How Do Political Leaders Manipulate The Public Sphere?



“Lack of critical ability seemed …conducive to fear”

(Cantril, 1982: p.189)


If the public sphere is composed of private people gathered together as a public to articulate the needs of society with the state, it requires the involvement of the ‘public’ in the running of the state with the needs of society at its base (Habermas, 1991: p.176). In this essay I will look at the role of politicians in the exploitation of the public sphere and the methods they employ in shaping it. First I will explore Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell’s ideas on the stereotype and propaganda. Secondly I will examine the theories developed by Jürgen Habermas on the public sphere, while also drawing on C. Wright Mills’ understanding of the Cultural Apparatus and Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Finally I will analyse Max Weber’s notion of charismatic leadership. I argue that in a democratic capitalist society the purity of this public sphere is vulnerable to contamination. When economic and political forces take hold, the public sphere can be manipulated through dishonest mechanisms to achieve the goals of the state or ruling class under the guise of public opinion.

Stereotype and Propaganda

In order to understand the methods of manipulation adopted by politicians today, we must first look at the relevant theories surrounding them. The American writer and newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann introduced the concept of the ‘Stereotype’ in his 1922 book ‘Public Opinion’. According to Lippmann (1922: p.15) we live in ‘pseudo-environments’ , or as Mills (2008: p.174) later put it ‘second-hand worlds’. These worlds are composed of thoughts and opinions not based on our personal experience, but on indirect experiences we have absorbed through external objects such as words, imagery or symbols that spontaneously appear in our minds. What we take as fact is not necessarily what is, but what we perceive to be facts. Our perceived reality is also warped by emotions, ego and the images we have of people and things that he calls ‘stereotypes’. People assign meanings to objects, and act upon these objects depending on what meanings they have for them (Lippmann, 1922: p.xvi). This pseudo-environment is created through our interactions with other people, be it with other members of the public or a politician on the television, it is both the effect and cause of stereotypes created within the public sphere. The stereotypes we unknowingly absorb, we also help spread.

The effect of this in real terms is that our behaviour is a response to this pseudo-environment of stereotypes and fictions, yet is acted out in the real world. Here we begin to see how malleable the public sphere can be for a person in a position of authority or stature. Donald Trump, for example, abuses existing racial stereotypes to create new falsities when he accuses all Mexicans of being rapists. David Cameron attempts to influence public opinion when he makes the connection between a lack of English language skills and extremism among Britain’s Muslim population. These tactics can help a politician garner votes or gain support for a particular policy. Figures of authority like these exploit people’s pseudo-environments by fabricating or strengthening stereotypes to achieve a desired solution in the real environment.


The reality is that the actual environment is far too complex for most citizens to comprehend. Reassembling our own reality based on stereotypes is much simpler (Lippmann, 1922: p.xvi). To a certain extent, Lippmann argues, people’s access to facts can be limited before any manipulation occurs through limitations of social contact, lack of attention to public affairs among others.   These limited messages build a pattern of stereotypes that combines to form public opinion that can then be applied and adopted as a ‘National Will’ or ‘Social Purpose’ of the state (Lippmann, 1922: p.30). A politician will know that a considerable number of the public are either ill-equipped to grasp or uninterested in the full complexity of the world around them and so use stereotypes to provide a more tangible understanding of a situation for the public. This of course is based on falsehoods, but can and does affect the lives of people and public policy.

The notion of the authentic message is where we can see an opportunity for the politician to enjoy some creative freedom. The public, according to Lippmann (1922: p.14) trust what is considered an authentic messenger. This can be in the form of a newspaper, a radio report or a respected individual. As a result, public opinion can be easily formed and manipulated due to the trust the public have in the authentic message or messenger . With the exception of those who are capable of critical discourse or who are simply opposed to his or her politics, the politician will be seen by many as a trusted supplier of information.


Once stereotypes are formed it paves the way for their use for a specific purpose. In his 1927 essay “The Theory of Political Propaganda,” Lasswell (1927: pp.627-8) defines propaganda as the “management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.” Collective attitudes are an array of individual acts carried out based on patterns of valuation and signs that have an abstract significance. Significant symbols can include simple gestures using the face or body or sophisticated gestures using pen or voice. Lasswell says that all cultural groups have “vested values” and the object meant to arouse hostility must be presented as a threat to these values. The person, state or politician is now presented with a vehicle from which he or she can manoeuvre public opinion by arranging and rearranging symbols to express attitudes. We see this in party literature, television interviews or live debates. One British National Party leaflet for example uses an image of a white, Union Jack-clad child being crucified on a Christian cross to portray the ‘negative’ effect immigration is having on Britain. The use of religious and nationalist symbols provokes a reaction in some who wish to defend or protect these ‘values’.


Whereas deliberation is a search for a solution to a problem, the propagandist searches for means to evoke a specific solution. He presents an object in the public sphere or ‘culture’ so that certain attitudes will mobilise towards it; be it a person, group or policy to acquire such a solution. The propagandist will then strengthen the attitudes favourable to his purpose, reverse the attitudes hostile to it and attract the indifferent (Lasswell, 1927: p.629). With this range of techniques and the many means of public exposure, be it face to face or through the media, the politician has the tools to manufacture and manage attitudes towards a specific public opinion.

The Public Sphere, The Cultural Apparatus & Hegemony

Habermas’ 1962 book ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’ sought to examine what the ‘public’ is and what power it has in a representative democracy. He argues that the public sphere, begun as a forum for rational discourse, is the source of public opinion required to legitimise authority in a democracy (Rutherford, 2000). However the Public Sphere deformed, as Habermas puts it, due to the advance of social welfare, the growth of cultural industries and the evolution of large private industries. The fantasy of the public sphere was maintained but only to give approval to the decisions of political leaders while public discourse had declined. Large newspapers driven by profit and aided by politicians transformed the press into an operator of manipulation and a mouthpiece for the elite (Habermas, 1991: p.185). This misuse of publicity erodes the public sphere. Here Habermas agrees with Lasswell in saying propaganda manages attitudes or views, provides authoritative options and creates political theatre (Habermas, 1991: p.245). Rather critically in the case of the politician’s role in this manipulation, the writer argues that “showy-pomp” and “staged display” are tactics utilised to profess control and privilege (Habermas, 1991: 195 & p.206).


The American Sociologist C. Wright Mills shared many of the same views on the Public Sphere as Habermas, although he devised the term ‘The Cultural Apparatus’ in 1963 to describe the network of artistic, intellectual and scientific institutions it comprises of. He also shares Lippmann’s view of the pseudo-environment, and that people will only believe something if it comes from an authoritative source or authentic messenger such as the national broadcast or an official announcement (Mills, 2008: p.175). In Mills’ explanation of this cultural apparatus he identifies more explicitly the link between politics and culture as Habermas did in the Public Sphere. Many artists, intellectuals and scientists are either involved directly or indirectly in politics. Known as ‘cultural workmen’ some are politically relevant due to the cultural work they do despite not having an active role or interest in the politics they’re promoting or politics in general (Mills, 2008: p.27). A scientist’s work may be used for military, economic or political purpose, or an artist’s work for propaganda. The cultural apparatus is dominated by the orders of the institutions encompassing it, and in turn the politicians and bureaucrats associated with it. The public have been woven so deep into this fabric through years of work and education that political choices aren’t viewed necessary or important. What this shows us is that the manipulation of the public sphere reaches further back into people’s lives and even before we are aware of the existence of politics this extrinsic force has dug deep into our mental psyche.

Mills believed there is an overlap of culture and authority that involves the ideological use of cultural products and of cultural workmen in order to legitimate power and justify decisions and policies. Institutional authority can also facilitate the bureaucratic use of culture for the needs of the establishment, and Mills even stresses the relationship between culture and authority as an “essential feature” of any establishment. This can place the politician in a position of power and control over ‘culture’ where he ironically should have no authority being involved in. Transactions between the two may include money, career and privilege, but perhaps the most significant exchange is that of ‘prestige’. Cultural prestige strengthens power, exerts seemingly unopposable authority and affords dignity to the cultural workmen associated with this authority. In this way, Mills writes, the cultural work carried out in this apparatus creates a “climate of opinion” which is merely referring the work and taste of the designers of cultural and political opinion. Definitions of reality and taste are established in culture, and are officially managed by control and if needs be, coercion. With regard to public debate, only particular views or opinions are permitted and the terms of debate are officially decided, indoctrinated and enforced. The worlds of art, science and education have drawn its cultural workmen into a subordinate position under the dominating institutions of the capitalist economy and nationalist state. This close relationship is a tool to exert greater cultural control and influence over the public sphere as a whole. Furthermore politicians that promote the increased capitalisation of the state help commercialise culture to such an extent that art, science and education is now about production, and empowers the state rather than society (Mills and Summers, 2008).

turner prize 1984 invitation

Antonio Gramsci’s theories on hegemony echo some of Habermas and Mills’ beliefs regarding the public sphere. He viewed the capitalist state as two overlapping spheres of political and civil society, ruling through force and consent respectively. Gramsci describes the bourgeois hegemony present in civil society as something reproduced in cultural life through media, educational and religious institutions from which to manufacture consent. This idea also resonates with Lippmann’s explanation of the ‘authentic messenger’. His idea of the ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle sought to find an alternative to what was considered normal or authentic ideas in the dominant society and that knowledge is a social invention that legitimises social systems (Heywood, 1994: pp.100-101). We see politicians speak at universities and at religious institutions for Christmas masses or military commemorations. This association with cultural institutions strengthen their relations with institutional authority, provides them with the ‘authentic’ platform from which to manufacture consent and broadens their cultural influence within the public sphere as a whole.


Charismatic Leadership

In Max Weber’s essay “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule” published in 1958, the author identified three categories of reasoning to explain people’s belief in the legitimacy of authority. Classified as Legal, Traditional and Charismatic authority, a ruler or rulers will generally fall into one of these three categories in an explanation of their superiority and right to rule. The most relevant in examining a politician’s role in a representational democracy is of course, the authority of the charismatic leader.   Weber describes the charismatic leader as an extraordinary individual, perhaps with heroic, divine or superhuman qualities. These qualities are subjective of course; whereas a supporter of David Cameron may disagree with the politics of Nigel Farage and vice versa, it would be wrong to contest either lacked charisma. The endearing effect this has on the public creates respect, loyalty and trust of that person. In the case of an elected leader, the members of the public who voted for this person have bestowed their trust in them. This obedient relationship between follower and leader has an essential role to play in the strength of this form of leadership such that his or her absence may potentially, in the follower’s mind, result in the dissolution of power and order. The leader is “value-neutral” and so not to be assumed to be always a commendable individual. Followers may be obedient and respectful to the leader’s authority while not always believing or supporting, and in some cases challenge him (Tucker, 1968: pp.735-736). This is perhaps a more realistic and appropriate viewpoint to adopt when examining democratic leaders today. Nonetheless so often we can confuse charisma for honesty and good intention, and are fooled into trust.

By its nature, however, charismatic authority wavers. A charismatic leader should reinforce this charisma every now and then by demonstrating it to his or her followers using “signs” or “proof” (Weber, 1946: p.248). When not posing for photos displaying his masculinity, Vladimir Putin will regularly take to the stage to defend his nation or attack others. Benjamin Netanyahu pays regular visits to the United States to remind US Conservatives of their responsibility to combat terrorism by supporting Israel. These public displays of authority and command reinvigorate support to a large extent.  Be it religion or politics, he or she dismisses the rules of old in in turn for change, professing themselves to the people as a revolutionary force. Tucker echoes a familiar rhetoric we hear in contemporary politics when he writes that a leader must demonstrate leadership qualities in the “summoning (of) people to join in a movement for change” (Robert, 1968: pp.737-738). We repeatedly hear politicians adopt the word ‘change’ approaching election time; Obama, Trump, the UK Labour Party to name a few. This generic term appeals to the masses who perhaps aren’t certain of what exactly they want changed, but when used with charisma appears to be a positive, exciting and revolutionary prospect.


In the public sphere private individuals combine as a public to address the needs of society in a state. In a representative democracy elected officials are given the responsibility to represent the public in the governance of the state. With the growth of capitalism however the bourgeois public sphere began to disintegrate. As described in this essay the decline of critical thinking and rational discourse combined with the growth in cultural industries and large private interests transformed the public sphere into a very different machine. The line between culture and politics became blurred and persons of authority began to exploit this relationship to mould culture and shape public opinion for private profit rather than the good of society. At the centre of this dishonesty stands the politician (not all, of course). Using simple and accessible stereotypes, he or she can indirectly form ‘fictions’ in the minds of the susceptible public via the media, news reports or any other authentic source . Combined with the right propaganda, collective attitudes can be managed and public opinion controlled. The resultant of this could be a change of policy, an elected leader, or a commitment to war; all based perhaps, on falsitites or half-truths. Despite their perceived prestige and charisma, the role of the politician in the capitalist society is not necessarily one of high esteem and virtue, but merely a performer in the political theatre complicit in the manipulation of the public sphere.




Cantril, H., 1982. The Invasion From Mars: A Study In The Psychology Of Panic. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Habermas, J., 1991. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: MIT.

Heywood, A., 1994. Political Ideas and Concepts: An Introduction, London: Macmillan.

Lippmann, W., 1922. Public Opinion. New York: Macmillan.

Mills, C. Wright. Summers, John. The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Rutherford, P., 2000. Endless Propaganda: The Advertising of Public Goods. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Weber, M., 1946. Essays in Sociology, trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.


Journal Articles/Essays:

Lasswell, H., 1927. The Theory of Political Propaganda. The American Political Science Review, Vol 21, Issue 03, pp.627-631.

Robert C. T., 1968. The Theory of Charismatic Leadership in Daedalus Vol. 97, No. 3, Philosophers and Kings: Studies in Leadership, pp.731-756.



“Jurgen Habermas and the Public Sphere”, accessed Friday 22 April 2016,

“Walter Lippmann and the stereotype: The World outside and the Pictures in our heads”, accessed on 22 April 2016,