Review of "Public Opinion" by Walter Lippman

This book provides an analysis of public opinion.  It does not consider public opinion an expression of the people, or any such nonsense.  Its goal, rather, is to explain how public opinion is “manufactured.”  Mr Lippman distinguishes between true facts, the human picture or impression of a selection of the facts and the resulting human action based on the picture. 


I’ll let Mr Lippman summarize his own work:


And so in the chapters which follow we shall inquire first into some of the reasons why the picture inside so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside. Under this heading we shall consider first the chief factors which limit their access to the facts. They are the artificial censorships, the limitations of social contact, the comparatively meager time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs, the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages, the difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world, and finally the fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men's lives. . . .


The analysis then turns from these more or less external limitations to the question of how this trickle of messages from the outside is affected by the stored up images, the preconceptions, and prejudices which interpret, fill them out, and in their turn powerfully direct the play of our attention, and our vision itself. From this it proceeds to examine how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them. In the succeeding sections it examines how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion, how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.


Mr Lippman is careful to point out that true democracy cannot work.  All issues must be reduced to Yes or No decisions.  Winners of elections will use the resulting privileges to create hierarchies that will further influence how public opinion is formed.  Leaders will have to use symbols to reach the public, again distorting reality.  Are citizens smart enough to understand the issues they are supposed to decide – especially with the growth of government into areas in which citizens have no experience of any kind?  The question then is whether these criticisms undermine democracy.  Mr Lippman believes that this question is not one that democrats can consider:


Had democrats admitted there was truth in any of the aristocratic arguments they would have opened a breach in the defenses. And so just as Aristotle had to insist that the slave was a slave by nature, the democrats had to insist that the free man was a legislator and administrator by nature.


Mr Lippman’s answer is not exactly clear.  He criticizes those who believed that the manufacture of consent died out under democracy.  Instead, he believes that the manufacture of consent reached a new height of perfection in democratic systems. 


As far as democracy in the US, he believes that the original US Constitution was not as democratic as it currently is.  It was made more democratic by Jefferson (who had strong views about limiting government so that it acted only within spheres understandable to voters)


The frank denials were therefore expunged from consciousness, and the document, which is on its face an honest example of limited constitutional democracy, was talked and thought about as an instrument for direct popular rule. Jefferson actually reached the point of believing that the Federalists had perverted the Constitution, of which in his fancy they were no longer the authors. And so the Constitution was, in spirit, rewritten. Partly by actual amendment, partly by practice, as in the case of the Electoral College, but chiefly by looking at it through another set of stereotypes, the facade was no longer permitted to look oligarchic. . .


The American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument, and treated it as such. They owe that fiction to the victory of Thomas Jefferson, and a great conservative fiction it has been. It is a fair guess that if everyone had always regarded the Constitution as did the authors of it, the Constitution would have been violently overthrown, because loyalty to the Constitution and loyalty to democracy would have seemed incompatible. Jefferson resolved that paradox by teaching the American people to read the Constitution as an expression of democracy. He himself stopped there. But in the course of twenty-five years or so social conditions had changed so radically, that Andrew Jackson carried out the political revolution for which Jefferson had prepared the tradition.


Mr Lippman doesn’t go so far as to suggest doing away with representative government.  He doesn't think there is a solution to many of the problems he identifies, as they are part of the human condition.  Instead he proposes way to minimize the problems.  Mr Lippman proposes creating a “specialized class” of professionals to collect and analyze data and present the conclusions.  Another body would then use the conclusions to help inform the public.  I’m not sure this is a realistic solution. 


I very much enjoyed Mr Lippman critique of democracy.  I like to note one more of his statements:


For the traditional democrat risked the dignity of man on one very precarious assumption, that he would exhibit that dignity instinctively in wise laws and good government. Voters did not do that, and so the democrat was forever being made to look a little silly by tough-minded men. But if, instead of hanging human dignity on the one assumption about self-government, you insist that man's dignity requires a standard of living, in which his capacities are properly exercised, the whole problem changes. The criteria which you then apply to government are whether it is producing a certain minimum of health, of decent housing, of material necessities, of education, of freedom, of pleasures, of beauty, not simply whether at the sacrifice of all these things, it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating around in men's minds. In the degree to which these criteria can be made exact and objective, political decision, which is inevitably the concern of comparatively few people, is actually brought into relation with the interests of men.


If the criteria that Mr Lippman lays out are taken as the goal of government, then we can rightly ask whether 1) democracy is good at achieving these goals and 2) a majority of people believe that these are the aims of government.  If 2) is not true then we’ll need another system of government.  If 1) is not true then we’d be right to look for another one.


I can’t resist one more quote:


Reason in politics is especially immature in predicting the behavior of individual men, because in human conduct the smallest initial variation often works out into the most elaborate differences. That, perhaps, is why when we try to insist solely upon an appeal to reason in dealing with sudden situations, we are broken and drowned in laughter.


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