In a wonderful little essay on Calvin Coolidge (Calvin Coolidge: Puritanism de Luxe) written in 1926, Walter Lippmann described the president as having mastered the “technique of anti-propaganda” by sapping public interest in government, by deflating enthusiasm for programs, projects, and political dreams coming from Washington. The Democrats of his time worked hard to whip up passions for policies, programs, for politics generally—but it was “Mr. Coolidge’s skill in destroying issues.”
Reading this essay today, in the inferno of contemporary political debate, I began to wonder if finding a leader who is capable of what Lippmann called “anti-propaganda” might not be helpful. As you ponder the possibilities, you might read this one paragraph from Lippmann’s essay.
“Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for the soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge’s inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.”
Most successful politicians use propaganda (as Lippmann employed the word) to create enough popular wind to form a political hurricane. The anti-propagandist seeks instead to rob the politician of the public wind that churns Washington, makes political fortunes, and, often, lays waste to existing political structures.