instance, Stanley’s comments on the fascist use of a mythic past as a weapon for
political gain, which he opposes to a liberal democratic treatment of history as “faithful
to the norm of truth” (2018, 19). Is this not somewhat naïve? Stanley’s preferred non-
ideal perspective would surely lead one to accept that there is at least a grain of truth in
the (in)famous slogan “history is written by the victors. (It is worth noting here that
Charles Mills’s critique of ideal theory entails, crucially, that the common narrative of
formal liberalism, and gender and racial equality, in fact contains a covert manifestation
of illiberalism, and gender and racial injustices, by silencing the histories of patriarchal
and colonial oppression in its theoretical apparatus). There is, of course, a dierence
between a biased portrayal of history – perhaps even unintentional and unconscious –
and a historical ction that is fully politicized. Nevertheless, Stanley could have done a
better job in making clear when a society’s dealings with its history turns from liberal to
illiberal. The same goes for his understanding of academic expertise as a force of liberal
democracy. The question arises, when does the defence of intellectualism turn into an
elitist and undemocratic faith in technocracy?
Yet again, we ought to commend Stanley’s generally practical orientation and his
engagement with the vicissitudes of our non-ideal, real-world politics. Moreover, Stanley
avoids running into explicit diculties precisely because he keeps a safe distance from
providing theoretical underpinnings of his ideal of liberal democratic legitimacy – there
is no mention of Rawls and Habermas in the book. Nevertheless, it is clear Stanley’s casti-
gation of fascism assumes an ideal theory framework. Take, for instance, Stanley’s descrip-
tion of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a powerful iteration and
expansion of liberal democratic understanding of personhood to include literally the
entire world community” (2015, xviii). The problems of ideal theory arise immediately.
Let me try to illustrate this by drawing attention to a historical episode about a for-
mative moment in the history preceding this Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After the First World War the victorious countries came together during the Paris Peace
Conference (1919-1920) to set the peace terms for the defeated powers. Famously, out
of the conference came the League of Nations. Although often considered to be a key
moment of moral progress in the West, the creation of the League cannot be separated
from what happened to the “racial equality clause” that the Japanese delegation proposed
to include in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The clause reads as follows:
The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the
High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nation-
als of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect
making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or
nationality. (Cited in Shimazu 1998, 20)
Because of the power play of the major so-called “Anglo-Saxon” powers – the American,
British, Australian, and South-African delegations – the clause was rejected. This is
telling: a clause that demands acceptance of one of the most elementary cornerstones of
the ideals of a liberal democracy – racial equality – was rejected by the countries that are
usually seen as those in the forefront of fostering liberal democratic politics. This raises
a lot of questions, but what is most pressing now is to recognize how the standard story
of moral progress of twentieth-century Western liberal democracy is deeply, and one
may say ideologically, biased. As Mills forcefully argues throughout his work, in order
to come to terms with how these racist practices have shaped our ideas of freedom,
equality, and democracy, the rst step is treating the contentious histories of these ideas
no longer as incidental aberrations in the process of realizing liberal democratic justice,
but as structural features of our very often illiberal and undemocratic and therefore
unjust status quo. This is also what the episode from the Paris Peace Conference makes
clear: the question of what it means to be free and equal in our so-called “liberal dem-
ocratic” but de facto illiberal and undemocratic world must take priority in construing
our anti-racism and our anti-fascism. Although Stanley intends to commit himself to
this emancipatory aim in his critical analyses of real-world propagandistic and fascist
practices, it is unclear what his picture of “liberal democratic personhood” in fact means.
Precisely this obscurity makes his analysis suspect of covertly relying on a standard ideal
picture of liberal democratic justice as the polar opposite of blatant fascism.
Another instance which reveals Stanley’s tacitly ideal understanding of liberal
democracy becomes manifest when we take a closer look at his seemingly uncontrover-
sial claim that “[i]n a healthy liberal democracy, language is a tool for information” (2018,
54). What use is there in insisting on the assertive function of language, given the actual
widespread perversion of this function through deceitful or manipulative speech behav-
iour? Instead, the question we should ask is not how language functions in a healthy (or
ideal) liberal democracy, as Stanley does, but what language does in our unhealthy and
non-ideal social and political lifeworld. Within non-ideal theory, the study of language
must not be (tacitly) constrained by assuming a counterfactual Habermasian ideal speech
situation, but instead it must focus on language as it in reality works, which is often to
distract, mislead, manipulate, and exclude. The general question for non-ideal theory
thus becomes: how do we foster freedom and equality for all given our widely ill-ordered
social, political, and linguistic behaviour? (We may point to an interesting, though so far
largely neglected, analogy here: within ideal theory, the neglect of the dimension of power
in relying on an ideal understanding of communicative behaviour mirrors the neglect
of the dimension of power in relying on an ideal understanding of political behaviour).
Returning to Stanley’s project, we may conclude that the critique inherent
in the framework of non-ideal theory makes clear that, in order to deliver what he
promises as an advocate of non-ideal philosophy, it is simply not enough to merely reiterate
an ideal picture of the nominal liberal democratic understanding of personhood in
contradistinction to the inegalitarian fascist understanding of personhood (see, e.g., also
(2018, 97)). Until the non-ideal project of asking what it means to be free and equal
in our often illiberal and undemocratic circumstances takes centre stage, Stanley’s tools,
which are meant to help us distinguish valid tactics in liberal democratic politics from
fascist politics, will do only a part of the job at best.
Let me end by underlining that in our contemporary context of widespread
cynicism in public and political debates, Stanley’s warning against how certain forms
of exploitation of ideals imperil our liberal and democratic institutions is welcome.
However, as we have seen, the urge to provide philosophical foundations for this
warning – in the tradition of Kant’s views of the norms of successful communication
as rational communication, thereby posing a categorical prohibition on the practice of
propaganda – commits him to an understanding of propaganda as inherently democ-
racy-undermining. This is directly opposed to his revisionist concept of propaganda
by which he himself tries to replace what he saw as this classical sense of propaganda.
Despite this ambiguity which runs through Stanley’s recent work, his aim to advance a
political philosophy that is socially informed merits praise. Though he remains faithful
to much of the traditional analytical philosophical principles in his metaphysical cod-
ication of propaganda and his general defence of liberal democracy against fascism,
his largely careful analysis of how invidious political practices erode our liberal and
democratic institutions is an impressive accomplishment. Therefore, notwithstanding
the conceptual problems embedded in the notion of “propaganda” that Stanley fails to
solve, anyone who wants to better understand our increasingly corrupt world of public
and political discourse would do well to read Stanley’s recent work.
Habermas, Jürgen. 2001. On the Pragmatics of Social
Interaction: Preliminary Studies in the Theory of
Communicative Action. Translated by Barbara
Fultner. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press.
Mills, Charles W. 2005. “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology.
Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 20:
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press.
Runciman, David. 2019. How Democracy Ends.
London: Profile Books.
Shimazu, Naoko. 1998. Japan, Race, and Equality:
The Racial Equality Proposal of 1919. London:
Stanley, Jason. 2015. How Propaganda Works.
Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
———. 2018. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us
and Them. London: Random House.
Maarten van Tunen holds MA degrees in the History
of Political Thought and Intellectual History and
in Philosophy. His research interests are in ethics,
political philosophy and the history of philosophy.
He is currently working at the University of
Amsterdam, where he is affiliated with the research
group Philosophy and Public Affairs.