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Public Opinion at 100

Walter Lippmann’s seminal work identified a fundamental problem for modern democratic society that remains as pressing—and intractable—as ever.
September 16, 2022
<em>Public Opinion</em> at 100
(The Bulwark / Composite)

One hundred years ago, a young American journalist named Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion. Though it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and still acknowledged as a foundational text in the study of social psychology, media, and propaganda, its centenary has passed, for the most part, unacknowledged. This is ironic, because its central question—put simply, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?”—has rarely been more relevant. Our current debates about disinformation and the pernicious effects of social media could be rather more productive if the participants would bother to read Lippmann—not because Lippmann provides any workable solutions, but because his analysis of the extent of the problem is so clear-eyed.

Public Opinion’s publication year, 1922, is a significant one. The book came out after four years of global war followed by four years of civil war in the former Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, a period in which information had been weaponized to a previously unimaginable extent. The government and the press, especially in the United Kingdom, had collaborated in ginning up support for the war through the publication of a number of astonishing lies—the Angels of Mons and infamous “corpse factories” being only the most flagrant. The full sense that the world had entered a new era in which reality was fragmented and the truth impossible to know was starting to be felt. Lippmann had enlisted as an intelligence officer when the United States entered the Great War in 1917, and witnessed the intimate relationship between news reporting and the war effort in France—the second chapter of Public Opinion opens with a striking account of how a roomful of French generals spent hours tinkering with the wording of a press release during the disastrous third day of the Verdun offensive. It seems the experience raised some serious doubts about the function of journalism during wartime, because upon being discharged in 1919 Lippmann immediately went to work on a series of essays castigating the press for its failure to report the news accurately and objectively.

A Test of the News” is a famous 1920 study of the New York Times’s coverage of the Russian Revolution that Lippmann co-wrote and published in the magazine he helped found, the New Republic. In it, Lippmann and co-writer Charles Merz showed that America’s flagship paper had reported events that never took place—including atrocities that never happened—and that it had claimed at least ninety-one times that the Bolsheviks were on the brink of collapse. The conclusion, to Lippmann and Merz, was obvious: “The news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” For Lippmann, this was a grave dereliction of duty. How could citizens and legislators, especially in the democratic countries, make informed judgments if they were being fed lies, hearsay, and gross exaggerations of fact? If people didn’t know the truth, how could they be free?

Initially, Lippmann hoped that journalism could be reformed—that by pointing out errors, he and others could help raise standards of truth-telling across the industry, leading to greater accuracy and objectivity in reporting. But the more he studied the problem, the more complex it seemed to become. It wasn’t simply that powerful political and economic interests influenced how the news was reported (though this was often the case); it was that the transmission of information itself was subject to a huge number of disparate pressures. Politicians made political calls based on how they would be perceived in the press; the press was beholden to its readers; the readers wanted the press to cover matters they were interested in, but also wanted to experience drama and titillation, to have their deepest fears exorcized, their convictions reflected, their prejudices affirmed. To make things even more complicated, these readers were not a united body, but a motley of cliques and demographic groups with very different preconceptions of reality. The wide range of newspapers, trade journals, and periodicals available in Lippmann’s time reflected the stunning diversity of the public as well as its fragmentation. And yet there were moments—World War I had furnished many—when this fragmented public fell in line behind a single narrative, often with disastrous consequences.

In Lippmann’s view, there was no question that the press frequently misrepresented or even falsified the facts. But it did so for such a wide variety of reasons that his solution of demanding higher professional standards in newsrooms began to seem quite inadequate to the scale of the problem. For a real solution to be possible, a more comprehensive account of how large numbers of people came to believe what they believed was necessary. Public Opinion was that account.

Lippmann around 1920. (Harris & Ewing, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lippmann’s book stands as the first attempt to comprehensively explain how individual psychology, political and social movements, and the mass media both create and unravel shared experiences of reality. The argument he lays out is fairly straightforward: Most of what we think we know about the world has been filtered down to us through external sources, and this information creates a sort of mental map, a collection of simplified representations of the world that help us navigate it more effectively. Inevitably, the accuracy and detail of our maps is directly related to our individual needs and interests—my mental map, for example, contains a great deal of information about Canadian literature, and almost none about how my computer works—but even the things we think we know are mostly just agglomerations of facts we’ve taken on trust from people and institutions relaying them at second- or third-hand. My confidence in saying that reality as I understand it corresponds to the real environment around me is a barometer of my faith in the sources of my information.

The mental maps we carry in our heads determine how we will act in the world, though they will not determine the outcomes of our actions. If I believe that Alaska has white sand beaches, I might book a holiday in Anchorage, but I will probably be disappointed after I arrive. While personal experience can help us correct misconceptions, not everyone can have personal experience of everything that affects their life, so the more abstracted from our personal experience a problem becomes, the more we will need to rely on the guidance and expertise of others. But these guides and experts are also finite individuals who must rely, in turn, on guidance and expertise from other sources, and the information they provide is shaded by their own prejudices and interests, as well as the inevitable distortions and elisions involved in any process of simplification and transmission. “The real environment,” Lippmann writes,

is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world. Their persistent difficulty is to secure maps on which their own need, or someone else’s need, has not sketched in the coast of Bohemia.

The final line is a reference to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in which a child is abandoned on the shores of Bohemia. Of course, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) is a landlocked country, and there has been considerable debate among scholars about where the notion of this maritime Bohemia came from. Lippmann’s point, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter why Shakespeare thought this was the case; everyone’s mental map has some version of a Bohemian coastline. And unfortunately, some people are actively trying to promulgate the idea that these Bohemian coastlines exist, and other people have staked their identities on the truth of them.

All of this makes things complicated enough when determining matters of fact, such as whether or not a massacre of civilians has been committed on a distant battlefield. When it comes to sweeping, value-laden judgments about, for example, the best way to deal with inflation or the energy crisis, it renders objective reporting nearly impossible.

If Lippmann is basically right—and it seems difficult, then as now, to argue that he isn’t—then the implications for democracy are troubling. When we invoke the rule of “the people,” we are invoking an abstraction, because the public body is in fact made up of an endless array of sets and classes and interests, cultivated and then pandered to by opinion-mongers and press barons who inflame the worst impulses of their audiences in order to create a steady market for their content. This is the opposite of the sort of feverish conspiracy about how the press works that cranks of all kinds have stipulated. If there is a larger purpose at work, it is generally of the most venal sort, often directed by nothing more than the need to present an opinion opposite to that of one’s competitor. If you squint, something like consensus may emerge during one moment of crisis or another, but it is usually illusory, and always fleeting.

William Randolph Hearst well understood the power of public opinion. (Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the reality Lippmann observed in his era, dominated as it was by William Randolph Hearst, whose misdeeds as a newspaper mogul would later include flamboyantly underhanded attacks on progressive writer Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign in California. But the account still has purchase today, and in a time of 24/7 opinion journalism, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, if anything, the situation has grown more dire.

For Lippmann, it was an open question whether meaningfully democratic government could survive the explosion in communications technology that had accompanied modernity. As the 1920s gave way to the ’30s and ’40s, it became easier for people to believe that something completely new really was happening, something that would wash away the old world of yeoman liberties and replace it with something much more sinister and mechanical. Public Opinion came to seem like a prophetic text.

In Lippmann’s rather nostalgic view, the problem of public opinion was a new one that had attended the rise of mass culture. The people who had built the American republic hadn’t foreseen the dangers of such a mediated world, because the original form of democracy was never seriously confronted with “the problem which arises because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside.” White, male property owners in the colonial period were largely asked (in theory, at least) to vote on matters that concerned them directly, things about which they had a fairly detailed knowledge. Lippmann’s nostalgia for the colonial period is, troublingly, a nostalgia for a world in which democracy did not expand beyond the elite.

There is also something ahistorical about his view: Arguments about the relationship between freedom and information are present in the founding of modern democracy. A decade before the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain, the rebel John Adams had argued that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” But the president John Adams sang a different tune when “general knowledge” became a threat to his administration. Seen from a certain angle, the Sedition Act of 1798 is the U.S. government’s first attempt to combat disinformation. The relationship between a truly free press and functional democratic government has been strained from the beginning, and if the tension between the two seemed particularly fraught in Lippmann’s age, it wasn’t for the first or the last time.

Public Opinion is a diagnostic work, and the majority of its chapters are dedicated to a systematic but deeply engaging series of arguments about how information flowed through just about every organ of public life in the early twentieth century. There are chapters on censorship and privacy, on interest and self-interest, on the formation of civil organizations and movements, on democratic government and the press and the economics of news. But however fascinating his digressions may be, Lippmann rarely loses sight of the main problem—and it is really the same problem Adams encountered a century and a half earlier: If liberty requires a “general knowledge among the people,” and the sources of this knowledge are everywhere polluted by human error, is liberty really possible?

In pursuing this problem, Lippmann was haunted by two of the three main ideologies that have defined political life since the dawn of mass culture: liberal capitalism and socialism. (Fascism, at that point in its infancy, had not yet fully emerged as an enemy.) The problem with liberal capitalism, as Lippmann sees it, is that it exalts individual choice, but fails to appreciate the extent to which individual choices are conditioned and influenced by the manipulation of information. And while Lippmann is generally sympathetic to socialist arguments about the way capitalist imperatives corrupt the media, he is skeptical of the idea that socialist forms of government could avoid this problem. Socialism, in his account, is prone to distortions and misrepresentations of its own, and anyway doesn’t address the fundamental problems of self-interest, simplification, and misinformation inherent in any sophisticated communications network. The socialists simply believe “that somehow mysteriously there exists in the hearts of men a knowledge of the world beyond their reach,” and that with capitalism out of the way everyone would come to spontaneous agreement about, say, the best way to electrify the countryside.

By the time one reaches the end of the book, Lippmann has so ruthlessly demolished any grounds for optimism about our ability to make the maps in our heads correspond to the world outside that it seems hard to imagine what a solution to this mess might look like. But he is not quite ready to give up on democracy. Instead, he calls for what we today might describe as a technocratic solution: Instead of expecting every citizen to sift through the expert opinions on every side of an issue, the burden should be shifted to an administrative body. Neutral, objective experts should be given the power to monitor the media and enforce basic standards of truth, and they should also be tasked with the responsibility to crunch the data and present workable solutions to the government. The best way to square the problem of public opinion is “not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push that burden away from him towards the responsible administrator.” The public would still have the right to periodically pass judgment on its leaders, but it would not be expected (or, one imagines, encouraged) to participate in the nitty-gritty debates over policy.

Lippmann must have understood how unsatisfying this conclusion is; he starts the final chapter by talking about how many different endings he has written and thrown away. But his conviction that democratic rule could only be preserved if the serious work of policy development and decision-making were relegated to a permanent bureaucratic class was unshakable. Lippmann spent the rest of his very long life arguing—often with himself—about the role of experts in guiding public opinion. But while he would become deeply disillusioned with the post-WWII technocracy amid its blunders during the Cold War, he seems never to have lost the belief that the public is something the elites must manage and control rather than answer to. This view would become enshrined in that strain of American liberalism that sees populism as the great enemy and disinformation as its most potent weapon. In every attempt to use the power of government to combat the unregulated spread of information, one sees the spectral, patrician hand of Walter Lippmann.

In the hundred years since Public Opinion came out, there has been no shortage of books seeking to explain the problem of democratic governance in the age of mass media. All of them owe something to the founding text, and some have become classics in their own right. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul updated Lippmann’s thesis for a Cold War world in Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, and Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman took the title of Manufacturing Consent from one of Lippmann’s most famous lines. But no one, to my knowledge, has yet found a way beyond Lippmann’s paradox. One of the reasons Public Opinion feels so fresh today is that it still describes our basic experience of the world.

At this point, I imagine readers expect me to offer a measure of comfort. Yes, Lippmann makes a strong case for the opposition, I might be tempted to say, but we’ve muddled through far worse since 1922, and surely if we pull together, we can yet save democracy. After all, mass culture didn’t destroy the rule of the people, and most of us are much better off now than we would have been a century ago. This might all be true, but it guarantees nothing. Even if we bracket the untold millions who met untimely deaths while democracy “muddled through,” it is important not to underestimate how grotesque our current situation is: The old-guard media clings to a discredited consensus, while local news organizations are cannibalized by giant tech platforms that concentrate wealth and regulatory power while handing out bullhorns to whoever can generate a bankable audience. Climate change all but guarantees that famine and death and pestilence and war will be regular companions for the generation now coming of age, and yet instead of offering a workable vision for the future, our leadership class and the intellectual superstructure that advises it seems capable only of fixating on the past, rehashing old slogans and relitigating old debates. If the heating goes out across Europe this winter, we’ll doubtless find that new demons wait for us in the cold. If we take any of this seriously, we’ll need to dispense with the notion that there are easy solutions to the problems Lippmann described.

You might be asking yourself: If things are that bad, and Lippmann doesn’t offer any solutions, why bother reading him? The answer is that Public Opinion should be read for the same reason we read other classic books: Because in it, a great intelligence grapples honestly with the problems of his time. In rereading this book on the centenary of its publication, I was struck by the fact that it came out in what was probably the best year for literature in the twentieth century—the year of James Joyce’s Ulysses, of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, of Babbitt, The Beautiful and Damned, Siddhartha, and Jacob’s Room, of the heavily revised Berlin edition of Bely’s Petersburg and the first English translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It was the year Kafka wrote and abandoned his final novel, The Castle. The year Modernism was born. Lippmann is, at heart, a literary modernist; his book is an attempt to represent a new form of human life in its emerging complexity and contradictions. And like many of the modernists, he recoiled from the full implications of his most penetrating insights. But we shouldn’t.

André Forget

André Forget writes from Sheffield, United Kingdom. His first novel, In the City of Pigs, was published in 2022. He is currently working on a book about propaganda. Twitter: @ayforget.