Book Review: The Phantom Public by Walter Lippmann (1927)

In The Phantom Public, Lippmann returns to the theme of what he considers to be the ‘fiction’ at the heart of liberal democratic theory, that once the barriers to freedom are taken away, an active and intelligent public will spring into action, guiding society from the ‘bottom up’, holding elected leaders to account and engaging deliberatively in all the important decision of the day (Lippman, 1993, p. 67). For Lippmann, this fiction leads to the existence of the ‘disenchanted man’, the citizen who is told that they must have an active role in public decision making but cannot find the time, does not understand the issues, and is frankly not interested. This expectation, imposed by the idealism of liberal democrats, should be abandoned, and a full-blown ‘realism’ regarding the capacities of ordinary people should accepted. Gone is the even the limited optimism of Public Opinion, in which an elite of social scientists could provide a ‘machinery of knowledge’ to offset the ignorance of the masses by providing them with access to a true picture of reality (which the media cannot provide). We should come to accept that democracy is a myth and let rulers rule; the public can only exist as passive spectators watching shadows on the wall, blissfully ignorant of their meaning.

Familiar arguments are mobilised by Lippmann to debunk the myth of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, beginning with the complexity of the modern, globalised world that must necessarily exceed the grasp of not just the average person, but any individual. This leads to a tendency towards centralisation, not just in the governance of society, but also in increasing monopolisation in business and workers organising themselves in trade unions (Lippmann, 1993, p. 179). For Lippmann, centralisation is an inevitable move to cope with complexity, but practically, this undermines any form of democracy, as ‘the more centralisation the less can the people concerned be consulted and give conscious assent’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 174) Again, it is the fiction of a pre-existing public opinion that leads to this situation, and this fiction is used by ‘special interests’ to claim they are working in the ‘public interest’; however, for Lippmann, as he had argued at length in Public Opinion, there is no such thing as a ‘public opinion’ to inform such an idea of the public interest, and what actually happens is that the public interest is invented by manipulating public opinion through the media. Here we can see Lippmann beginning to formulate his own critique of collectivism and planning (a contribution to a growing literature at the time), a critique that would be developed in The Good Society and would become so influential with later neoliberals.

The problem for democracy, in Lippmann’s view, was how to accept ‘deep pluralism’ and still have any notion or practical possibility of a public that would constitute the idea of ‘popular government’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 87). In The Phantom Public, Lippmann has dispensed altogether with the idea that knowledge and identity may have a social basis, expressed in Public Opinion‘s concept of ‘stereotypes’, instead subscribing to an epistemology of extreme individualism where no person can understand the point of view of another. This irreducible perspectivalism is combined with the critique of the ‘fact’ of centralisation to form what for Lippmann is both a devastating and novel dismissal of the possibility of democracy:

Critics [of democracy] have usually concluded that there was a congenital difference between the masterful few and the ignorant many. They are the victims of a superficial analysis of the evils they see so clearly. The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders. Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 140)

What is interesting here is that Lippmann has elevated the social-historical reality of elitism to the level of epistemological truth. It is not that existing power and class relations distort democracy by centralising power and decision making, and also by excluding the public from access to knowledge that might allow them to criticise these decisions and question this unequal structure of society, but rather that the limitations of human knowledge mean that elitism is inevitable.

In this sense Lippmann’s ‘realism’ regarding democracy is actually a sublimation of a deep pessimism towards the capabilities of the public. For some reason, ‘insiders’ can both know and cope with the complexity of modern life, and it is their job to deal with problems regarding the public, not the public like you might think. If you collect the comments Lippmann makes about the average person who is the ‘outsider’ to the management of public affairs, the barefaced elitism of this position becomes much clearer (and the epistemological basis less convincing). For Lippmann (1993), the public ‘consists of busy men reading newspapers for half an hour or so a day’ (p. 109), ‘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’ (p. 54) The average member of the public must be conceived ‘in the lowest terms’: they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (p. 55).

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 a bewildered herd. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 145)

Little doubt remains by the end of The Phantom Public that Lippmann has succumbed to the elitism and fear of ‘the masses’ typical of the age, encapsulated in such Nietzschean descriptions of the latter as the ‘bewildered herd’. The public’s ‘exercise of its own powers’ is severely limited to two questions: is rule or a particular rule defective? If so, how can we recognise who can make it better? (Lippmann, 1993, p. 98). Notice that the public is never expected to understand how or why a system of government is failing, only to find someone who might sort the problem out for them. Lippmann (1993) suggests some way that the public might do this: they could stage a debate between competing parties and see if anyone betrays a special interest (p. 104 – even though all people are expected to follow special interests and not public interests, one of many contradictions in the book); they could demand an independent inquiry and see if those in power were willing to take part in such an inquiry, although the public wouldn’t be expected to understand what was in the inquiry (p. 122); or they could just be vigilant and see whether generally people are assenting and conforming to current system of rule, if not this is a clear sign that someone else should take over (p. 144). To sum up, the most the public can be expected to do is:

Support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when [the Ins] seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 116)

Lippman, W. (1993) The Phantom Public. Chicago: Transaction


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