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Intellectuals have said democracy is failing for a century. They were wrong.

Walter Lippmann’s famous critique of democracy revisited.

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Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, published in 1922, is the most persuasive critique of democracy I’ve ever read. Shortly after it was published, John Dewey, the great defender of democracy and the most important American philosopher of the era, called Lippmann’s book “the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived.”

Lippmann poses a straightforward question: can citizens achieve a basic knowledge of public affairs and then make reasonable choices about what to do? His answer is no, and the whole point of the book is to expose the gap between what we say democracy is and what we know about how human beings actually behave.

Most democratic theorists in the 20th century believed that more information would produce a more informed citizenry, and a more informed citizenry would make good on the core promise of democracy. They were wrong. More information doesn’t necessarily lead to more enlightened civic participation — it is just as likely to lead to more noise, more partisanship, and more ignorance (click here and here and here for research backing this up). Indeed, more informed voters practice more partisan self-deception.

The second half of the book attempts to solve all the problems the first part unearths. Here Lippmann fails spectacularly, and he fails because his solution to the problems of democracy is to abandon everything that makes democracy worthwhile. He couldn’t figure out how to intelligently guide public opinion, so he sought to transcend it altogether by creating a “bureau of experts” that would decide public policy on behalf of the public. But that isn’t a democracy at all; it’s a technocracy at best, an oligarchy at worst.

Today, Lippmann’s pessimism is fashionable. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a whole genre of nonfiction literature has emerged, seeking to explain how democracies die, or why Western liberalism is in retreat. Pundits and analysts have argued that democracy is “decaying” worldwide, and that America is morphing into an authoritarian state.

Which is why it’s important to note that as powerful as Lippmann’s diagnosis of democracy’s flaws is, it seems to have missed something essential about the elasticity of democratic systems. After all, here we are, almost a century later, and America has become more powerful, more tolerant, more wealthy, and even more democratic. Perhaps that divergence contains lessons for our present moment of panic, too.

The myth of democracy

Lippmann begins his critique by exploding the romanticized vision of democracy espoused by the American Founders.

They imagined that citizens, no matter how sprawling the state became, would still function much as they did in the small, self-contained communities that existed in the 18th century. Which is to say, they would be asked to make decisions about issues with which they had direct experience. They were thinking of white, male, property-owning farmers who understood their local environment, knew their neighbors, and didn’t live in a highly industrialized society.

As Lippmann put it, “The democratic ideal, as Jefferson moulded it, consisted of an ideal environment and a selected class.” The racism and sexism notwithstanding, that environment looks nothing like ours, and the range of issues voters are expected to know something about today vastly exceeds the demands at the time of the founding.

The question for Lippmann, then, wasn’t whether the average person was intelligent enough to make decisions about public policy; it was whether the average person could ever know enough to choose intelligently. And he made the point using himself as an example:

My sympathies are with [the citizen], for I believe that he has been saddled with an impossible task and that he is asked to practice an unattainable ideal. I find it so myself for, although public business is my main interest and I give most of my time to watching it, I cannot find time to do what is expected of me in the theory of democracy; that is, to know what is going on and to have an opinion worth expressing on every question which confronts a self-governing community.

You might read this and think, “Citizens don’t have to have an intelligent opinion on every issue confronting the community. Instead, they choose the party they trust to serve their interests.” On this view, citizens don’t need to be “omnicompetent,” to borrow Lippmann’s term, they just have to know enough to pick the team that represents their interests. But to do that, voters have to know what their interests are, and which party actually represents them.

There’s no vision of democracy worth defending that doesn’t assume a minimum level of competence from a majority of voters. Lippmann doubted this level of mastery was possible because citizens are too removed from the world to form concrete judgments. Consequently, they’re forced to live in “pseudo-environments,” in which they reduce the world to stereotypes in order to render it intelligible.

Lippmann was an integral part of the Committee on Public Information, the agency tasked with creating propaganda to gin up support for World War I. That experience taught him how manipulable the public was, how easily people surrender to compelling narratives. We’re told about the world before we see it, we imagine things before we experience them, and we become hostages to these preconceptions.

These narratives are a defense against uncertainty. They present us with an ordered picture of the world, to which our tastes and stereotypes and values are anchored. Which is why it’s so hard to separate people from their dogmas. “Any disturbance of the stereotypes,” Lippmann says, “seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe ... It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe.”

Lippmann’s point is that voter preferences are based “not on direct and certain knowledge but on pictures” given to us. The question is then, where do we get our pictures? The most obvious answer is the media. If the media can provide accurate pictures of the world, citizens ought to have the information they need to perform their democratic duties. Lippmann says this works in theory but not in practice. The world, he argues, is big and it moves fast and the speed of communication in the age of mass media forces journalists to speak through slogans and simplified interpretations. (And this doesn’t even touch the problem of partisanship in a commercialized media landscape.)

Somewhere early in the book, Lippmann cites a famous passage from Plato’s Republic that describes human beings as cave-dwellers who spend their lives watching shadows on a wall and take that to be their true reality. Our present condition is scarcely different, Lippmann implies. We’re locked in a cave of media misrepresentations and we take our caricatured pictures of the world to be an accurate reflection of what’s actually happening.

“News and truth are not the same thing”

If Lippmann is right, more and better information won’t save us, because the problem isn’t access to facts; it’s flaws in human cognition. But even if he’s wrong about this, and I think he might be, we’re still screwed because of certain constraints imposed on the press.

Lippmann says the press is like a roaming spotlight, bouncing from topic to topic, story to story, illuminating things but never fully explaining them. “The function of news,” he writes, “is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

This is a strange way of making a simple point: in the world of news, there is often no objective test for what’s true. If we’re reporting sports statistics or poll numbers or stock futures, then objectivity is easy. But when it comes to analyzing economic conditions or the value of labor unions or the merits of universal health care or the limits of state power, there is no such test. What we’re doing isn’t uncovering truth so much as constructing narratives, and those narratives reflect our biases, our experience, our ignorance, our hopes, our confusion. We see reality through a glass darkly.

But even if we set aside this question of whether the press can reliably tell the truth, there remains an intractable demand-side problem: readers, for the most part, aren’t paying for news, so publications need advertisers; to get advertisers, you must attract readers; and to attract readers, you must pander to the audience’s biases. Here’s how Lippmann sums it up:

This is the plight of the reader of the general news. If he is to read it at all he must be interested, that is to say, he must enter into the situation and care about the outcome ... The more passionately involved he becomes, the more he will tend to resent not only a different view, but a disturbing bit of news. That is why many a newspaper finds that, having honestly evoked the partisanship of its readers, it can not easily, supposing the editor believes the facts warrant it, change position.

Lippmann’s point was true enough in 1922 — today it is indisputable. The media is more fragmented, more competitive, more profit-driven. Consequently, news consumption is like shopping: you find the source of information that most reflects your point of view, and you signal your preference with your loyalty.

Here again Lippmann is undermining an assumption baked into most democratic theories: we expect the press to “carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty” by supplying citizens with the truth even though it’s not at all clear most people are interested in truth. Is it not obvious, Lippmann asks, that people prefer the entertaining and the trivial over the dull and the important, or the flattering and the convenient over the honest and the difficult?

It’s hard to look at our current moment and conclude that Lippmann’s pessimism was misplaced. Truth is as variable as it’s ever been, and public trust in the press is at an all-time low. That stereotypical thinking Lippmann worried about is amplified by a media environment far more commercialized and partisan than he ever imagined. Indeed, public opinion is now so hopelessly cocooned that the president is under investigation for colluding with our primary geopolitical foe and more than half the country doesn’t give a damn.

Lippmann anticipated many of these problems, and yet you can’t engage his critique without asking what comes next. Sadly, the alternative vision of democracy isn’t actually a vision of democracy at all.

The best he can do is call for a “specialized class” of social scientific experts who operate beyond the voters and the politicians. In theory, there would be a crop of experts for each area of government, and these experts would competently examine the facts and then advise government officials. Lippmann believed such a system would divorce the “assembling of knowledge” from “the control of policy.” And, even more crucially, it would ensure that the experts remained independently funded and thus free from corrupt motives.

Dewey probably said it best: “No government by experts in which the masses do not have the chance to inform the experts as to their needs can be anything but an oligarchy managed in the interests of the few.” If Lippmann had his way, the public would be liberated from its oppressive fictions, but at the price of everything just about democracy.

Dewey’s rejoinder

After Public Opinion was released, Lippmann and Dewey entered into a long, informal debate about how to fix democracy. Dewey was forced to concede Lippmann’s basic point about the folly of public opinion. “As matters now stand,” he wrote, “every issue is hopelessly entangled in a snarl of emotions, stereotypes and irrelevant memories and associations.” Still, he rejected Lippmann’s call for a technocratic elite.

For Dewey, everything reduced to a simple question: who is most in need of enlightenment, citizens or administrators? What Lippmann wanted, whether he realized it or not, was to permanently turn citizens into spectators. He assumed that public opinion was about the mass of individuals possessing a correct representation of the world, and since they could never do this, they had to be locked out of the decision-making process.

But Dewey insisted that political knowledge, in a democracy, could only come about through conversation among and between citizens. The only reality that matters is the reality that citizens collectively construct. If you accept, as Lippmann does, that the public is atomized and permanently cut off from the conversation about public affairs, then you’ve undercut the very possibility of democracy. Again, Dewey put it well:

There is no limit to the intellectual endowment which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communications of the local community. That and that only gives reality to public opinion. We lie, as Emerson, said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.

I think Dewey is right here, but Lippmann’s point about people effectively living in separate worlds still holds. Since Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone, scholars have lamented the loss of civic bonds in America. At the same time, local newspapers are dying out and political discourse is becoming increasingly nationalized, which means most issues are abstract and dominated by tribal allegiance and caricatured right-left narratives.

Lippmann feared that the citizenry would abandon the public square and give themselves over to propaganda. That’s exactly what happened, and yet American democracy has done remarkably well over the last century.

How do we make sense of that?

Things are bad, but they’ve always been bad, which means they’re not as bad as we think

It’s tempting, from our perch in 2018, to conclude that democracy is broken beyond repair. The world seems to be careening into more and more disorder, and American politics in particular is hopelessly ensnarled in partisan dysfunction.

But perhaps the Lippmann-Dewey debate offers another perspective: democracy has always been clumsy, has never really lived up to its ideals, and yet we’re all still alive. Given how prophetic Lippmann’s critique was, you’d expect American democracy to have collapsed under the weight of its own incoherence by now. But here we are, in 2018, still humming along, still the most influential country in the world, still the richest and the most dynamic economy on the planet.

For all its problems (and there are many), democracy has managed to thrive. And the democratic world, over time, has gotten more stable, more wealthy, and more tolerant. Maybe the point is that democracy doesn’t have to work the way it was conceived in order to be successful. Maybe the myth of democracy is just that — a myth.

If there’s a lesson in all this for today, it’s that we should be careful not to define democracy by its worst attribute. Lippmann was so obsessed with the problem of public opinion that he failed to notice that the problem wasn’t new, that democracy wasn’t malfunctioning. The practice of democracy has always been messy and chaotic, and mass ignorance wasn’t the exception but the rule.

Voters will often make egregious choices, and sometimes those choices produce horrifying outcomes. Still, the system, as a whole, has proven incredibly resilient, and a far better alternative to non-democratic systems, which lead invariably to corruption and oppression. If democracy works, it’s not because the people are reliably wise; it’s because the system offers a layer of accountability that, more often than not, supports a stable and just society. Democracies are also prone to disorder and corruption, but these are ineluctable features of any political system comprised of selfish and flawed human beings.

The current wave of pessimism is a reminder that there’s a recurring tendency on the part of intellectuals to abandon democracy when it veers off course. It’s a reactionary move that typically overstates the nature of the threat. Lippmann was shaken by the insanity of World War I, and so he thought something — anything — had to be done to keep the democratic world from descending into another war. The shock of Brexit and a Trump presidency has sent many observers (myself included) into a panic. Just a couple weeks ago, in fact, I interviewed Jason Brennan, a Georgetown political theorist, who argued for a Lippmann-esque epistocracy to replace traditional democracy.

But I could just as easily argue that Brennan, like Lippmann, has it precisely backwards. Instead of abandoning democracy, maybe what we need is more and better democracy. Maybe, as Dewey taught, we need to educate and empower more citizens. Maybe the crisis we’re facing now, in the age of Trump, is just the latest manifestation of a problem that has always plagued democratic societies, and always will. Maybe we should pause, take a deep breath, and step back from the precipice.

Democracy has survived far worse than Trump and Brexit.

This article was originally published on August 9, 2018.


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