The Secret Life of Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippmann has a bad reputation.

An American political journalist whose firsthand experience with WWI propaganda left him deeply jaded and skeptical of the role of the public, Lippmann is often referenced as the quintessential downer of civic efforts.

I’ve heard him called an elitist and a technocrat. I’ve heard him described as gloomy and dark. And I’ve heard his name invoked to describe those nagging doubts you wouldn’t ever dare admit – that little part of yourself that worries, what if the people really aren’t up to the challenge?

And this reputation isn’t entirely unearned. After all, Lippmann does seem to delight in saying things like:

In this deadly conflict between [the Federalist’s] ideals and their science, the only way out was to assume without much discussion that the voice of ¬†of the people was the voice of god. (Public Opinion, 1922)


For when private man has lived through the romantic age in politics and is no longer moved by the stale echoes of its hot cries, when he is sober and unimpressed…You cannot move him then with good straight talk about service and civic duty, nor by waving a flag in his face, nor by sending a boy scout after him to make him vote. (The Phantom Public, 1925)

So, perhaps its fair to say that Lippmann is skeptical of “the public” – that uninformed, sporadic mass of men which 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.

Yes, I believe it’s fair to say Lippmann is down on “the public.”

And a cursory read might lead to the popular conclusion that Lippmann believed that since “the public” is not to be trusted, technocrats or elites are the only way to go.

But I take Lippmann differently. Consider, for example, this apparently distressing conclusion from The Phantom Public:

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.

Each of us must live free.

It’s important, I think, to note that Lippmann doesn’t argue that the public needs to be put in its place so that that some special class – the wealthy, the educated, or the otherwise elite – may live free from the roar. The public needs to be put in its place so that we each are more free to express ourselves.

If that sounds counter-intuitive, it is, perhaps, because Lippmann takes issue with the very definition of “the public.”

We have been taught to think of society as a body, with a mind, a soul and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related.

That is to say – “the public” is incoherent not because individuals are stupid, lazy, or otherwise uninformed. “The public” is incoherent because the public is not a unitary, discrete thing which should be considered as one.

Our very model of citizenship – that of the perfectly informed and engaged citizen – is deeply flawed, Lippmann argues. And our belief in this flawed system only leads to corruption and apathy.

So what are we to do?

“Putting the public in its place,” isn’t about giving elites free reign. It’s about recognizing that every situation, every issue, has insiders and outsiders. Agents and bystanders.

Every person will be an agent on some topics – deeply concerned and invested in the issue – and a bystander on others – peripherally connected and willing, perhaps, to align themselves with an interested party.

“Putting the public” in it’s place is about understanding the role people not invested in an issue can play.

An article I read yesterday commented that the fundamental disagreement in how societies should work can be seen in the disagreement between Edmund Burke prizing “social knowledge” and Thomas Paine prizing “technical knowledge.”

Lippmann’s argument takes a different tack. We each have technical knowledge. We each have social knowledge. And we each have no knowledge.

“The public” is not a unitary mass. It is a collection of individuals who are each expert and lay on any given issue.

Lippmann is a technocrat insofar as he would value the input of an expert with years of experience. But he would equally value the input of the local who had no technical knowledge, but who held community knowledge, social knowledge.

He wouldn’t value the opinion of the person who parachuted in – who showed up in the third act of the play.

Lippmann’s approach has flaws, no doubt – primarily, I think, the role of power in determining who sees themselves as an insider and who is accepted as an insider – but overall, I have to say –

I think Lippmann is an optimist.

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