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.