Beware the coming propaganda juggernaut

The public's money is already being spent to sell privatization -- one P.R. firm is being paid $1.8 million by the Social Security Administration.

Topics: Karl Rove, Social Security,

The dimensions of the conservative campaign to destroy Social Security — and dismantle the New Deal — are now heaving into view. Determined to achieve the victory that has eluded them for more than 70 years, George W. Bush’s aides and allies are building a very big, very ugly propaganda juggernaut.

In strategy and tactics, this massive new creation already reflects designs traditionally employed by the Republicans under Karl Rove, whether they are promoting a war, electing a president or merely seeking to pass (or defeat) a piece of legislation.

What remains uncertain, for the moment, is the extent to which the White House will deploy government-sponsored propaganda to win this struggle. Will it misuse public money — including, ironically, the proceeds of Social Security taxes — for its partisan deconstruction project? And while ostensibly “independent” groups boast that they will spend tens of millions on the privatization crusade, that may not be enough to overcome growing popular resistance to Bush’s effort.

The president himself has been campaigning vigorously for his “plan,” as have his surrogates. But we now know that the Bush administration regularly employs less transparent and more deceptive techniques to manipulate opinion. In pursuit of the president’s political goals, federal agencies have hired pundits with public funds — creating bogus news stories that appear on television — and the administration has permitted at least one fake news organization to infiltrate the White House press corps.

Are Bush appointees in the Social Security Administration concocting a similar propaganda effort to promote privatization? Reports last month in the Washington Post and the New York Times suggested that they are quietly doing just that. The newspapers obtained copies of a “national strategic communications plan” and a “communications/marketing tactical plan” prepared by SSA officials. Those documents indicate that the agency will place messages about the system’s “solvency” in traditional media, as well as in “outreach” efforts to consumers at “big-box stores” and “farmers markets.”

You Might Also Like

Evidently, the idea is to use the credibility of the Social Security Administration itself to undermine people’s confidence in the system. After all, the majority of Americans won’t necessarily believe arguments for privatization and against Social Security that emanate from Republican and business front groups. They are far more likely to respond to a warning from the most successful and efficient agency in the government.

Exactly what Bush’s minions at the SSA have been up to, aside from writing strategy plans, isn’t clear yet. To find out, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal public interest group, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the SSA last month. Sloan asked for “records of any contacts between the agency and outside public affairs firms,” notably including any dealings with Ketchum and Fleishman-Hillard — the Washington P.R. giants recently implicated in the administration’s pundit payola and news management scandals. Public records show that the SSA already has entered into a $1.8 million consulting contract with Fleishman-Hillard.

The Social Security administrators don’t seem eager to disclose their public relations spending. So far, Sloan has received no response at all from the SSA officials who handle FOIA requests, although the 20-day legal deadline for an answer has passed. This week she filed suit against the agency in federal district court in Washington, demanding that the appropriate records be turned over to her.

The news that has leaked out about the SSA’s public information campaign suggests that messages are being coordinated somewhere. The would-be privatizers of the Social Security system, whether in government or out, have begun by amplifying the “crisis” atmosphere and irrational fears of “bankruptcy” that right-wing groups and politicians have encouraged for many years now. They have lined up phony grass-roots organizations financed by corporate largesse, in this case a retread of an old Richard Viguerie fundraising scam formerly known as United Seniors Association, which was recently renamed USA Next. (As Talking Points Memo revealed Wednesday, USA Next has been operating from the offices of a direct-mail firm that also works for the Republican National Committee — in other words, for Karl Rove.)

The messaging is characteristic Rove-speak. At USA Next, they are testing divisive cultural jabs against their political adversaries, such as the weird Internet ad that sought to tar the American Association of Retired Persons with support for gay marriage. They are also floating the accusation that their opponents lack patriotism, by falsely suggesting that the huge retiree group “doesn’t support veterans.” They have hired professional smear artists for the nastiest attacks, including consultants who worked for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth last year.

And of course, the would-be privatizers are preparing to blanket the airwaves with misleading commercials sponsored by major business lobbies, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Wall Street’s Club for Growth. Those interests regard a privatized social insurance and pension system as a potential bonanza in contracts and fees — as well as a historic ideological triumph over progressive values.

And how cleverly ironic the Rove Republicans would be to underwrite their partisan deconstruction project by raiding the public Treasury — and using Americans’ own payroll taxes to undermine their retirement security.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>