Review- Lippmann, “Public Opinion”

Walter Lippmann, “Public Opinion” (1922) – Walter Lippmann created the op-ed writer as we know him. He was a sort of proto-Tom Friedman: newspaper columnist, author of bestselling nonfiction books, influencer of politicians. Though usually, a “proto” is supposed to be less than the later version, and Lippmann wasn’t as embarassingly silly, stupid, and bad at writing as Tom Friedman. Friedman describes forces beyond his (extremely limited) comprehension; Lippmann made a play, a not entirely unsuccessful one, at both portraying world-changing forces and shaping them himself.

In “Public Opinion,” Lippmann is coming from his experience working for the State Department during World War One, having taken part in what could be called the information side of the war (and just as importantly, the postwar peacemaking). The world, he announces, has become complicated, vastly complicated, so complicated no one can really understand it. At best, they understand a “pseudo-environment” composed of stereotypes (he was the first to use the word as it’s currently used). This is a problem, because human action still affects the real environment, not just people’s pseudo-environments.

Lippmann was writing for a general, if educated, readership and so takes his time laying all of this out, with examples (many of them drawn from the war or the peace process) and considering the case in it’s different facets, etc. Then he eases in to his attack on democracy, or, anyway, democratic theory. Democratic theory, he states, is based on the idea that everyone has access to the knowledge they need to make decisions. If this was ever true, Lippmann averrs, it’s definitely untrue now in our increasingly complex world. Lippmann depicts democratic theorists as hand-waving issues of complexity away by relying on “the human heart” to make the right decisions. I think Lippmann is about a quarter right here, both in terms of his depiction of democratic theory (resting largely on the American Founding Fathers, not the most notably democratic bunch) and his assessment of the knowledge problem. Democrats/republicans weren’t as unaware of the issue as Lippmann depicts; they went a long way towards trying to solve the problem through universal public education. For another thing, the republican notion of relying on virtue — or “the human heart” as Lippmann derisively puts it — didn’t come out of pre-modern somnolence, it came out of turbulence and chaos in places and times like Renaissance Italy, Civil War-era England, Revolution-era America. The idea, greatly simplified, was that fate and chance throw up all kinds of shit at you, and you’re better off having the inner resources to cope rather than try to have unique tools to meet every unpredictable situation. And these thinkers, from Machiavelli on down, knew that virtue could be a slender reed against the storms of chance and complexity.

But consider the other options! For Lippmann, the answer to the problems of governance in the midst of complexity lay in the creation of official fact-finding bureaux manned by the best experts and the “manufacture of consent” (a phrase he coined). You need the right people with the right amount of power, and they need to use modern media techniques to put them over to the people (Lippmann was a critic of democracy but knew it was here to stay). Where to find these people, Lippmann doesn’t say- he seems to assume the reader knows, and that the answer would be “people like Lippmann and his Harvard friends.” So, essentially, rule by universities, like a certain portion of the right’s nightmares. You don’t need to buy in to alt-right talk of a sinister university-based “Cathedral” to see the problems here. For one thing, nowhere in his system does Lippmann actually say that education is the way out of the pseudo-environment trap. If it was, the answer would be (and has been taken to be by generations of liberals) enhanced universal education. But if that’s not it — if even the educated operate according to stereotype and pseudo-environment — then who educates the educators? Where do the experts come from? How can we assess their expertise?

Like his spawn on contemporary op-ed pages, Lippmann was more of a condenser and expresser of elite opinion than he was a creative thinker (though again, he was much more creatively capable and competent at expression than his descendants). He leaves these massive lacunae in his work, but one gets the idea that’s almost intentional. Making too specific of a sketch of the expert-ocracy wouldn’t give his friends in government space to work. In many respects, Lippmann’s expert boards exist in the federal government today, just with less power than Lippmann would have given them. They are, like every other expression of power, public and private, ultimately dependent on political will and guided by political considerations. As it turns out, power isn’t reducible to expertise, though there’s always a buyer for people who promise ways to bypass the human element of power relations. Lippmann is an important part of a long liberal tradition promising to steer elites between the Scylla of popular uprising and the Charybdis of authoritarianism through the application of superior technique/knowledge. Sometimes, this even works, though it’s hard to see how today. ***

Review- Lippmann, “Public Opinion”

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