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Penn State alumnus on democracy and reason

Thomas F. Brier, Jr., earned his J.D. from Penn State Law in 2017. After graduation, he served as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He is currently working as an Associate at Blank Rome LLP in Philadelphia. His book, "While Reason Slept" examines the relationship between democratic erosion and the declining belief in the power of reason.

Tom BrierThomas F. Brier, Jr., earned his J.D. from Penn State Law in 2017. After graduation, he served as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He is currently working as an Associate at Blank Rome LLP in Philadelphia. His book, "While Reason Slept" examines the relationship between democratic erosion and the declining belief in the power of reason. We invited him to write a post that expands on those themes.

Speaking to a crowd of young men at a Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, a 29-year-old Abraham Lincoln warned that “something of an ill-omen” was spreading across the country­­­ — a tendency to displace reason and the rule of law with chaos and violence. Echoing the Founders, Lincoln warned his audience that in times of turmoil, men of “towering” egos­ —“an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon” — were increasingly likely to seek and inherit positions of power.  It was in such times, Lincoln cautioned, that Americans must relearn the philosophies of the Revolution so that they may “appreciate the value of our free institutions.”  Indeed, Lincoln declared that the story of America’s birth should “be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read.”  Only then, Lincoln believed, could his generation defend against despotism and preserve America’s “proud fabric of freedom.”

To address the myriad challenges of the modern age, we would be wise to heed Lincoln’s advice.  An examination of the Founders’ debates about government and human nature reveals with remarkable clarity that the world as an idea of reason is not merely a fool’s fable — it is a practical imperative. George Washington, for instance, observed during his first annual address to Congress that “knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”  Benjamin Franklin similarly hoped that Americans would learn to avoid “consult[ing] Custom more than Reason,” and thereby elude “the Dangers and Inconveniences of blindly following the Footsteps of those who have gone before [them]...”  This moral commitment to the common good, in the words of Thomas Paine, requires one to “view things are they are, without regard to place or person.”  In other words, the only “religion” is “to do good.” 

The conundrum, of course, is that a commitment to reason is an onerous task. As the Founders learned from Montesquieu, fostering a genuine, learned concern for the common good requires “the whole power of democracy.”  Otherwise, private interests will replace the public good and power will be sought for its own sake.  

During the Constitutional Convention, the Founders debated at length whether human beings were capable of assuming such a heavy burden.  Alexander Hamilton, for example, stood before his colleagues and made an impassioned plea for an aristocratic government.  Echoing Thomas Hobbes, Hamilton argued that “most individuals” and “all public bodies” are governed by “the passions ... of avarice, ambition, [and] interest.”  Political prudence therefore demanded that “every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end, in all his actions, but private interest.  By this interest we must govern him, ... notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition.”  

In many ways, Hamilton has been vindicated over the past several decades. Indeed, had Hamilton lived in the twentieth century, his opinions would have been corroborated by the work of one Edward Bernays, the forefather of modern propaganda — or, as he called it, “the engineering of consent.”  

As an American psy-ops solider in World War I, Bernays —the nephew of Sigmund Freud — figured out how to “control and regiment the masses according to [his] will without their knowing about it.”  At the core of Bernays’s approach was the belief that human beings are fundamentally irrational.  Applied to the political realm, this meant creating campaigns that were “all side shows, all honors, all bombast, glitter and speeches.”  Policy ideas were intentionally cast aside in favor of “performance.”  Bernays’s approach was strikingly successful­; indeed, Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, and Eisenhower were all incredibly grateful for Bernays’s guidance. 

Bernays applied the same lessons in the private sphere. In 1929, he made cigarettes the symbol of the Women’s Suffrage Movement by convincing feminist leaders to smoke “Torches of Freedom ... as a protest against men’s inhumanity to women.”  In a matter of a few short years, the number of women smoking cigarettes had nearly doubled.  Reflecting on the incredible success of his efforts, Bernays wrote: “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media.”   

The Third Reich was grateful for Bernays’s insights as well. To fulfill Hitler’s vision of creating the Volksgemeinschaf — and ideal society occupied by pure Germans only — Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minster of Propaganda, implemented the lessons set forth in Bernays’s book, Crystalizing Public Opinion, to create a “führer cult” around Adolf Hitler.  As Bernays later recounted in his autobiography: “They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.” 

The impact of Bernays’s work continues to be felt today. In 2017, American venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who made a fortune as an early investor in Facebook, left the company after he discovered that Mark Zuckerberg had adopted Bernays’s psy-ops methods to keep users addicted to Facebook’s platform. “They have taken all the techniques of Edward Bernays and Joseph Goebbels,” McNamee said, “and they’ve mapped it onto an all-day product with highly personalized information to addict you.” It is “a persuasion engine unlike any created in human history.”

Democracy, as we know from the Founders, requires an unwavering commitment to reasoned debate and civil collaboration. Over the course of the past century, however, political and business leaders alike have sold Americans on ideas and products not by engaging in rational conversations about the merits of a particular proposition, but instead by employing Bernaysian tactics of mass manipulation.  

In my book, While Reason Slept, I offer a blueprint for recapturing the Founders’ goal of a virtuous, rational republic.  Using Socratic dialogue and the tools of persuasion set forth in the First Amendment, we must rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of the common good and the discipline of self-government — a commitment that begins first and foremost with education. “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society,” wrote Jefferson, “but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

We must prove to the Founders that reason can rule.  A study of their teachings reveals that democracy can succeed only if its citizens seek truth without fear of repercussion; love their community more than their capital; recognize their mistakes with forbearance; and have the audacity to fight for justice. If we do so, then in the final analysis, perhaps we can look back upon our efforts and say proudly: We are the New Generation — humbled by life’s lessons, patient in times of tribulation, guided by hope in the future, imbued with a spirit of service, and, most of all, dedicated to the pursuit of a great ideal.

“Brilliant and readable. Tom Brier gives an easy trot through history as he makes a compelling case for reason and education. His stories are fascinating and his passion infectious! A must read for those who want to use an argument grounded in reason to change the nature of political discourse.”
- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend