Book Review: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)

According to Price (2007), the concept of ‘public opinion’ came into use in the 18th century, with the creation of the printing press and expansion of literacy, leading to the creation of a ‘public sphere’ (Habermas, 1962/1989) which evolved around discussions of philosophies of freedom and a general articulation of a critique of monarchy and the absolutist state. With the rise of democracy, this idea of public opinion constituted a source of legitimacy for this new way of organising society which moved away from the authoritarianism of monarchy, and also provided a system of ‘checks and balances’ to prevent any such authoritarianism taking place. The achievement of the Enlightenment theories of civil democracy was

To transform the classical assembly of the people—in Athenian democracy a physical, face-to-face forum—into a mass-mediated, fictive body constituted by newspapers bringing people together, not in physical space but in shared stories and conversations at a distance. (Peters, 2007, p. 12)

Thus ‘public opinion’ was a creation coming out of the attempt to reinvent the ideal of classical, or Athenian, democracy for the modern world. The public sphere arising out of the combination of the printing press and new forms of social interactions of the emerging middle classes in the cafés and salons of Europe were a vital part of the this attempt to transform society.

Walter Lippmann, however, in his hugely influential 1922 book Public Opinion, was extremely sceptical about the viability of this idea within 20th century society. Lippmann was generally critical regarding the possibility of democracy in the modern world, leading him to be dismissed as a democratic elitist, or in extreme cases an anti-democrat (reference). For Lippmann, it is not clear even if a perfect democracy could be conceived that people really want to rule themselves, considering it ‘extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered, or would take the time to form an opinion on ‘any and every form of social action [a quote from G. D. H. Cole, late 19th century advocate of ‘guild socialism’]’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 314) Lippmann also believed that every form of organisation, whether socialist, democratic or otherwise, would require some hierarchy to be established, in order to deal with unexpected and pressing problems that didn’t have time for public deliberation, or just becaue human nature dictated that people liked to be near charismatic and powerful people, and that a group of insiders would inevitably appear around such people (Lippmann, 1991, p. 227)

Aside from these well-worn dismissals, however, Lippmann put forward some very interesting arguments, or perhaps it is better to think of them as challenges, to the idea that public opinion could be the basis and guarantor of democracy. Firstly, Lippmann challenged the idea that the media could act as what we might now call the ‘fourth estate’, that is as a watchdog of political power and a provider of truth to the public, effectively fulfilling the function that ‘public opinion’ was supposed to have in democratic theory. This is perhaps where Lippmann’s work remains most influential, and his reflections on the economics and sociology of the press were well ahead of its time. According to Lippmann, ‘we expect the press to supply truth, a ‘picture picture of all the outer world in which we are interested’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 321), but due to the financial constraints placed upon the press to provide news that will appeal to the largest possible cross-section of the public at the smallest possible cost and the social constraints of having to do this quickly (an interesting example of ‘market failure’), which in most cases means according to tired conventions, this expectation is unrealistic and ultimately not possible for the press to fulfil.

Furthermore, the news, for Lippmann, is already ‘shaped’ as news before it is even subject to these structural limitations. Reality must present itself to journalists as news – the world must jump out as significant, as an event, or disaster perhaps. This is how journalists know what to report, and a good journalist can see an event before it reaches this point of climax. But to see and report an event is not the same thing as providing truth:

The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts and set them in relation to each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 358)

At best, the media can provide an accurate collection of facts, gathered from authoritative sources such as government reports, first-hand accounts, statistics, etc., which must then still be interpreted in order to construct a true ‘picture of reality’ which can provide the basis for wise action. It is the latter which constitutes ‘public opinion’, not the former.

More disturbingly, for Lippmann, in modern society the press is increasingly manipulated by government and business interests. Aside from the structural limitations posed by market forces, the content of the media is more and more decided by the consumer market that advertisers, who supplement or in some cases replace the income provided by readers, wish to sell their products to. Advertisers also in some cases have veto power over content if this content is seen to jeopardise the market that advertisers are selling to. Governments, on the other hand, tend to ‘manufacture consent’ through the media by manipulating ‘symbols’, which in turn manipulate our emotions and loyalties (Lippmann, 1991, p. 248). Here Lippmann relies on a crude behaviourist conception of human psychology, in which emotions can be roused and then transferred onto other triggers, so for example we may be shown images of images of terrorist atrocities and then the feelings of fear and outrage can then be transferred onto ideas of security and surveillance which can be in turn used to pass repressive laws or win conservative elections (Lippmann, 1991, p. 204-5).

However, underlying all these other challenges, which are interesting in their own right, lies an original and difficult to answer epistemological critique of democracy that has found its way, now somewhat submerged and opaque, into the world-view of neoliberalism. This critique says that the public, the agent of public opinion and democracy, has not got direct access to the knowledge required for self-rule. For Lippmann (1991, p. 402), this knowledge must be provided by an elite of ‘intelligence men’, who have ‘the skill to sort out what is real perception from what is stereotype, pattern and elaboration’:

The outsider [i.e. the private citizen], and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither time, nor attention, nor interest, nor the equipment for specific judgement. It is on the man inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administration of society must rest. (Lippman, 1991, p. 400)

It is true that at times Lippmann, as in this quote, can sound like a straightforward elitist. In other places he claims that the majority of people, more people than we may like to admit, are ‘illiterate’, ‘feeble-minded’ grossly neurotic, ‘undernourished’ (I assume he means intellectually) and ‘frustrated’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 75). Yet, if we can ignore these outbursts of disdain for the masses, his argument at root is more subtle than.

Lippmann claims that in daily life we perceive the world through ‘stereotypes’. Like the news, we do not perceive the world in its raw, unmediated fullness, reality comes to us ‘already defined for us’, we perceive what has been ‘picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 81). Here ‘stereotype’ is not a positive or negative thing, but an epistemological pre-condition of being able to cope with modern existence. Lippmann identifies two reasons for holding stereotypes: ‘economy of effort’, which is to say we need stereotypes to be able to get about our daily lives quickly and efficiently, to see ‘all things freshly and in detail’ would be exhausting; and ‘defensiveness’, by which Lippmann means the comfortable familiarity that things and ideas we are used to have for us, to the point where if challenged, we feel attacked and often react harshly (Lippmann, 1991, pp. 88-103) Stereotypes are both the material for and the product of our cultural ideals and traditions, and theories can become stereotypes when they become generalised enough to absorb the desires and feelings of society as a whole – for example how the theory of evolution became generalised into an idea of progress in the late 19th century (Lippmann, 1991, p. 104).

Stereotypes, for Lippmann, are a condition of the modern world. Like never before, much of reality is invisible to us, hidden from view, happening far away and often at unimaginable distance.

The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time is but a few moments of insight and happiness. (Lippmann, 1991, p. 29)

What this means is that we live in what Lippmann calls a ‘pseudo-environment’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 15)– a kind of hazy mixture of direct experience, based on what we see and know in our immediate environment, but which we still don’t necessarily understand, and mediated experience which we gather from a variety of sources, but increasingly from the media, which we already know is unreliable. Mostly what guides the average person is ‘fiction’, not knowledge. This is the crux of Lippmann’s criticism of liberal theories of democracy, that citizens come ready-made with knowledge of the world and are supposed to somehow ‘spontaneously’ formulate a ‘public opinion’ which would form the basis of self-determination. All that is needed is the freedom to communicate. However, for Lippmann, this grossly over-estimates, and this is ultimately an unfair expectation (like we have of journalists), the capacities of ordinary people. Knowledge should be left to experts, the ‘intelligence men’, the researchers of the emerging modern university, who will provide policy makers, journalists and ultimately the public with the knowledge required for wise political action.

But Lippmann seems to confuse the epistemological argument that people see the world through stereotypes with normative argument that experts should be in charge of knowledge – nowhere does he explain why ‘intelligence men’ seem to be able to transcend this epistemological limitation, or why, if stereotypes are not judged to be good or bad, ordinary people are somehow more susceptible to the limiting effects of their ‘pseudo-environments’. The implication seems to be that the vocation of science, in terms of training, time and commitment, frees the ‘intelligence man’ (sic) to be able to see the world in a disinterested and therefore more objective manner – the ordinary person is far too wrapped up in daily concerns to be able to achieve such a perspective (here Lippmann seems to be arguing by analogy from the limitations of news consumption). At the end of the book, Lippmann even makes recommendations that such ‘intelligence work’ should be based on ‘tenure for life, with provision for retirement on a liberal pension, with sabbatical years set aside for advanced study and training’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 387). However, epistemologically, no justification is provided for Lippmann’s suggestions for a benevolent technocracy.

This is where Lippmann’s own theory of stereotypes can be productively used against him. It seems that Lippmann was victim to his own elitist stereotypes, bolstered by contemporary theories of crowd psychology and mass society (Reicher, 2001), which lead to a ‘blind-spot’ concerning his own prejudices about mass democratic society. Lippmann criticised Aristotle for being able to justify slavery on the basis that some people are ‘naturally’ slaves, thereby projecting a social fact onto nature. ‘This is the perfect stereotype. Its hallmark is that it precedes the use fo reason, is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach intelligence.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 98) In Lippmann’s case, he projected his anxieties about mass democracy, prevalent at the time, onto the theory of stereotypes, which was in itself actually an important contribution to the debate. What Lippmann couldn’t see due to his fear of the masses was that his theory of stereotypes in no way logically or epistemologically entailed the elitist conclusion of rule by experts, but in fact, due to its devastating critique of liberal ideas of representation, opened up a much more radical possibility.

The real ‘blind-spot’ in Lippmann’s critique of democracy was the possibility of what could be called a ‘citizen social science’ to generate knowledge, and through it, public opinion that would inform and guide self-rule ordinary people.

Lippman, W. (1991) Public Opinion. Chicago: Transaction


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