We are witnessing, I believe, the collapse of a great modern project. The goal of this project was to form a democratic public, led by the most talented leaders and administered by enlightened public servants, but constituted by a deeply informed, engaged, and public-spirited citizenry.
To produce such citizens, journalists served an almost sacred role of supplying all the disparate members of the public with “disinterested” information. Without information and knowledge, democratic deliberations are impossible, and without such deliberations there is no substantive “public,” only congeries of individuals and groups.
For a century or more, public-spirited Americans have looked to an unbiased and professional class of journalists to play this indispensable role, arguing that we must get beyond partisanship, beyond interests, beyond partial understanding, in order to form a genuine public that is capable of self-governance.
Whatever success the fourth estate enjoyed with regard to these objectives during the twentieth century, Americans no longer believe such a class of public servants is possible, or perhaps even desirable. The great journalist and public philosopher Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 book Public Opinion, helps us understand the deeper problem underlying the crisis of journalism: democratic citizens cannot form a truly “public” opinion. At the level of the nation, public opinion is either manufactured or a phantom—in either case it is not the product of a knowledgeable citizenry engaged in an expansive act of deliberation.
One of the great defenders of the journalistic project, Lippmann’s fame in 1922 rested on his credentials as one of the young Progressive intellectuals who were forging a much more robust conception of a democratic “public.” His damning critique of this very enterprise, therefore, was shocking to many who confronted his argument—most famously John Dewey, who would eventually write a book in response, The Public and Its Problems. Today, however, Lippmann’s argument is even more powerful and persuasive, and revisiting it allows us to think afresh about the contemporary problem of public discourse.
Public Opinion begins in Plato’s cave. Shadows seem real, knowledge is impossible for those who remain in the cave, and those who escape to see things as they really are present a comic or frightening prospect for the many. Lippmann rejected the democratic teaching that a public can be enlightened, that a democracy on the scale of a nation can educate the citizens to be rational participants in policy or governance—and, most demoralizing of all for the Progressives he had recently abandoned, he penned one of the most devastating assaults on the idea of the citizens composing a community of purpose: a public dedicated to some higher public good.
The problem of democracy is the problem of knowledge. The dominant strain of democratic thought never acknowledged the problem, since its advocates assume the capacity of citizens to have the necessary knowledge to make reasonable judgments.
Lippmann associates this view of what he calls “the omnicompetent citizen” with Thomas Jefferson. Of course Jefferson spoke of a democracy on the scale of a village, where all citizens had sufficient knowledge about their environment to make reasonable choices in the context of their self-interest.
But Lippmann notes that at the national level, the founders never supposed that they had established a democracy, much less that they should rely on citizens, scattered in hamlets and towns across a vast and diverse nation, to make informed judgments. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, the superstitions of local democracy were applied to national politics, creating an unwarranted faith in the political wisdom of ordinary citizens and developing the decisive democratic force, called public opinion.
If public opinion is the prime power in democratic society and politics, then what is it? To define public opinion Lippmann contrasts the “world outside” with the “pictures in our heads.” The world outside is real enough and yet it is so vast and complicated that humans cannot see it as it is. Simple versions of the world, often of a comforting variety, provide us with “maps of the world” or “pictures in our heads” of how things are. “The pictures that are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters,” Lipmann writes.
And so while public opinion forms a false reality, our reactions affect the real environment of which the public has a distorted view. Under the best of circumstances, decision-makers have a huge task to gain a sufficiently cosmopolitan perspective to make rational choices based upon available information, but when, as in modern democracy, decisions depend heavily upon the influence of public opinion, drawn from almost exclusively provincial sources incapable of having the requisite information, rational policymaking is impossible.
Lippmann thus declares, in contrast to his Progressive colleagues and his own prior plea for preserving the source and purity of information upon which citizens depend, that the problem of modern democracy—the problem of knowledge—can never be solved by seeking to make citizens competent. It is the theory of democracy that is at fault—a theory that rests uncritically on a faith in the “omnicompetence” of the citizen.
Much of the brilliance of his book lies in the systematic destruction of this democratic faith—an analysis that is as damning today as it was in 1922. Among other things, Lippmann notes the speed of modern life that makes it impossible to make sense of “the great booming, buzzing confusion of the outer world” without recourse to a predetermined model or framework that allows one to filter the information that we confront. As he put it, “we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.”
How much can we reasonably expect from citizens who live busy lives, who must depend on distant sources for crucial information about the world where they live, and whose preparation for interpreting information is necessarily limited by time, skill, and training?
In order for citizens to have a reasonable hope of seeing the world as it is more clearly, they would have to digest detailed and precise reports on all manner of public matters. But citizens possess a very poor vocabulary for the task of analysis. Not only do they not possess the range of words appropriate to the task, but the tendency in any language to allow words to be generalized symbols of meanings, capable of diverse and even contradictory meanings among the readers, is exaggerated in democracies. And if democrats use words imprecisely, they operate with a very simple and false theory of causality. “The more untrained a mind,” wrote Lippmann, “the more readily it works out a theory that two things which catch its attention at the same time are causally connected.”
The weakness in the rational faculties of a democratic public make it vulnerable to propaganda and to concerted efforts by government or powerful private interests to shape the pictures in people’s heads—to manufacture public opinion. If those who seek to manufacture opinion know how to use symbols well and to craft a coherent accounting of selective facts, then the consumers of such propaganda have no access to resources by which to challenge the pictures presented to them.
Because the “public” is not capable of self-articulation or of deliberation, its role is limited but powerful. The public cannot choose leaders; it cannot choose policies; it cannot articulate a vision for the nation; it cannot in any meaningful way be creative. Rather the primary power of the public is to say “yes or no.” A small group of people choose the slate of possible leaders for the public’s selection. A few powerful people articulate a vision and set of policies that they present to the public, and the public can vote for or against such people. The public can say yes to the party in power, or it can side with the party that has not been in power. But the public is powerless to create its own vision.
In diagnosis, Public Opinion remains a masterpiece of analysis. But Lippmann’s attempt to outline a remedy is unconvincing, even to him: shortly thereafter he wrote a book rejecting it (see his The Phantom Public). It is, nonetheless, instructive in several ways.
For one, Lippmann’s longstanding defense of what one might call Machiavellian virtu finds subtle expression in this book on the failings of democratic theory. If propaganda by the Hearsts and Pulitzers dismayed Lippmann, he admired the manly virtue of great leaders who can offer a compelling vision, whose strength of will gives both direction and energy to public opinion. If Jeffersonianism is the problem of American democracy, could Hamiltonianism be a desirable alternative?
The crisis of contemporary journalism and the deeper problem of modern, mass democracy turns out to be, in large measure, a problem of democratic leadership. Perhaps. Lippmann’s presumption in 1922—and the presumption of the vast majority of opinion leaders ever since—was that the national scale of politics, the consolidation of power in the federal government, was irreversible. But there is an alternative that stresses a different scale of politics—an alternative that understands the United States to be a public of publics, where robust local governance gives to each place a distinctive public character and wherein citizens can possess the knowledge necessary to deliberate together.
The liberty of self-governing people is not safeguarded by a national corps of journalists who supply a single “public” with the knowledge to act as deliberating citizens. Rather the collapse of the journalistic myth is a necessary condition for fostering a grand diversity of acceptable beliefs, making consensus on a national scale challenging. In the interstices of a thousand competing views, a thousand publics, local knowledge becomes more important, provincial outlook more venerable, and diverse opinions well tolerated.
But more on that in my follow-up essay.
Ted McAllister is an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and a 2012-2013 Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.