Over time, symbols take on lives of their own, and it is increasingly possible for leaders to employ a method of propaganda known as transfer to get people to agree to ideas and policies by associating them with those symbols. When done effectively, this causes the intended target or targets who hold the symbol in high esteem to transfer their feelings for it to the new idea or policy. Those using the symbol can then portray those who oppose them as opposing the symbol even when they may be more closely aligned with ideas first associated with that symbol.
How does this work in the real world? The best example of the use of transfer is with flags, and nobody in history did it better than Adolph Hitler. While the leadership of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was ardently anti-Semitic, the party’s main appeal was to those who were being hurt badly by inflation. This included farmers, teachers, small business owners, and the lower middle class generally. Such people were not necessarily friendly to German Jews, but their main concern was the economic impact the Treaty of Versailles. Genocide of Jews was not on their radar.
Once the Nazi Party rose to power, the power of the swastika combined with Hitler’s cult of personality served to render opposition to any of the Party’s goals opposition to Germany and support for its national humiliation in the wake of WW I. To be sure, there were other factors in play as time went on, such as the threat of violence against those speaking out in opposition to anything the party did, but the vigor with which its ends were pursued and the number of people willing to go along with them were driven in no small part because Hitler had effectively taken the anger of Germans toward the Treaty of Versailles, put that energy into love for and pride in a symbol, and then transferred that love and pride into support for an idea that had little to do with the reason people got behind the symbol in the first place.
The same tactics continue to be used today by governments and parties around the world. One could argue that the greatest modern use of transfer would be the use of the American flag, to get people to support the surveillance state. The Stamp Act, which rendered privacy in written communications a thing of the past, was one of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, yet somehow many have portrayed those who support such privacy today as anti-American. Of course, many other countries use their flags and other symbols to promote nationalism of their own brand.
The lesson to be learned here is that symbolism is extremely powerful. It can be used in many ways, for good and for evil. People must make a point to constantly be aware not just of the fact that it is being used but of how it is being used. Only then can they separate ideas from the symbols, evaluate them independently, and determine whether what they are being asked to support really is what they would be supporting.