Walter Lippmann and the Phantom Public

Email Print

astounding success enjoyed by the Wilson administration in swinging
public opinion behind the United States’ entry into the First World
War in 1917 had revolutionary implications for the course and development
of democracy in our country. It was the most dramatic shift in public
opinion ever recorded in American history to that time – and it
was manufactured by propaganda.

isolationist and pacifist public was mobilized behind massive military
intervention, an eventuality Wilson had pledged to avoid mere months
earlier during his reelection campaign. In this effort, the Wilson
administration established an official propaganda agency called
the Committee on Public Information, headed up by the progressive
journalist George Creel. It employed the leading social scientists
of the day – among them a young Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew,
who would become the father of the American public relations industry
a few years later.

previous decade had seen the rapid emergence and growth of the anarcho-syndicalist
Industrial Workers of the World – their successful strike in Lowell,
Massachusetts in 1912 really frightened respectable types. Then
there was also the continuing agitation of Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist
Party – they reached their high water mark in the amazing election
of 1912 when Debs pulled nearly 7% of the national vote running
against Taft, Roosevelt and Wilson – the ultimate winner. In addition,
there were also progressives like Senator Robert LaFollette working
the inside, along with the suffragette movement and muckraking,
melting-pot-stirring to boot.

the years following the war, state repression – via the Sedition
Act, and Palmer raids (named for Wilson’s Attorney General) and
deportations – destroyed the more radical elements and intimidated
many of the reformers. Nonetheless, leading lights in the public
square and private sector realized that repression alone wasn’t
necessarily the most effective, and hence desirable, course of action.
Drawing on lessons learned from the extraordinary triumph of war
propaganda, along with the early accomplishments of the advertising
industry, social scientists embarked on the comprehensive application
of these social psychology techniques to politics. They’ve never
stopped since.

in turn caused a split to resurface among liberal thinkers of the
day. One side held that the public could and should participate
in democracy. The other scoffed, maintaining that the public was
too ignorant to do any more than cast ballots once in a while. Needless
to say, corporatist-conservatives didn’t then and don’t today even
bother dithering with such sophistry.

two leading figures representing these opposing positions were,
respectively, the Pragmatic philosopher John Dewey and Walter Lippmann,
a leading pundit, later to be dubbed the “Dean of American Journalism”
in mid-Century. Lippmann would decisively win the debate he and
Dewey carried on during the 1920s, backed as he was by the inexorable
growth of the public relations industry and a firmly ensconced elite
consensus which alternatively held in contempt and feared the “intrusion
of the public” into the affairs of the “responsible men.”

was an insider’s insider. A prominent Harvard graduate, he went
from advocating socialism to serving on the Creel Commission and
later advising President Wilson on his famous 14 Points at the Versailles
conference. Later, he would write the most widely read column in
the country for the New York Herald Tribune and thereafter
for the Washington Post until his death in 1974.

a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1979, signed
by New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and
then Washington Post owner-in-waiting Katherine Graham,
they exalted in the establishment of the “Walter Lippmann House”
at Harvard. They were “happy to report” a “fitting and lasting memorial”
to “one of the great Americans of the century.”

is instructive. Some would say that Lippmann and the liberal elite
of that day were “evil” men. Who knows? Dewey said Lippmann was
a “disappointed idealist.” I would agree; I would also commend him
for his honesty – the present propagandists in power are liars through
and through. His work remains helpful for those of us who wish to
continue the fight against his legacy.

all this got to do with anything? Well, a lot, actually. Ours is
an era in which “spin” is not just an accepted part of public life’s
scenery, it is routinely praised for its effectiveness with no regard
for its ultimate impact, as in “the Bush team is ‘brilliant’ at
‘controlling the debate’ or ‘getting their message out.'” This sorry
state of affairs has been abetted – and much else bad along with
it in the economic sphere – due to corporate control of the means
and hence content of socially relevant public information. Today,
this domination has reached historically unprecedented degree of

origins of the presently stupefied state of public opinion lie partially
in the counsel given back in the day by Lippmann. His case, addressing
the “leaders” on how to deal with “the rank and file,” was laid
out in two hugely influential works, Public
(1922) and The
Phantom Public

to the pieties that we have all been weaned on from the first flag
pledge in kindergarten right through high school social studies
class: this is the land of the freedom and liberty, the home of
the rugged individual. Unfortunately, being bombarded with stories
of the majesty and superiority of American democracy via the corporate
media – to say nothing of the self-serving “patriotism” parroted
by public officialdom – does not make it so. Lippmann’s work
debunks the fairy tale that Americans are spoon fed, giving the
reader an unvarnished account of the elite’s contempt for democracy.

101: Leaders & Rank and File

the lengthy excerpts which follow from Public Opinion,
note the imperious matter-of-fact tone which Lippmann maintains
throughout. He speaks of God as if he were addressing a sock puppet.
It is the voice of one secure in the knowledge of not only what
he states, but the unassailability of his depictions. No one with
any real power can contradict him.

of their transcendent practical importance, no successful leader
has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his
following. What privileges do within the hierarchy, symbols do for
the rank and file. They conserve unity. From the totem pole to the
national flag, from the wooden idol to God the Invisible King, from
the magic word to some diluted version of Adam Smith or Bentham,
symbols have been cherished by leaders, many of whom were themselves
unbelievers, because they were focal points where differences merged.

detached observer may scorn the ‘star-spangled’ ritual which hedges
the symbol, perhaps as much as the king who told himself that Paris
was worth a few masses. But the leader knows by experience that
only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can
use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common
target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out. No wonder
he hates what he calls destructive criticism… for poking about with
clear definitions and candid statements serves all high purposes
known to man except the easy conservation of a common will. Poking
about, as every responsible leader suspects, tends to break the
transference of emotion from the individual mind to the institutional
symbol. And the first result of that is, as he rightly says, a chaos
of individualism and warring sects…”

we see succinctly expressed the sheer utility of and cynicism with
which such apparent trivialities as God, country and patriotism
are treated by the “detached observer,” the leader and his propagandists.
We also notice the contempt with which “poking around,” in other
words questioning, the pronouncements of the “leader” are treated.
Onward and downward then.

great symbols possess by transference all the minute and detailed
loyalties of an ancient and stereotyped society. They evoke the
feeling that each individual has for the landscape, the furniture,
the faces, the memories that are his first, and in a static society,
his only reality. That core of images and devotions without which
he is unthinkable to himself, is nationality…

of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol
is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation.
It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the
few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives,
the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many,
deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects
they do not understand.

there are better description of what has happened to our country
since 9/11? Propaganda in the hands of a liberal is distasteful
and perhaps deadly; propaganda in the hands of a fascist always
results in mass murderous lies.]

aspects of our subjection to symbols are not flattering if we choose
to think of ourselves as realistic, self-sufficient, and self-governing
personalities… But in the world of action they may be beneficent,
and are sometimes a necessity. The necessity is often imagined,
the peril manufactured. But when quick results are imperative the
manipulation of masses through symbols may be the only quick way
of having a critical thing done. It is often more important to act
than understand. It is sometimes true that the action would fail
if everyone understood it. There are many affairs which cannot wait
for a referendum or endure publicity, and there are times, during
war for example, when a nation, an army and even its commanders
must trust strategy to a very few minds…”

selection is particularly relevant for us today. Lippmann points
to the extent to which appeals to “nationality” can evoke the most
intimate associations, those of “memories,” “faces” and “landscape”
– the “core of images and devotions.” These can be “exploited” however,
for “the symbol is also an instrument by which a few fatten on many,”
(Enron, et cetera) “deflect criticism,” (Osama who? Only appeasers
don’t want to squish Saddam!) and “seduce men into facing agony
for objects (like going to preemptive war for “democracy” and stuff)
they do not understand.”

then shares a few tips la Machiavelli for the leaders.

all leaders are not statesmen, all leaders hate to resign, and most
leaders find it hard to believe that bad as things are, the other
fellow would not make them worse… They are, therefore, intermittently
engaged in mending their fences and consolidating their position.

mending of fences consists in offering an occasional scapegoat,
in redressing a minor grievance affecting a powerful individual
or faction…or [advocating] a law to stop somebody’s vices. Study
the daily activity of any public official who depends on election
and you can enlarge the list… But the number of people to whom any
organization can be a successful valet is limited, and shrewd politicians
take care to attend either the influential, or somebody so blatantly
uninfluential that to pay any attention to him is a mark of sensational
magnanimity. The far greater number, who cannot be held by favors,
the anonymous multitude, receive propaganda.

official is in some degree a censor. And since no one can suppress
information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it,
without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every
leader is in some degree a propagandist. Strategically placed, and
compelled often to choose even at the best between the equally cogent
though conflicting ideals of safety for the institution, and candor
to his public, the official finds himself deciding more and more
consciously what facts, in what setting, in what guise he shall
permit the public to know.”

all of what are today considered simply an instrumental part of
doing political business – finding a suitable scapegoat, moral crusading,
pandering to “uninfluentials,” and the means by which they’ve been
discovered: polling, focus groups, spin doctors, image consultants
– are laid bare here.

Lippmann assesses the significance of propaganda for democracy,
turning the phrase later popularized by Noam Chomsky.

the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements, no one,
I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly
no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities
for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are
plain enough.

creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which
was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy.
But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in
technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule
of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled
with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy
has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more
significant than any shifting of economic power.

the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion
has become the self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular
government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but
it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create
consent will alter every political calculation and modify every
political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily
in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of
our thinking have become variables.

is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma
of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human
affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act
on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception and to forms
of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that
we cannot rely on intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual
opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.”

indeed, it would occur to no one to accuse high officialdom today
of acting on so vulgar and sentimental an impulse as “conscience.”
That is left to those naïve purveyors of the “original dogma
of democracy” who unrealistically maintain that “the human heart”
– the President’s transparently fake protestations to the contrary
– via the public, might even theoretically play some role in the
state’s decision making.

Phantom Public’s Fall

in The Phantom Public, we find an even deeper contempt
– which at times borders on outright loathing – of ordinary
citizens and their capacity to evaluate political questions. By
this time, some of the readers may aver that it has been demonstrated
time and again that the American public is disinterested in public
affairs and remarkably ignorant of such basic facts as the name
of the Vice President or the location of any number of countries
on a map.

them I say that they too, looking down from their precarious perch,
are among the “bystanders” who must defer to the superior judgment
of the “leaders,” just like all the assumed “idiots” out there.
There are many layers of self-deception. To illustrate,
a recent report indicated that a mere 0.1% of the population contributed
84% of the monies, some billions of dollars, to political campaigns
in 2000. These 300,000 odd Americans, along with the rest of their
friends in the top 1%, make for a pretty good approximation of the
“responsible men.” Forward then.

power, however absolute and unaccountable, reigns without provoking
a crisis, public opinion does not challenge it. Somebody must challenge
arbitrary power first. The public can only come to his assistance.
That, I think, is the utmost that public opinion can effectively
do. With the substance of the problem it can do nothing usually
but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically. It has no need to meddle
with it. Men in their active relation to affairs have to deal with
the substance, but in that indirect relationship when they can act
only through uttering praise or blame, making black crosses on white
paper, they have done enough, they have done all they can do if
they help to make it possible for the reason of other men to assert

when public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure
or a tyranny. It is not able to master the problem intellectually,
nor to deal with it except by wholesale impact. The theory of democracy
has not recognized this truth because it has identified the functioning
of government with the will of the people. This is a fiction. The
intricate business of framing laws and of administering them through
several hundred thousand public officials is in no sense the act
of the voters nor a translation of their will.”

is notable that he does not see fit to cite a single historical
example of the public’s “tyranny”; for him it is self-evident, a
truism. It is further curious that the unambiguous tyrannies perpetrated
by “leaders,” unfettered by “meddlesome” public opinion prior the
dawn of democratic forms, also escape his imperious sights. There
certainly were enough of them in our own history – slavery
comes to mind, as do the depredations of the pre-Wilson robber barons
– to merit a mention, no? Nonetheless…

modus vivendi of any particular historical period, the
system of rights and duties, has generally acquired some high religious
or ideal sanction. The thinkers laureate of the age will generally
manage to show that the institutions, the laws, the morality and
the custom of that age are divinely inspired. These tiresome illusions
have been exploded a thousand times. The prevailing system of rights
and duties at any time is at bottom a slightly antiquated formulation
of the balance of power among the active interests in the community…

whether the system is obsolete or not, in its naked origin, a right
is a claim somebody was able to assert, and a duty is an obligation
someone was able to impose.” Here, Lippmann once again speaks deep
truth. “Natural rights” – a noble fiction.

douses such shopworn homilies as “America, America, God shed his
grace on thee” and the like in yet another acid bath. His final
formulation is, however, a more significant and actually helpful
one. In an era in which our “rights” (the chilling effect on the
1st Amendment, the full frontal assault on the 4th Amendment) are
in full retreat and new “duties” (in the spirit of “Operation TIPS”
and kindred totalitarianisms) are surfacing, we should keep this
trenchant maxim well in mind.

random collection of bystanders who constitute the public could
not, even if they had a mind to, intervene in all the problems of
the day… Normally they leave their proxies to a kind of professional
public consisting of more or less eminent persons. Most issues are
never carried beyond this ruling group; the lay publics catch only
echoes of the debate.

by the push and pull of interested parties and public personages,
settlements are made more or less continually, the party in power
has the confidence of the country. In effect, the outsiders are
arrayed behind the dominant insiders. But if the interested parties
cannot be made to agree, if, as a result, there is disturbance and
chronic crisis, then the opposition among the insiders may come
to be considered the hope of the country, and be able to entice
the bystanders to its side.

support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs
when they seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has
been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular
government… A community where there is no choice does not have popular
government. It is subject to some form of dictatorship or it is
ruled by the intrigues of the politicians in the lobbies.

it is the custom of partisans to speak as if there were radical
differences between the Ins and Outs, it could be demonstrated,
I believe, that in stable and mature societies the differences are
necessarily not profound…

the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and in certain
of the Continental countries an election rarely means even a fraction
of what the campaigners said it would mean. It means some new faces
and perhaps a slightly different tendency in the management of affairs.
The Ins may have had a bias toward collectivism; the Outs will lean
toward individualism…

is, therefore, a certain mock seriousness about the campaigning
for votes in well-established communities. Much of the excitement
is not about the fate of the nation but simply about the outcome
of the game. Some of the excitement is sincere, like any fervor
of intoxication. And much of it is deliberately stoked up by the
expenditure of money to overcome the inertia of the mass of the

have yet to see a more accurate, to say nothing of yawningly matter-of-fact,
dissection of the two-party collusion as it exists today.

follows from this that a rule must be organized so that it can be
amended without revolution. Revision must be possible by consent.
But assent is not always given, even when the arguments in favor
of change are overwhelming. Men will stand on what they call their
rights. Therefore, in order that deadlock should be dissoluble,
a rule should provide that subject to a certain formal procedure
– the controversy over revision shall be public. This will often
break up the obstruction. Where it does not, the community is pretty
certain to become engaged on behalf of one of the partisans. This
is likely to be inconvenient to all concerned, and the inconvenience
due to meddling in the substance of a controversy by a crude, violent
and badly aimed public opinion at least may teach those directly
concerned not to invoke interference the next time.”

this segment is a real beaut. In essence, Lippmann elucidates just
when the public might become involved in political decision-making
– whenever the “dominant insiders” are unable to reach a mutually
satisfactory consensus. More likely than bringing anything to the
table, the public, by aligning itself with one faction of the dominant
insiders, will instead probably provide an object lesson. Their
“crudeness” and “violence” will chasten the leaders to resolve their
problems internally the next time.

outlined his servile role for the public, Lippmann assigns to political
scientists the task of analyzing public opinion and providing technocratic

is the task of the political scientist to devise the methods of
sampling and to define the criteria of judgment (for leaders). It
is the task of civic education (i.e. “social studies” and “history”
classes) in a democracy to train the public in the use of these
methods (i.e. cultivate being a chump). It is the task of those
who build institutions to take them into account.”

a passage that has seen some exposure, again by Chomsky – without
his tireless work, this essay could not exist – Lippmann shows his
true colors.

false ideal of democracy can only lead to disillusionment and to
meddlesome tyranny. If democracy cannot direct affairs, then a philosophy
which expects it to direct them will encourage the people to attempt
the impossible; they will fail, but that will interfere outrageously
with the productive liberties of the individual. 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.”

Defeats Liberal Democracy

[classical liberals of the enlightenment] made, instead, a noble
appeal to their [the bystander’s] highest instincts. They spoke
over the heads of men to man… [Classical Liberalism’s] appeal to
everybody’s conscience gave nobody a clue how to act; the voter,
the politician, the laborer, the capitalist had to construct their
own codes ad hoc, accompanied perhaps by an expansive liberal
sentiment, but without intellectual guidance from liberal thought.

a time when liberalism had lost its accidental association with
free trade and laissez faire, through their abandonment
in practice, it sadly justified itself as a necessary and useful
spirit, as a kind of genial spook worth having around the place.
For when individual men, guided by no philosophy but their own temporary
rationalizations, got themselves embroiled, the spook would appear
and in a peroration straighten out the more arbitrary biases displayed…

[liberalism] cannot say: You do this and you do that, as all ruling
philosophies must. It can only say: That isn’t fair, that’s selfish,
that’s tyrannical. Liberalism has been, therefore, a defender of
the underdog, and his liberator, but not his guide, when he is free.
Top dog himself, he easily leaves his liberalism aside, and to liberals
the sour reflection that they have forged a weapon of release but
not a way of life.

liberals have misunderstood the nature of the public to which they
appealed… He assumed all mankind was within hearing, that all
mankind, when it heard, would respond homogenously because it had
a single soul. His appeal to this cosmopolitan, universal, disinterested
intuition in everybody was equivalent to an appeal to nobody.”

is a bitter pill. It’s not enough that the ideals of the Enlightenment
have not yet spread far and wide in the United States, which necessitates
more and better popular education. No, it was all a waste of time
to appeal to such illusions as universality and conscience in the
first place. The “top dog” has no time for it, you see. That solves
that problem.

what anyone might consider a lay definition of “morality,” who is
really at fault here: the ordinary, disoriented citizen or the well-informed
insider who so cavalierly dismisses and advertently manipulates
and deceives his fellow Americans? The question is a valid today
as it was then.

such fallacy [as with enlightenment liberalism] is to be found in
the political philosophies which active men have lived by. They
have all assumed, as a matter of course, that in the struggle against
evil it was necessary to call upon some specific agent to do the

was the peculiarity of liberalism among theories which have played
a great part in the world that it attempted to eliminate the hero
entirely… The great state builders of modern times, Hamilton, Cavour,
Bismark, Lenin, each had in mind somebody, some group of real people,
who were to realize his program. The agents in the theory have varied,
of course; they are the landlords, then the peasants, or the unions,
or the military class, or the manufacturers; there are theories
addressed to a church, to the ruling classes in particular nations,
to some nation or race.”

is a guffaw-inducing thing, at first glance, to read Alexander Hamilton,
Bismarck and Lenin quoted admiringly in the same sentence. Another
look reveals that by this logic, the Nazi Führer Prinzip has
merit insofar as it “calls upon a specific agent,” a “race,” to
“build a great state” while invoking the “hero.” Not like those
liberal wimps.

is true that the Enlightenment project sought to make of those exposed
to its charms independent in intellect and of rational mind. This
is what distinguishes, among other things, participatory democracy
from the mentality which informs elite-orchestrated “bystander democracy,”
Fascism and Communism. The people are fools, only we the “responsible
men,” the “master race” or the “vanguard party” are fit to rule.

becoming evermore nuanced and pervasive in form and content, has
been a staple of American life for eight decades now, manifested
most frequently in advertising but also in very explicit and highly
coordinated governmental or corporate campaigns and stunts over
the years (among the more memorable in recent history were the Gulf
War Show complete with lurid tales that explicitly recalled World
War I propaganda against Hun (German) atrocities, the “Harry and
Louise” ads against universal health care and the Al Gore victory
in the “debate” with Ross Perot over NAFTA – a pro-investor treaty
which every single newspaper of note endorsed).

of them, however, have been dwarfed, and not only in terms of the
stakes, by the sheer enormity of lies and distortions that have
streamed out of the Bush administration since 9/11. The likely ongoing
development of something akin to the (allegedly discarded) Pentagon
“Office of Strategic Influence,” an overt and permanent domestic
propaganda agency, is just the latest indicator of the war on public

the past two decades, on matters of rich and poor and certainly
since 9/11 on matters of war and peace, we the people have been
“put in our place,” by the powers that are. The “phantom public”
does not rest perpetually however. Indeed, the likes of Lippmann
could never have foreseen the achievements New Deal or the anti-Vietnam
War movement. [Lippmann himself, interestingly, was a critic of
Vietnam well before the Tet Offensive.] With a disastrous war upon
us and whispers of economic crisis aloft, the phantom may yet rise
to again haunt the ghastly keepers of Lippmann’s flame.

3, 2005

Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can
find more of his work at his

Bender Archives

Email Print