Lippmann and Dewey: Debating Democracy in the Age of Metropolis

By Michael Boyle

At the beginning of another presidential election cycle, in which both major parties will spend billions of dollars in an effort to sway the public, it is instructive to revisit the historic clash between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey on the subject of democracy and, specifically, their disagreement as to whether the mass democracy that followed the Industrial Revolution was sustainable.

Walter Lippmann, a journalist and social critic, made a name for himself through a series of works published in the 1910’s and 1920’s, in which he questioned the logic behind democracy and the capacity of the ordinary citizen to fulfill their civic obligations, in the industrial age. Having been disabused of any romantic notions about electoral politics and the machinery of democratic legislation by his teacher, British political scientist Graham Wallas, Lippmann would go on to argue for the idea that men commonly were not rational, and that the modern world was too complex for them to play the role that liberal democracy expected.

Lippmann’s early work, A Preface to Politics (1913), focused on the political limitations of the ordinary citizen and advocated social policy more in line with new insights from psychology, particularly psychoanalysis. The book drew everyone’s attention, both at home and abroad. The British neurologist and psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, took note, pleased at the fact that Freudian insights were being applied beyond the circles of psychology.

Liberty and the News, published a few years later in 1920, analyzed the phenomenon of public opinion that now held the whip in public policy, in contrast to the assemblies described in the 18th Century US Constitution. Lippmann argued that this made journalists — the so-called “Fourth Estate” – an essential part of governance. He observed that we are far more concerned with the accuracy of speech, in a trial, than we are in the media, where the matter of truth is even more important, given the stakes. For Lippmann, liberty was an instrumental good. The media’s function was to safeguard the accuracy of the information received by citizens, which was vital to the healthy formation of public opinion. Lippmann called for close regulation of the media and the professionalization of journalism and also made the case that there should be a class of experts for each sector of government, acting as what he called “political observatories.” These experts would advise government but remain independent in terms of their funding. They would be tasked with safeguarding the accuracy of information, both by way of their expertise and by being insulated from the pressures of the elected officials, to whom they would report.

In Public Opinion, released in 1922 and the first of two works that would form the basis for his debate with philosopher and educator John Dewey — the second was The Phantom Public , published in 1925 — Lippmann expanded the lines of argument laid out in Liberty and the News, especially with regard to those who would fill the “political observatories.” He argued that this cadre of independent experts would provide accurate information to elected officials, whose understanding of science and technology need not be any better than that of the ordinary citizen. He also expanded his critique of the citizen, whom he believed lived in what was essentially a distorted reality, a product of the inevitable and persistent application of stereotypes. Deconstructing what he saw as an outmoded political system, based on the eighteenth century notion of an “omnicompetant citizen,” Lippmann reiterated his call for the creation of a technocratic group of experts, who would manage the discussion of public affairs. The current system, in which the media was tasked with such duties, but had to engage in advertising to pay its bills, was clearly not ideal, if elected officials were to render judgment on issues of public import based on the best, least biased information available. The public would have a say in who their elected officials would be — Lippmann did think that education could help the average citizen develop a minimal capacity for rational thought — but the discussion of public policy would be left to elected officials, who would receive consultation from the relevant experts.

In 1922, John Dewey reviewed Public Opinion for The New Republic. He was quite impressed with Lippmann’s analysis and believed that, in light of what Lippmann had laid out, one could no longer hold to the myths that lay at the center of American democracy. Dewey noted famously that “…one finishes the book almost without realizing that it is the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann, consequently, was a matter of the solutions Lipmann proposed, rather than his diagnosis of the problem. Dewey rejected Lippmann’s suggestion that we address the challenges to democracy in the industrial age by empowering technocrats and bypassing the populace. More generally, Dewey believed that Lippmann’s resolution of the problem was largely inadequate. The issue of what to do about democracy, in light of the limitations of the ordinary person, could only be addressed fully, Dewey thought, through education. That meant not just the education of public officials listening to technocrats, but of the citizenry as a whole. As Dewey said in his review of Public Opinion, “Democracy demands a more thoroughgoing education than the education of officials, administrators, and directors of industry.”

It would become clear by the time his book was published in 1927 that Dewey regarded Lippmann’s solution as essentially technocratic in nature. Two years earlier, however, when he reviewed Lippmann’s The Phantom Public , it would seem that he believed that Lippmann was arguing for democracy, albeit a highly restricted kind, in which the contributions of the masses were to be kept to a bare minimum.

In his 1925 review, Dewey noted that the typical paeans to public opinion and democracy skewered by Lippmann were not really the fundamental point. That we believe in the myths surrounding democracy is not ipso facto the reason Prohibition had recently passed or that evolution had been outlawed in Tennessee, following the notorious Scopes Trial. The real problem, Dewey said, is “…stupidity, ignorance, bull-headedness, and bad education,” traits that could be found virtually anywhere, which meant that rearranging things in the manner that Lippmann had suggested, whereby political insiders decide matters under advisement from experts, wouldn’t help much, given that the insiders themselves may very well be stupid, ignorant, and bull-headed.

Here Dewey was asking what would prevent public officials, who still would be elected by the public in Lippmann’s proposed system, from also being susceptible to irrational action and legislation, an updated version of Juvenal’s famous query, “Who guards the guardians?” Dewey maintained that education, across the board, was the only solution. It was a matter of educating the public at large and also trying to find a way around the problems in journalism that Lippmann had noted. Dewey was of the view that accurate and reliable communications, especially in journalism, was a key ingredient in answering the challenges posed by Lippmann.

In The Public and Its Problems (1927), Dewey provided a thorough analysis of the issues that had been raised by Lippmann. He argued that the public was as capable of being as educated as it needed to be and went farther than he had in his earlier critiques of Lippmann, noting that there were substantial roadblocks to the development of a rational citizenry.  In particular, he worried that radio, film, and the automobile distracted people from investing in issues of concern to their communities and to the nation.  The citizenry, he argued, was abandoning the public square, for the sake of entertainment, and were thus also more vulnerable to propaganda.  These new technologies, he thought, had become an obstacle to a flourishing democracy-cum-community.

Dewey explicitly identified Lippmann’s technocratic vision with the tyranny recommended by Plato, making reference to Lippmann’s own epigraph, which consisted of a lengthy quote concerning the Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic.  Dewey suggested that Lippmann might have been too clever for his own good, for if the public was really as irremediably backward and exuberant as Lippmann claimed, why was he so confident that they would permit the imposition of a technocracy?  Dewey noted: “The very ignorance, bias, frivolity, jealousy, instability, which are alleged to incapacitate them from sharing in public affairs, unfit them still more for passive submission to rule by intellectuals.” How could Lippmann expect to carry out his proposed solutions to the “democratic problem,” without instigating a full-scale revolution?  If Lippmann sought to implement his ideas, without inviting an insurrection by the commoners, then his experts would either have to work behind the scenes and in cooperation with a plutocracy or they would have to in some way ally themselves with the masses, which would give the latter a seat at the table.

Besides this, Dewey thought there was an even bigger problem. How were the intelligentsia to discover the best policies, if they were to be isolated from the masses? As Dewey put it: “…in the absence of an articulate voice on behalf of the masses, the best do not and cannot remain the best, the wise cease to be wise.” Dewey illustrated the point with his analogy of the shoemaker and the wearer. The latter knows most intimately the discomfort caused by the shoe, notwithstanding the fact that he needs the shoemaker’s help to fix it.  Dewey warned that the very objectivity that Lippmann counted on for the correct management of the society would itself be imperiled. Instead of objectivity and access to real citizens and real circumstances, experts would simply be “an oligarchy, managed in the interests of a few.” Opening up the avenues of communication between experts and masses was crucial, the key for Dewey being “the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion.”

It was not enough, however, simply to have the public be provided critical thinking skills, so as to be able to adjudicate between the views of the experts, nor was it enough to work on the health of neighborhood and community local associations, which he believed were the root of democracy. Dewey here reiterated the point he had made earlier in The New Republic, that the public had to have accurate and unbiased data on which to draw in order to sufficiently understand public policy. Dewey’s insistence on this point centers on what is sometimes referred to as “civic journalism,” the notion that journalists could be a vehicle for accurate social science information as well as being a catalyst for the public’s evaluation of such data.

Neither Lippmann nor Dewey have aged very much. The concerns they wrote about over a hundred years ago are as relevant now as ever. As to the solutions, some have noted that for all our support of Dewey’s participatory democracy, the reality is actually much closer to Lippmann’s. Undoubtedly, this is partly due to our broken educational system as well as our apparent inability to have public policy mirror our best natural and social sciences. The fundamental problems highlighted by Lippmann have not gone away and Dewey’s worries and recommendations seem as relevant as ever. In fact, one can argue that such concerns have become even more serious and pressing in an age when voters’ political knowledge is as abysmal as ever and corporate media conglomerates are the norm. It would behoove us, then, to take a very close look at the views both men and their diagnoses and solutions to the problems of modern democracy.


  1. Interesting, with a lot of information to digest.

    Early on Lippmann was apparently attracted to socialism and Fabianism, he advocated entry into WW1 and supported Wilsonian progressivism. As late as the mid-thirties he supported the New Deal and the ‘compensated economy’, i.e. one in which government and elites must, of necessity, play an active role. With his ‘The Good Society’ (1937) there seemed to be yet a further shift in his evaluations.

    Seeing Europe falling prey to totalitarianisms (Absolute Collectivisms), he now feared that his proposal of Free Collectivism was based on the same principles as those absolutely oppressive ideologies:

    “Though it is the fashion to believe that because the process of civilization has been arrested it is necessary to make organization more elaborate and to redouble the impact of authority, the truth of the matter is that the alleged remedy for the trouble is the real cause of it”

    He attended a symposium in Paris (1938) in his honor attended by von Hayek, von Mises and others, at which they extolled small government, free markets and individual freedom – a veritable Conservative Manifesto for 2015!

    The central problem identified by Lippmann is that of the impossibility of any individual understanding the totality of any of our challenges. “..Lippmann argued that no one, from the man in the street to the journalist and to the President of the United States, could have a first-hand, adequate knowledge of the exterior world.” (Regalzi, F, 2012) A similar argument is made by me based on our biological and psychological misunderstandings of self.


  2. As Liam points out, Lippmann’s political views changed over time, so it is difficult to make general statements. I have doubts about his style of elitism (could be seen to be self-serving), but at least he was cautious about unfettered government power.

    My main reservations about Lippmann relate however to his background (ethical and perhaps religious) beliefs. I understand that at least from the late 1920s he was drawing on notions of Natural Law and was generally supportive of traditional Catholic social doctrines.


  3. @ Liam Ubert:

    Lippmann was less technocratic in The Good Society (e.g., he emphasized that the bureaus of specialists in government should be overseen by the legislature, etc). However, there are (some) parts of the work that would sound not at all unfamiliar to Progressive ears (this is something that has been noted). For example, he specifically advocates “large sums of money on public education,” government regulation regarding “conservation of natural resources,” and economic interference to “control the markets” which includes everything from breaking up monopolies, labor-management bargaining oversight, and “much that the law now tolerates or protects.” Further, he explicitly notes that “Liberalism is radical in relation to the social order but conservative in relation to the division of labor in a market economy.”

    How popular some of that would be with key elements of the GOP today is debatable, I think.

    @ Mark English:

    Lippmann was certainly not static in his views. Some things, however, tended to stay the same. Most importantly, that the biggest problem in democracies was too much meddling by the common folk:

    “If I am right in what I have been saying, there has developed in this century, a functional derangement of the relationship between the mass of the people and the government. The people have acquired power which they are incapable of _exercising, and the governments they elect have lost powers which they must recover if they are
    to govern. What then are the true boundaries of the people’s power? The answer cannot be simple, but for a rough beginning let us say that the people are able to give and to withhold their consent to being governed- their consent to what the government asks of them, proposes to them, and has done in the conduct of their affairs. They can elect the government. They can remove it. They can approve or disapprove its performance. But they cannot administer the government. They cannot themselves perform. They cannot normally initiate and propose the necessary legislation.

    Where mass opinion dominate’s the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern. This breakdown in the constitutional order is the cause of the precipitate and catastrophic decline of Western society. It may, if it cannot be arrested and reversed, bring about the fall of the West.”

    The Public Philosophy, 1955 (pp. 14-15).

    Lippmann did indeed turn toward natural law, beginning in the 1930s. He made clear his belief in humanism in A Preface to Morals in 1929, the same year Dewey came out with The Quest for Certainty, which in parts clearly advocates a Sam Harris-style scientism that Lippmann (by this point at least) did not agree with. In the 1930’s he turned toward natural law, mainly because of his concern about fascism and totalitarianism in general. The Public Philosophy has this emphasis in it and was criticized when it appeared, including by Oakeshott. BTW, Oakeshott’s criticism mirrors Dewey’s earlier one insofar as he asks Lippmann how sure he is that the masses will follow natural law if they are so unfit for politics. What Lippmann was searching for was something to give moral order and direction to society in the wake of what he saw as the disorder/nihilism of modernity, I think. Hence his attraction to Catholicism (his loathing of his own Jewish background is another and much darker part of this, too). It was partly this belief about nihilism which he thought had caused the destruction in the World Wars, particularly the second one (shades here of Arendt’s warning that nihilism paved the way for Nazism). In his earlier works focused on democracy and exhibiting more faith in science, he thought the answer might be some sort of technocratic solution. Later, talking about the survival of the West as a whole in the 1930’s and through the early Cold War, he moved toward ideas of natural law. This was also the reason he ferociously defended the Nuremberg Tribunals, even though some prominent voices (e.g., Senator Robert Taft) charged that they were themselves ex post facto affairs or just “victor’s justice.”


  4. Michael, thanks for the considered response.

    I am sympathetic to Oakeshott’s critique of Lippmann’s rationalism. But Lippmann’s appeal to natural law was, I think, quite widely seen (by non-religious commentators anyway) as naive and unconvincing.

    You write: “What Lippmann was searching for was something to give moral order and direction to society in the wake of what he saw as the disorder/nihilism of modernity, I think. Hence his attraction to Catholicism…”

    But is there any reason to think that one would find a basis for order in the places he was looking?

    You are clearly favouring Dewey over Lippmann in your account, however, and seem to come down hard on what seem to me quite sensible comments about the role of the people – i.e. we decide periodically to remove governments we don’t like but are not directly involved in day-to-day decision-making. You quote (from The Public Philosophy): “Where mass opinion dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern. This breakdown in the constitutional order is the cause of the precipitate and catastrophic decline of Western society…”

    Isn’t there something of a political enfeeblement or paralysis evident today in the US and some other Western countries? And couldn’t you reasonably see it as having at least something to do with the extreme sensitivity of politicians to shifts in public opinion?


  5. Dewey maintained that education, across the board, was the only solution. It was a matter of educating the public at large and also trying to find a way around the problems in journalism that Lippmann had noted. Dewey was of the view that accurate and reliable communications, especially in journalism, was a key ingredient in answering the challenges posed by Lippmann.

    Dewey thought, with ample reason, that ‘individual liberalism’ and ‘market holism’ with its huge social inequalities threatened democracy. In stead, he suggested, we should learn from the great successes of technology and science: “In order for democracy to flourish, the public (or ‘public of publics’) must become infused with the spirit and experimental activity of the Enlightenment. It is this theme that animates the new wave of scholarship that seeks to renew the pragmatic ethos of Deweyan democracy under the label of ‘democratic experimentalism’.” (Wilkinson, MA. 2012).  Dewey apparently seeks to implement this vision through education (propaganda and indoctrination).

    It might be well to remind ourselves that the modern idea of democracy in the US originated as a workers movement in the mid 19th century. Demos + kratia means power of, by and for the people. Dewey apparently was a dedicated democratic socialist till the end of his life.

    It appears that Lippmann, towards the end of his career, became more of a republican: res + publicius; the state represents the things and interests of the people with each having equal access. (See the Declaration of Independence.) These are, of course, not the only alternatives existing today. Theocracies, monarchies, dictatorships, oligarchies, kleptocracies and various mixtures are the rule. All systems are afflicted with corruption and abuse of power, and it is therefore the responsibility of all the citizens to monitor its government, all of the time, to the extent that they can.  A virtuous system is one in which this is facilitated.

    The republican versus democrat views clearly represent the most attractive options. I view either approach as useful under different circumstances, but I view the individual as being the fundamental force in society. Diversity appears, in fact, to be a fundamental biological drive. It is the biological underpinning of creativity, innovation and learning, as well as many other human features. However, one must also accept that the concept of the individual is meaningless without reference to its place in its community.


  6. @ Mark English:

    “But Lippmann’s appeal to natural law was, I think, quite widely seen (by non-religious commentators anyway) as naive and unconvincing.”

    Yes, he received criticism from across the board (everyone from ex-attorney general Francis Biddle to Archibald MacLeish the poet).

    “But is there any reason to think that one would find a basis for order in the places he was looking?”

    Dewey certainly didn’t think so, as he criticized Lippmann in terms of Catholicism’s traditional hostility to democracy. I think, however, its important to note that Lippmann, regardless of his attraction to Catholicism, makes clear that belief in God is not necessary per se for his conception of natural law:

    “There were some who could not conceive of binding laws which had to be obeyed unless there was a lawgiver made in the image of the human lawgivers they had seen or heard about. There were others to whose capacity it was not necessary to condescend with quite that much materialization. The crucial point, however, is not where the naturalists
    and supernaturalists disagreed. It is that they did agree that there was a valid law which, whether it was the commandment of God or the reason of things, was transcendent. They did agree that It was not something decided
    upon by certain men and then proclaimed by them. It was not someone’s fancy, someone’s prejudice, someone’s
    wish or rationalization, a psychological experience and no more. It is there objectively, not subjectively. It can be discovered. It has to be obeyed.”

    The Public Philosophy, pp. 174-5.

    It’s clear (to me at least) that Lippmann’s attraction to Catholicism had nothing to do with a belief in salvation. Rather, he saw Catholicism as the most powerful modern institution arguing for a transcendent moral law. That the salvific element was irrelevant to him can be seen by his extended treatment in the same volume of Zeno and Alexander. Retelling the story of how Alexander rejected Aristotle’s advice not to combine the Greeks and Persians in one state, Lippmann argues that Alexander was attempting in practice what Zeno subsequently advocated in philosophy and the Romans tried also to do later: to have a ‘rational order’ governing all men:

    “Alexander had discovered empirically what Zeno was to formulate theoretically—that a large plural society cannot be governed without recognizing that, transcending its plural interests, there is a rational order with a superior common law. This common law is ‘natural’ in the sense that it can be discovered by any rational mind, that it is not the willful and arbitrary positive command of the sovereign power. This is the necessary assumption, without which it is impossible for different peoples with their competing interests to live together in peace and freedom within one community.

    The idea of a universal rational order became substantial and effective in the Roman law. This was the law of a great society which did in fact bring peace and order to the Western world. The remembrance of the Roman peace is stamped indelibly on the consciousness of Western men. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman law, which was practiced in some degree almost everywhere, and was taught everywhere, was recognized as “the law of an international civilization and relatively universal.”

    pp. 106-107; 108.

    His influences were not just Catholics like Etienne Gilson, Cardinal Newman, and Thomas Aquinas but also Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, Leo Strauss, Emile Durkheim, and Plato. Civilization, he argues, taking a cue from historian Karl Jaspers, requires the development of what he calls a second nature:

    “When the individual becomes civilized he acquires a second nature. This second nature is made in the image of what he is and is living for and should become. He has seen the image in the mirror of history. This second nature, which
    rules over the natural man, is at home in the good society. This second nature is no proletarian but feels itself to be a
    rightful proprietor and ruler of the community. Full allegiance to the community can be given only by a man’s second nature, ruling over his first and primitive nature, and treating it as not finally himself. Then the disciplines and the necessities and the constraints of a civilized life have ceased to be alien to him, and imposed from without. They have become his own inner imperatives.”

    p. 136

    At the end of that last passage he explicitly cites his 1929 A Preface to Morals. One way to see his turn toward natural law is as a particular development of his earlier focus on humanism, now much more worried and more insistent because of the catastrophic world events that intervened between the two works and because of the threat of communism in the Cold War.

    “You are clearly favouring Dewey over Lippmann in your account, however, and seem to come down hard on what seem to me quite sensible comments about the role of the people….”

    As Dewey also was forced to admit, I agree with Lippmann’s diagnosis. If anything, the advance of mass communications has made the problems much worse than they were. Given that I am sympathetic to Lippmann’s later point about the value of humanism in Western Civilization, I would agree *more* than Dewey. However, Lippmann’s top-down model I don’t think will work (either technocracy or natural law), for the reasons Dewey and Oakeshott gave. On the other hand, I am not at all happy with Dewey’s scientism and would prefer a Dewey-style emphasis on education in a bottom-up approach and to have that education consist of much more of the humanities. In other words, partly because I too agree with Oakeshott’s critique, I think a Deweyan educational approach is the only feasible one, but with an at least equal part humanism, a humanism which I don’t think needs to be pushed in terms of arguing for Lippmann’s transcendent natural law.


  7. “Dewey apparently seeks to implement this vision through education (propaganda and indoctrination).”

    Dewey, of course, wouldn’t call it propaganda and indoctrination. Instead (to reference an example he mentions in one of his reviews of Lippmann) he would call it teaching children things like the theory of evolution. Creationists, on the other hand, would definitely view this as propaganda and indoctrination. I’m not a fan of Dewey’s forays into scientism (nor his blind spot concerning 1920’s Russia) but to describe the teaching of science as propaganda and indoctrination isn’t accurate. Given your own belief in modern science, I think to that extent at least you would agree with Dewey, no?

    “It appears that Lippmann, towards the end of his career, became more of a republican: res + publicius; the state represents the things and interests of the people with each having equal access. (See the Declaration of Independence.)”

    Hmm. Lippmann certainly never believed that the people should have equal access, either in his early or later works. What changed was how to address the problem. His early solutions were technocratic, the later ones looked toward natural law (at least for the elites). In terms of the Founders (or more specifically, the Founders that won the debate on governance, i.e., the Federalists), they certainly didn’t believe in equal access for the people. Federalists like Madison (e.g., Federalist 10) and John Adams make this very clear. The fact that most of us -left or right- are anti-Federalists today is one reason why appeals to the Founders don’t make much sense. The Declaration of Independence is nice and all, but it’s the Constitution that is the (ostensible) governing document. Ironically, they had much the same view of the irrationality of the masses that Lippmann did, only they derive their views from sources like classical authors warning about mob rule, whereas Lippmann derives his from modern psychology.


  8. Informative article and conversation.

    The diagnoses are pretty much on the money, but sadly, none of the prescriptions, from either Lippman or Dewey, are practicable. The hope of an educated elite maintaining governance is vain in a society where membership in the elite is determined solely by wealth, regardless of education, whether in the public or the private sector. And the hope of a mass-education of the electorate is equally vain in a society where the dominant commercial media interests recognize the benefit to themselves in maneuvering against, around, and even within educational institutions and agencies. Finally, the arrival of digital media, with its conflicting sources of information, presenting information as a matter of taste rather than communication of facts, combined with the Fox-ifixation of television news (our primary news source), means, not that the public receives inadequate or simply slanted information, but rather that it receives a cloud of ungrounded information, the veracity of which can never be ascertained.

    Politics will continue – political activity is part and parcel of the world into which are born. But I’m afraid that as attractive and as accurate as such analysis by Lippman or Dewey, we really need to reconceive the socius in terms that are more reallistically reflective of the world as it is.

    Many of us are unsatisfied with Post-Modern theorizing, and for good reasons. Unfortunately, we live in a Post-Modern world. Somehow, that must be addressed.