The Ideology Process

excerpted from the book

The Powers That Be

by G. William Domhoff

Vintage Books, 1978



The ideology process consists of the numerous methods through which members of the power elite attempt to shape the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of the underlying population. It is within this process that the power elite tries to create, disseminate and reinforce a set of attitudes and values that assure Americans that the United States is, for all its alleged defects, the best of all possible worlds... Free and open discussion are claimed to be the hallmarks of the process, but past experience shows that its leaders will utilize deceit and violence in order to combat individuals or organizations which espouse attitudes and opinions that threaten the power and privileges of the ruling class.

The ideology process is necessary because public opinion does not naturally and automatically agree with the opinions of the power elite. The experiences of ordinary people on the job and in their daily lives often lead them to harbor private attitudes and to formulate personal opinions very different from those necessary for the ready acceptance of policies favored by the power elite. If such attitudes and opinions were to be publicly discussed and developed into alternative policies and new political strategies, the functioning of the special-interest, policy-planning and candidate-selection processes might be impaired, thereby threatening the economic relationships and governmental supports upon which the ruling class is based. Without the ideology process, a vague and amorphous public opinion-which often must be cajoled into accepting power-elite policies-might turn into a hardened class consciousness that opposed the ruling-class viewpoint at every turn.

In order to prevent the development of attitudes and opinions contrary to the interests of the ruling class, leaders within the ideology process attempt to build upon and reinforce the underlying principles of the American system. Academically speaking, these underlying principles are called laissez-faire liberalism, and they have enjoyed a near-monopoly of American political thought since at least the beginnings of the republic. The principles emphasize individualism, free enterprise, competition, equality of opportunity and a minimum of reliance upon government in carrying out the affairs of society. Their roots in the thinking of the greatest liberal philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-Locke, Hume, Montesquieu and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers-are long since lost from sight. Articulated for Americans by the founding fathers as part of the nation's revolutionary struggle with England, these values are enshrined in the basic documents of the nation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Popularly speaking, the values of laissez-faire liberalism are known to most citizens of the United States as "good Amercanism." "Americanism"-including the all-important component of nationalism-is the world view or ideology of the United States. It is the complex set of rationales and rationalizations through which Americans interpret the world and justify their role within it. If they can be convinced that some policy or action is somehow part of this emotion-laden body of beliefs, they are likely to support it. Because everything must be done in the name of Americanism, the organizations that make up the ideology network strive to become the arbiters of which attitudes and opinions are good Americanism, and which are "un-American." They struggle to define for everyone what policies are in the "national interest' and to identify those policies with Americanism.

Not every issue is explicitly argued under the labels "American" and "un-American." Sometimes the argument is shaped in terms of specific aspects of Americanism. To be "practical," for example, is thought to be typically American. Thus, any idea that is not liked by leaders within the ideology process is branded as "theoretical" or "utopian," i.e., "un-American." An unacceptable idea also may be labeled as "foreign," which implies that it is derived from one or another "European philosopher," who are believed to be "impractical" and "utopian" thinkers.

One of the most important goals of the ideology network is to influence public schools, churches and voluntary associations set up by blue- and white-collar workers. To that end, organizations within the network have developed numerous links to these institutions. However, the middle-level organizations themselves are not part of the ideology network. Rather, they are relatively autonomous arenas within which the power elite must constantly contend with spokespersons of other social strata and political critics of the economic system. To assume otherwise would be to overlook the considerable conflict which takes place in many of these institutions and to deny any independence to other social strata.

Operating at the center of the ideology process are the same corporations, foundations and policy-planning groups that are part of the policy-formation process. In the case of the ideology network, however, these organizations link not only to government-as in the policy process-but to a large dissemination network which includes middle-class discussion groups, advertising agencies, public relations firms, corporate-financed advertising councils, special committees created to influence single issues and parts of the mass media. With the exception of the efforts through the mass media, which are intended to influence everyone, most of the organizations within the ideology network focus their attention on what are called the "attentive public." The attentive public are those people with college degrees and professional occupations who, due to their status and visibility, can be critical in shaping the opinions of the general public.

The way in which the policy process and the ideology process differ, even though the same organizations are at the center of both, is shown clearly in the work of the War and Peace study groups of the Council on Foreign Relations. Although those groups concentrated on formulating a set of policies to integrate a postwar international economy dominated by the United States, they also concerned themselves with the problem of how to generate public support for these programs. As one of the groups wrote in July, 1941, the "formulation of a statement of war aims for propaganda purposes is very different from formulation of one defining the true national interest." The same group prepared the following statement for government officials:

If war aims are stated which seem to be concerned solely with Anglo-American imperialism, they will offer little to people in the rest of the world, and will be vulnerable to Nazi counterpromises. Such aims would also strengthen the most reactionary elements in the United States and the British Empire. The interests of other peoples should be stressed, not only those of Europe, but also of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This would have a better propaganda effect.

Based on this concern, leaders within the council made suggestions about what should be contained in a document stating United States war aims. The statement which ultimately issued from the government was the Atlantic Charter of August, 1941. President Roosevelt's chief advisor on the document was a council member who was close to the War and Peace project, Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles. The charter spoke in terms of freedom, equality, prosperity and peace, but was very vague about American economic interests. The contrast between the economic and political aims which council leaders saw as "the true national interest" and the lofty generalities of the Atlantic Charter nicely define the difference between the policy and ideology processes. It also makes clear why two different networks are necessary for carrying the often-conflicting messages.

The ideology network is too big to describe completely. There are organizations which do public relations and education in virtually every issue area, in addition to organizations that do more general work. At its point of direct contact with the general public, the ideology network is extremely diverse and diffuse. The following sections can provide only selected examples from parts of this wide-ranging network.

Shaping Opinion on Foreign Affairs

The way in which the ideology network functions is most readily apparent in the all-important area of foreign affairs. At the center of the network is the major policy-discussion group for foreign policy, the Council on Foreign Relations. The council itself does very little to influence public opinion directly. It publishes Foreign Affairs, the most prestigious journal in the field, and books which come out of its discussion groups. However, these publications make no attempt to reach the general public. They are primarily for consumption within the foreign policy establishment.

For local elites, the council sponsors Committees on Foreign Relations in over thirty cities around the country. These committees meet about once a month to hear speakers provided by the council or the government. The aim of this program is to provide local leaders with information and legitimacy in the area of foreign affairs so they may function as opinion leaders on foreign-policy issues. As a 1951 council report explained:

In speaking of public enlightenment, it is well to bear in mind that the Council has chosen as its function the enlightenment of the leaders of opinion. These, in turn, each in his own sphere, spread the knowledge gained here [Committees on Foreign Relations] in ever-widening circles.

The Committees on Foreign Relations were formed in the late 1930's with the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. According to the council member who had the major responsibility for organizing them, they quickly made their mark by playing "a unique role in preparing the nation for a bipartisan foreign policy in the fateful years that lay ahead." Since that time they also have been involved in shaping public opinion on such crucial policy issues as the Marshall Plan and the recognition of the People's Republic of China.

The most important organization involved in shaping public opinion on foreign affairs is the Foreign Policy Association. It has an intensive program of literature and discussion groups to reach the "attentive public" of upper-middle-class professionals, academics and students. It sponsors a Great Decisions program and publishes the Headline Series pamphlets. It compiles foreign policy briefings that are sent to all incumbents and candidates for Congress. It attempts to get its material on radio programs and into extension courses, and it works closely with local World Affairs Councils to provide speakers and written material. The Foreign Policy Association is closely linked with the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Shoup and Minter, 42 percent of its directors for 1972 were members of the council. Leaders within the power elite understand the complementary relationship of the two organizations. A council director of the 1930's wrote that the FPA had "breadth of influence," while the CFR had "depth." He saw the FPA as providing one of the "channel-ways of expression" that was necessary to attain "the support of the electorate." A former president of the council explained to Shoup and Minter that the Committees on Foreign Relations attempted to reach top-level leaders, whereas the Foreign Policy Association attracted the "League of Women Voters type."

The council and the association, in turn, are linked to other opinion-molding organizations influential in foreign affairs. One is the American Assembly, which sponsors discussion groups around the country on a variety of issues. Another is the United Nations Association. There also are foreign affairs institutes at major universities which provide books and speakers that reflect the perspectives of the power elite on foreign policy.

The established organizations are supplemented when the need arises by special committees which focus on specific issues. One of the biggest efforts along this line was the Committee for the Marshall Plan, formed in 1947 to combat isolationists on the right wing. Chairing the committee was lawyer Henry L. Stimson, a former Secretary of War and Secretary of State who had been a council member since the 1920's. Five of the seven-member executive committee of the committee were affiliated with the council; the other two were labor leaders. The committee included as members 300 "prominent citizens" from every part of the country. Working with $150,000 in private contributions, it ran an all-out promotional campaign:

Regional Committees were promptly organized, the cooperation of scores of national organizations enlisted, and relevant publications given wide circulation. The committee promoted broad news and editorial coverage in metropolitan newspapers, set up a speakers' bureau, and employed a news agency which arranged for press releases, a special mat service for small town and country newspapers, and national and local radio broadcasts.

In addition to its media barrage, the committee circulated petitions in every congressional district, and then sent the results to the individual representatives. It also had an office in Washington to keep in contact with Congress and to help prepare supportive testimony for appearances before legislative committees.

The foreign-policy branch of the ideology network plays its most crucial role through its close involvement with the Executive branch of the federal government. Several studies of public opinion in the area of foreign policy suggest that the President and other foreign-policy decision-makers are the greatest influence on this type of opinion. Political analyst Samuel Lubell provided a clear example of the President's central role in this area by means of interviews with a wide range of people shortly after the Russian Sputnik was launched in the late 1950's:

. . . especially striking was how closely the public's reactions corresponded to the explanatory 'line" which was coming from the White House.... In talking about Sputnik, most people tended to paraphrase what Eisenhower himself had said.... In no community did I find any tendency on the part of the public to look for leadership to anyone else-to their newspapers, or radio commentators, to Congressmen, or to men of science.

On foreign policy, the ideology network has been quite successful in shaping public opinion. Working through the White House, the State Department and the Department of Defense, and controlling most of the sources of information, the power elite has very few challenges on this issue. Political scientist James N. Rosenau concludes that the overwhelming majority of people are seldom aware of foreign-policy issues, read little about them and get what information they have from the mass media. Another political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, comes to similar conclusions from case studies of military and defense policies. He finds the public-opinion poll evidence against any determinative influence by public opinion so "overwhelming" that "even a wide margin of error would not invalidate the conclusions drawn from them."

The one foreign-policy issue where public opinion may appear to have become independent from the President and other opinion leaders was the war in Vietnam. Even here, however, changes in foreign policy and the opinions of political leaders seem to have had a greater effect on public opinion than public opinion had on foreign policy. For example, until the bombing of Hanoi and began in late spring 1966, the public was split 50 50 on the question of bombing. When asked in July, 1966, after the bombing began, if "the administration is more right or more wrong in bombing Hanoi and Haiphong," 85 percent favored the bombing, while only 15 percent opposed it. Conversely, a majority (51 percent) opposed a bombing halt in March, 1968, but when asked one month later if they approved or disapproved of a decision President Johnson had made in the interim to stop the bombing of North Vietnam, only 26 percent disagreed with the President. Sixty-four percent agreed with the President and 10 percent had no opinion. College-educated adults and people of younger age groups were most likely to show this "follower effect," that is, a change in opinion shortly after a presidential initiative. Thus, it seems unlikely that public opinion had any great influence on American decisions concerning Vietnam. Despite the strong protests against the war by college students on large university campuses, public opinion in general tended to follow the initiatives of the President and the opinions of other decision-makers and party leaders.

American foreign policy is not conducted without conflict and constraint. Most of this conflict, however, is due to the actions of other nations and to disagreements between moderates and ultraconservatives within the power elite. Because it builds on the deep-seated feelings of nationalism and patriotism that are the sine qua non of a modern nation, the ideology network has been able to function quite successfully in the critical area of foreign policy.


Advertising in the Public Interest

Advertising is everywhere in the United States. There is no escaping it. Most of it goes in one ear and out the other-or so we think. Advertising, as we know, is used by corporations primarily to sell specific products. But it can be used to sell the system as well.

Many corporations attempt to sell the free-enterprise system through what is called institutional advertising. Instead of talking about their product, they tell what they have done to benefit local communities, schools or service organizations. Other corporations promote a good image of themselves by sponsoring programs on public television, providing funds for local charities, or donating services to community organizations.

The most pervasive and systematic use of advertising by the ideology network can be seen in the functioning of the Advertising Council. Formed during World War II to help the war effort, it is a big-business organization which has done billions of dollars of public-interest advertising in its thirty-five years of existence. The council's war effort was judged so successful in promoting the image of corporate business that it was continued in the postwar period as an agency to support Red Cross, United Fund, conservation, population control, urban renewal, religion in American life and other campaigns which its corporate-dominated boards and advisory committees determine to be in the public interest. Perhaps its best-known figure in the past was Smokey the Bear.

The Advertising Council, with an annual budget of only $2 million, each year places about $460 million worth of free advertising on radio and television, in magazines and newspapers, and on billboards and public buses. After the council leaders decide on which campaigns to endorse, the specifics of the program are given to one or another Madison Avenue advertising agency which does the work without charge.

Most council campaigns seem relatively innocuous and in a public interest that nobody would dispute. However, as Glenn K. Hirsch's detailed study of these campaigns shows, even these programs have an ideological slant. For example, the council's ecology ads do not point the finger at corporations or automobiles as the prime cause of a dirty environment. They suggest instead that "People start pollution, people can stop it," thereby putting the responsibility on individuals. A special subcommittee of the council's Industry Advisory Committee gave very explicit instructions as to how this ad campaign should be formulated. It wrote: "The committee emphasized that the [advertisements] should stress that each of us must be made to recognize that each of us contributes to pollution, and therefore everyone bears the responsibility. Thus, the campaign was geared to detect growing criticism of the corporate role in pollution, as well as to how corporate concern about the environment.

The Latest Function of the Ideology Process

Despite the best efforts of public-relations experts, advertising agents, industrial psychologists, media consultants and numerous other cultural technicians, the tens of millions of dollars spent each year by corporations, foundations and policy groups on the molding of public opinion have not been able to bring about hearty endorsement of all power-elite policies by a majority of the underlying population. After years of effort, for example, there is still "economic illiteracy" that sometimes manifests itself in hostility to the corporate order.

The inability of the ideology network to engineer wholehearted consent reveals the limits on that process, limits that are imposed by the class situation of the general populace and the opposing opinions advocated by trade unionists, liberals, socialists and ultraconservatives. However, the continuing ideological conflict within the nation does not mean that the ideology network has failed in its task. Although it has not been able to bring about active acceptance of all power-elite policies and perspectives, it has been able to ensure that opposing opinions have remained isolated, suspect and only partially developed. As one sociologist notes, "The hegemonic process does not create a value consensus but confusion, fragmentation, and inconsistency in belief systems." Thus, the most important role of the ideology network may be in its ability to help ensure that an alternative view does not consolidate to replace the resigned acquiescence and disinterest that are found by pollsters and survey researchers to permeate the political and economic consciousness of Americans at the lower levels of the socioeconomic ladder. What Hirsch noted in relation to the latent function of the Advertising Council is applicable to the ideology network as a whole:

In order to preserve ideological hegemony, it is only necessary for the ruling group to reinforce dominant values and at the same time prevent the dissemination of opinion that effectively challenges the basic -) assumptions of the society. Public knowledge of inequality and injustice isn't so damaging as long as these perceptions are not drawn together into a coherent, opposing ideology.

But the effects of the ideology network also go to a deeper and more subtle level. Even though many people do not accept the overt messages in the ads, booklets and speeches emanating from the ideology network, they often unwittingly accept the covert message that their problems lie in their own personal inadequacies. Liberal ideology, with its strong emphasis on individuality and personal responsibility, not only rewards the successful, it blames the victims. As psychologist William Ryan has shown, even the most well-meaning of political liberals have contributed to the development of a set of system-serving rationalizations which downplay the role of social forces and social relations in explaining social problems in the United States. Educational failure, teen-age pregnancies, black unrest-and other phenomena which are best understood in terms of the way our class system operates-are turned into reproaches of the victims for their alleged failure to correct personal defects and take advantage of the opportunities provided them.

The campaign against economic illiteracy is a good example of Ryan's general point. Although the campaign failed to eliminate negative opinions about corporate capitalism, it succeeded in presenting the problem as one of "illiteracy," a cardinal sin in a country where everyone supposedly has the opportunity to be literate if they will but avail themselves of it. The Advertising Council even offered a free booklet to correct this personal defect.

If you did not write away for this booklet, that is, if you chose to remain an economic illiterate, then you should be ashamed of yourself and remain silent in economic debates. That is the underlying message of the campaign against economic illiteracy.

Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, through in-depth interviews with working people in Boston, have provided a sensitive social-psychological account of how liberal ideology leaves working people with a paralyzing self-blame for their personal "failures," even though they know the social system is not fair to them. Sennett and Cobb have captured the way in which liberal ideology both gives Americans the hope of individual fulfillment and entraps them psychologically within a confining class structure that makes it very difficult to realize that fulfillment or think about changing the social system:

Workingmen intellectually reject the idea that endless opportunity exists for the competent. And yet, the institutions of class force them to apply the idea to themselves: If I don't escape being part of the woodwork, it's because I didn't develop my powers enough. Thus, talk about how arbitrary a class society's reward system is will be greeted with general agreement-with the proviso that in my own case I should have made more of myself.

Sennett and Cobb then suggest that this self-blame is intimately related to questions of social change. Self-blame is important in understanding the reluctant acquiescence of wage earners in an unjust system:

Once that proviso that in my own case I should have made more of myself is added, challenging class institutions becomes saddled with the agonizing question, Who am I to make the challenge? To speak of American workers as having been "bought off' by the system or adopting the same conservative values as middle-class suburban managers and professionals, is to miss all the complexity of their silence and to have no way of accounting for the intensity of pent-up feeling that pours out when workingpeople do challenge higher authority.

The double message of liberal ideology is what gives more potency than meets the eye to the power-elite network which disseminates that ideology. Those who do not believe the overt messages they hear from it are nonetheless left with a feeling that they are somehow to blame for their doubts and frustrations. The power elite benefits either way-active acceptance of the system by middle-status people who attribute their relative success to their wonderful personal abilities, or resigned acquiescence by ordinary workingpeople who secretly think of themselves as failures. The result is the perpetuation of a social system, based in principle upon equality and democratic process, which rewards a few with great wealth while punishing the vast majority with a life of unnecessary insecurity and anxiety.

The Enforcement of Ideology

The pervasiveness of liberal ideology can be overstated. Not everyone in the nation has been reduced to resigned acquiescence or personal grumbling. There are people who speak out in a clear fashion against the failures of the social system and advocate solutions to the inequities they perceive. Such people are dealt with through the enforcement aspect of the ideology process, thereby demonstrating to less vocal people that there are costs to active opposition.

The attempt to enforce an ideological consensus is carried out in a variety of ways that include pressure, intimidation and violence. Those who are outspoken in their challenge to one or another of the main tenets of the American ideology may be passed over for promotions or fired from their jobs. They may be excluded from social groups or criticized in the mass media. If they get too far outside the consensus, they are harassed and spied upon by government agencies, as in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., and numerous antiwar activists. If they form political groups, these groups may be infiltrated and disrupted.

The repressive power of the ruling class may or may not be the "basic reality" of the state in capitalist society, as most Marxists assert. But even if they overstate their case, as is believed by those theorists who emphasize the patriotic and ideological basis of the state, the fact remains that leaders within the American ruling class have turned loose strikebreakers, the police, the FBI and the CIA on trade-union organizers, civil-rights activists, antiwar protesters and left-wing political leaders, sometimes murdering them in the process. These actions are part of the ideology process, and they suggest that the power elite will use the most drastic of methods to defend its position.

... the ruling class has been able to dominate government and the underlying population throughout the twentieth century ... but, the working-class political organization that might put an end to class domination in corporate America is not yet in sight.

The Powers That Be

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