On Public Opinion

Walter Lippmann was notoriously skeptical of “the people.”

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist was all too familiar with the art of propaganda, with the ease with which elites could shape so-called “public opinion.”

In 1920, Lippmann – who had worked for the “intelligence section” of the U.S. government during the first World War – published a 42-page study on “A Test of the News” with collaborator Charles Merz.

“A sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news,” they argued, and yet there is “a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs.”

That doubt doesn’t seem to have diminished any in the last hundred years.

Civic theory generally imagines an ideal citizen to be one who actively seeks out the news and possesses the sophistication to stay non-biasedly informed of current events. But debate over the practically of that ideal is moot if even such an ideal citizen cannot gain access to accurate and unbiased news.

Lippmann and Merz sought to empirically measure the quality of the news by examining over three thousand articles published the esteemed New York Times during the Russian Revolution (1917-1920).

What they found was disheartening:

From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all. Yet on the face of the evidence there is no reason to charge a conspiracy by Americans. They can fairly be charged with boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions with a downright lack of common sense.

Whether they were “giving the public what it wants” or creating a public that took what it got, is beside the point. They were performing the supreme duty in a democracy of supplying the information on which public opinion feeds, and they were derelict in that duty. Their motives may have been excellent. They wanted to win the war; they wanted to save the world. They were nervously excited by exciting events. They were baffled by the complexity of affairs, and the obstacles created by war. But whatever the excuses, the apologies, and the extenuation, the fact remains that a great people in a supreme crisis could not secure the minimum of necessary information on a supremely important event.

And lest we think such failures are relegated to history, consider the U.S. media’s coverage leading up to the Iraq War. Here, too, it seems fair to say that whatever the motives of media, they were indeed derelict in their duty.

Such findings gave Lippmann a deep sense of unease for “popular opinion.”

“The public,” he writes in The Phantom Public (1925), “will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece.”

The public makes its judgements on gut instinct and imperfect knowledge. Most do not understand a situation in full detail – they know neither the history nor the possible implications of their views. They are consumed with the details of their own daily lives, raising their eyes to politics just long enough to briefly consider what might be best for them in that moment.

Such a system is sure to end in disaster – with public opinion little more than a tool manipulated by elites.

As Sheldon Wolin describes in Political Theory as Vocation, such a system would be ‘democracy’ in name but not in deed:

The mass of the population is periodically doused with the rhetoric of democracy and assured that it lives in a democratic society and that democracy is the condition to which all progressive-minded societies should aspire. Yet that democracy is not meant to realize the demos but to constrain and neutralize it by the arts of electoral engineering and opinion management. It is, necessarily, regressive. Democracy is embalmed in public rhetoric precisely in order to memorialize its loss of substance. Substantive democracy—equalizing, participatory, commonalizing—is antithetical to everything that a high-reward, meritocratic society stands for.

This is the nightmare Lippmann sought to avoid – but it also the undeniable reality he saw around him.

In elevating “the voice of the people” to “the voice of god,” our founders not only made a claim Lippmann considers absurd, but paved the way for a government of elites, by elites, and for elites – all in the hollow, but zealously endorsed, name of “the people.”

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