Walter Lippmann was a journalist whose views crystallise my current thinking about the way democracy is working and the role of we, The People, in contrast to the guys who are actually calling the shots. He was the most influential American publicist of 19th Century British Liberalism and defined this classed society in a modern framework for an American audience.
Society should, Lippmann argued, be divided into the great vulgar masses of a largely ignorant ‘public’ that is then steered by an elite or ‘special’ class, which Lippmann referred to as ‘the responsible men’ who would decide the terms of what he called ‘the national interest’. This elite would become the dedicated bureaucracy, to serve the interests of private power and wealth, but the truth of their responsibiity to the power of private wealth should never be revealed to the broader ignorant public. ‘They wouldn’t understand’. The general public must have the illusion that it is exerting democratic power and this illusion must be shaped by ‘the responsible men’ in what Lippmann referred to as ‘the manufacture of consent’.
He was writing well before the information revolution and social media and I present the entries from Wikipedia to see how relevant you think they are in this day and age when we should know everything yet are powerless to bring about change:
Lippmann saw the purpose of journalism as “intelligence work“. Within this role, journalists are a link between policymakers and the public. A journalist seeks facts from policymakers which he then transmits to citizens who form a public opinion. In this model, the information may be used to hold policymakers accountable to citizens. This theory was spawned by the industrial era and some critics argue the model needs rethinking in post-industrial societies.
Though a journalist himself, he did not assume that news and truth are synonymous. For Lippmann, the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” A journalist’s version of the truth is subjective and limited to how he constructs his reality. The news, therefore, is “imperfectly recorded” and too fragile to bear the charge as “an organ of direct democracy.”
To his mind, democratic ideals had deteriorated, voters were largely ignorant about issues and policies, they lacked the competence to participate in public life and cared little for participating in the political process. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann noted that the stability the government achieved during the patronage era of the 19th century was threatened by modern realities. He wrote that a “governing class” must rise to face the new challenges.
The basic problem of democracy, he wrote, was the accuracy of news and protection of sources. He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions. By seeing first, he argued, it is possible to sanitize polluted information. Lippmann argued that seeing through stereotypes (which he coined in this specific meaning) subjected us to partial truths. Lippmann called the notion of a public competent to direct public affairs a “false ideal.” He compared the political savvy of an average man to a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain.
On mass culture
Lippmann was an early and influential commentator on mass culture, notable for not criticizing or rejecting mass culture entirely, but discussing how it could be worked with to keep democracy functioning. In his first book on the subject, Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann said mass man functioned as a “bewildered herd” who must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” The elite class of intellectuals and experts were to be a machinery of knowledge to circumvent the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen”. This attitude was in line with contemporary socialist thinking.
Later, in The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann recognized that the class of experts were also, in most respects, outsiders to any particular problem, and hence, not capable of effective action. Philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) agreed with Lippmann’s assertions that the modern world was becoming too complex for every citizen to grasp all its aspects, but Dewey, unlike Lippmann, believed that the public (a composite of many “publics” within society) could form a “Great Community” that could become educated about issues, come to judgments and arrive at solutions to societal problems.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, Lippman became even more skeptical of the “guiding” class. In The Public Philosophy (1955), which took almost twenty years to complete, he presented a sophisticated argument that intellectual elites were undermining the framework of democracy. This book was very poorly received in liberal society.
Legacy: Almond–Lippmann consensus
A meeting of liberal intellectuals mainly from France and Germany organized in Paris in August 1938 by French philosopher Louis Rougier to discuss the ideas put forward by Lippmann in his work The Good Society (1937), Colloque Walter Lippmann was named after Walter Lippmann. Walter Lippmann House at Harvard University, which houses the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, is named after him too. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used one of Lippmann’s catch phrases—the “Manufacture of Consent”— for the title of their book, Manufacturing Consent, contains sections critical of Lippmann’s views about the media.
- Public opinion is volatile, shifting erratically in response to the most recent developments. Mass beliefs early in the 20th century were “too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent”
- Public opinion is incoherent, lacking an organized or a consistent structure to such an extent that the views of U.S. citizens could best be described as “nonattitudes”
- Public opinion is irrelevant to the policy-making process. Political leaders ignore public opinion because most Americans can neither “understand nor influence the very events upon which their lives and happiness are known to depend.”