In political and governmental communication, the line between spin and propaganda can be pale and indistinct, but there is a line. Spin generally means pushing facts that put your person or your issue in the best light. Nearly every retail pitch inherently uses spin to sell a product or service. Nearly every politician or organization promoting themselves or their point of view can recite a litany of their accomplishments or the searing logic of agreeing with them on this or that. That’s spin. And, for the most part, spin accentuates the positive without mentioning any of the less attractive counterpoints.
Propaganda, on the other hand, frequently blows by accentuating the positive and jumps right to flat out lying. While spin involves a one-sided recitation of facts, propaganda is not bound by facts in any way. If facts don’t support the case you’re trying to build, just make stuff up. And propaganda, more often than not, is 100% negative, attacking an individual or group who support a point of view that doesn’t comport with the your views or interests.
Seldom has pure propaganda been used with more devastating effect than the recent campaign over gun control issues in Congress. The National Rifle Association’s willingness and facility with lying about anything that might reduce the slaughter of innocent people by being shot has always been striking. But rarely has a national organization turned its back so completely on its previous positions, ignored the clear and overwhelming sentiment of the American people in general and its own paying membership in particular, and been so willing to depart so totally from facts.
The NRA’s propaganda campaign, which started in earnest during the battle to pass an assault weapons ban in Congress 20 years ago, has been effective both in the long term and short. In the long term, predictions of an apocalyptic national confiscation of firearms have made generations of otherwise well-adjusted Americans afraid of their own elected officials. In the shorter term, the NRA’s fierce reputation for reeking electoral vengeance on anyone who dares to disagree has made generations of elected officials afraid for their own re-elections. And evidently, hidden somewhere in the Constitution, it states that our elected officials’ most sacred responsibility is to get re-elected.
The NRA decided that there’s a secret agenda to register and then confiscate every weapon from every private citizen. They’ve never explained exactly why the American government — which has demonstrated a penchant for major systematic political and philosophical change every eight years or so — would launch such an un-American move. They’ve never specified who it is that would go door-to-door across the country confiscating America’s 300-million privately-owned weapons. They’ve never explained where all these weapons would be taken or kept. I mean — that’s a lot of guns!
But, the NRA hasn’t had to explain anything. They just keep saying it. And over time, the suspicions they’ve planted and fertilized have taken root and flourished, particularly in Southern and Western states, and in more rural areas throughout the country.
Last year, I figured the near clinical insanity of their accusations would become apparent to the most casual observer when NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre claimed that the absolutely incontrovertible proof of the Obama Administration’s commitment to gun confiscation in a second term was that no-one had ever mentioned such a thing in the first term — or any other time. Seriously?
But for outright lying, the NRA outdid itself this year. When somewhere between 88 and 92% of the public favor expanding background checks on gun purchases to cover gun show and Internet purchases, approximately 40% of gun sales, the NRA claimed background checks wouldn’t stop anyone from purchasing a gun except law abiding citizens.
However, as John Adams said, “Facts though are stubborn things,” and the facts are that from 1994, when the Brady Gun Safety Act went into effect, through 2010, background checks stopped 2,079,000 applications for firearms transfer through licensed firearm dealers. In 2010 alone, about 73,000 applications were denied by the FBI and about 80,000 by state and local agencies. 47% of the FBI denials were because of felony convictions or because the applicant was a fugitive from justice; 31% of the state and local denials were to convicted or indicted felons.
That means more than 2 million gun sales to people I’d rather not have firearms were prevented. How that only prevents law abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional rights I do not understand.
But the liberating thing about using propaganda is that the truth is no obstacle. In the NRA’s case, the organization can continue to lie with absolute impunity and without consequences. They have a numerically significant audience predisposed to believe the most paranoid accusations about the government of the United States, and they have a solid base of our elected Members of the Congress of the United States who are too terrified to object.
And this solidifies the National Rifle Association’s status as what Mr. LaPierre calls, “the largest civil rights organization in the world.”
Dave Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years, writing speeches for elected officials and candidates, creating media in more than 200 political campaigns, working for six years as a Communications Director in the Clinton Administration and then nine years in the U.S. House.