Review- Steel, “Walter Lippmann and the American Century”

Ronald Steel, “Walter Lippmann and the American Century” (1980) – I’m interested in Walter Lippmann as a homegrown example of anti-democratic thought. People will plotz if you describe him as a fascist or a reactionary, and they’d have some reason to- Lippmann was a consummate liberal, so much so that the forerunner to the ur-neoliberal gathering, the Mont Pelerin Society, was originally called the Colloque Walter Lippmann. But he partook of a project similar to that of such forerunners of fascism as the Italian elitist school of critics of democracy- analyzing the weak points of mass democracy in the context of a rapidly changing, growing, and ever more complex society. He was the guy who introduced the study of “public opinion” into American discourse, complete with inventing our use of the word “stereotype” to mean what the average man had in his head instead of thoughts. Lippmann, like the erstwhile liberals in the Italian elitist school (and the Fabian socialists he associated with), believed that society needed to be run by experts, who could dispassionately take in the whole of society scientifically. Who were these experts? Well, mostly they looked a lot like Lippmann and his friends.

Biographer Ronald Steel appears to be interested in Walter Lippmann primarily because of Lippmann’s wide range of friends and associates, which included a dozen-odd presidents and numerous major political figures in America and across the Atlantic. More than Lippmann the thinker, he’s interested in Lippmann the institution of Atlantic establishment liberalism. We get analyses of Lippmann’s books- it’s a thick biography. But we get a lot more of Lippmann’s career as a journalist and the figures with whom it brought him into contact. This makes sense- that’s where the emphasis and the drama of Lippmann’s life lay. From helping Woodrow Wilson lay out the Fourteen Points to breaking with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, Lippmann was there for a lot of the high (and low) points of drama in the titular “American century.”

Steel lays all this out admirably enough but it can’t help but replicate Lippmann’s own shallowness and to a degree, his elitism. From youth as a moderately rich NYC brat and Harvard wunderkind, Lippmann’s thought was in the service of the “best” people, even when he was notionally a socialist as a youth. “Best” here was determined not (directly) by hereditary status or wealth — after all, Steel and other Lippmann-involved people would remind us, he was no simple reactionary — but by intelligence and “seriousness” as defined by Harvard people, more or less. There was no idea that Lippmann really believed in, just a class whose interest he defended. This gives his back and forth on the issues of the day — from big government proponent to New Deal opponent, from neutrality-booster to war hawk and back again any number of times over a half-century — a unity it would otherwise lack.

Moreover, Lippmann wasn’t a major decisionmaker himself. He was a behind the scenes guy at best, recommending people to other people, and more often an observer and shaper of (mostly elite) opinion. So he wasn’t stuck with many decisions. This winds up giving the narrative of the book the character of one damn thing after another with little consequence, as Lippmann’s calculation of who represented the sort of elite he had in mind and what they should be up to shifted, and his relationships shifted with them. If I didn’t have a background in twentieth century history, a lot of it would be meaningless- who cares what Newton Baker or Bernard Baruch or Dean Acheson thought of things or what people thought of them? Well, I do, a little. But I care a lot less about that and more about how Lippmann’s ideas and worldview came to be and came to become influential, which this book is less strong on. ***

Review- Steel, “Walter Lippmann and the American Century”

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