kortina.nyc / notes
10 Jan 2020 | by kortina

Lippmann // Public Opinion

Walter Lippmann

Prediction: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion will be my favorite book of 2020.

This is another book like Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution that I immediately re-read upon finishing.

It’s an excellent critique of some of democracy and some of the greatest challenges of this form of governance (and it also points to key flaws in other systems for organizing societies like capitalism and communism).

Lippmann’s chief concerns are the limits of human knowledge in an increasingly complex and interconnected world where any individual’s ability to deeply know about most of the forces, people, and events that affect them is extremely limited.

Lippmann hits all of the topics I think are most important — a mix of information and media theory, politics and power, the limits of human understanding, and the implications of being species whose chief strengths and weaknesses are our social nature / ability to share knowledge.

This book will really temper any hopes you have about the ability to achieve democracy. Lippmann advocates for committees of experts, social scientists, evidence gatherers, etc, for informing the governing bodies, but didn’t present any answers I found terribly convincing.

I was left feeling the best we can do as a species is design systems that align interests as much as possible, for any sorts of misalignments will be exploited by whoever has greater power to influence shared narrative.

There were so many great passages in this book, so I have quoted extensively in my notes…

This touches upon some of the ‘constructed’ / narrative aspects of consciousness that I have talked about in Consciousness as Computation and Narrative, Intelligence, and AI and Social Systems are Computations that Minimize Uncertainty:

For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

By fictions I do not mean lies. I mean a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself. The range of fiction extends all the way from complete hallucination to the scientists’ perfectly self-conscious use of a schematic model, or his decision that for his particular problem accuracy beyond a certain number of decimal places is not important. A work of fiction may have almost any degree of fidelity, and so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not misleading. In fact, human culture is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called “the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.” The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, for however refreshing it is to see at times with a perfectly innocent eye, innocence itself is not wisdom, though a source and corrective of wisdom. For the real environment 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. 213

On our dependence upon others in our construction of world models:

The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. Yet this same creature has invented ways of seeing what no naked eye could see, of hearing what no ear could hear, of weighing immense masses and infinitesimal ones, of counting and separating more items than he can individually remember. He is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember. Gradually he makes for himself a trustworthy picture inside his head of the world beyond his reach.

Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters. And so in the chapters which follow we shall inquire first into some of the reasons why the picture inside so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside. Under this heading we shall consider first the chief factors which limit their access to the facts. They are the artificial censorships, the limitations of social contact, the comparatively meager time available in each day for paying attention to public affairs, the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages, the difficulty of making a small vocabulary express a complicated world, and finally the fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men’s lives. 289

The press as exemplar of the defective organization of public opinion:

I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions. I attempt, therefore, to argue that the serious acceptance of the principle that personal representation must be supplemented by representation of the unseen facts would alone permit a satisfactory decentralization, and allow us to escape from the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs. It is argued that the problem of the press is confused because the critics and the apologists expect the press to realize this fiction, expect it to make up for all that was not foreseen in the theory of democracy, and that the readers expect this miracle to be performed at no cost or trouble to themselves. The newspapers are regarded by democrats as a panacea for their own defects, whereas analysis of the nature of news and of the economic basis of journalism seems to show that the newspapers necessarily and inevitably reflect, and therefore, in greater or lesser measure, intensify, the defective organization of public opinion. My conclusion is that public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. This organization I conceive to be in the first instance the task of a political science that has won its proper place as formulator, in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made. I try to indicate that the perplexities of government and industry are conspiring to give political science this enormous opportunity to enrich itself and to serve the public. And, of course, I hope that these pages will help a few people to realize that opportunity more vividly, and therefore to pursue it more consciously. 297

Same old problems / amusing ourselves to death…

The size of a man’s income has considerable effect on his access to the world beyond his neighborhood. With money he can overcome almost every tangible obstacle of communication, he can travel, buy books and periodicals, and bring within the range of his attention almost any known fact of the world. The income of the individual, and the income of the community determine the amount of communication that is possible. But men’s ideas determine how that income shall be spent, and that in turn affects in the long run the amount of income they will have. Thus also there are limitations, none the less real, because they are often self-imposed and self-indulgent.

There are portions of the sovereign people who spend most of their spare time and spare money on motoring and comparing motor cars, on bridge-whist and post-mortems, on moving-pictures and potboilers, talking always to the same people with minute variations on the same old themes. They cannot really be said to suffer from censorship, or secrecy, the high cost or the difficulty of communication. They suffer from anemia, from lack of appetite and curiosity for the human scene. Theirs is no problem of access to the world outside. Worlds of interest are waiting for them to explore, and they do not enter. 485

Bottom up + top down perception:

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.


If we cannot fully understand the acts of other people, until we know what they think they know, then in order to do justice we have to appraise not only the information which has been at their disposal, but the minds through which they have filtered it. For the accepted types, the current patterns, the standard versions, intercept information on its way to consciousness.


In untrained observation we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice that the thing is man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subjects.

There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question. In a circle of friends, and in relation to close associates or competitors, there is no shortcut through, and no substitute for, an individualized understanding. Those whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit. For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both. 749

More on stereotypes and the limits of an individual’s attention:

But modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice, or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a “South European.” He is from Back Bay….

The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien. They are aroused by small signs, which may vary from a true index to a vague analogy. Aroused, they flood fresh vision with older images, and project into the world what has been resurrected in memory. Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life.

What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend upon those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to a code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind. 759


This philosophy is a more or less organized series of images for describing the unseen world. But not only for describing it. For judging it as well. And, therefore, the stereotypes are loaded with preference, suffused with affection or dislike, attached to fears, lusts, strong wishes, pride, hope. Whatever invokes the stereotype is judged with the appropriate sentiment. Except where we deliberately keep prejudice in suspense, we do not study a man and judge him to be bad. We see a bad man. We see a dewy morn, a blushing maiden, a sainted priest, a humorless Englishman, a dangerous Red, a carefree bohemian, a lazy Hindu, a wily Oriental, a dreaming Slav, a volatile Irishman, a greedy Jew, a 100% American. In the workaday world that is often the real judgment, long in advance of the evidence, and it contains within itself the conclusion which the evidence is pretty certain to confirm. Neither justice, nor mercy, nor truth, enter into such a judgment, for the judgment has preceded the evidence. Yet a people without prejudices, a people with altogether neutral vision, is so unthinkable in any civilization of which it is useful to think, that no scheme of education could be based upon that ideal. Prejudice can be detected, discounted, and refined, but so long as finite men must compress into a short schooling preparation for dealing with a vast civilization, they must carry pictures of it around with them, and have prejudices. The quality of their thinking and doing will depend on whether those prejudices are friendly, friendly to other people, to other ideas, whether they evoke love of what is felt to be positively good, rather than hatred of what is not contained in their version of the good. 955

On the limits of myth:

For a moral code is a scheme of conduct applied to a number of typical instances. To behave as the code directs is to serve whatever purpose the code pursues. It may be God’s will, or the king’s, individual salvation in a good, solid, three dimensional paradise, success on earth, or the service of mankind. In any event the makers of the code fix upon certain typical situations, and then by some form of reasoning or intuition, deduce the kind of behavior which would produce the aim they acknowledge….

But in daily living how does a man know whether his predicament is the one the law-giver had in mind? He is told not to kill. But if his children are attacked, may he kill to stop a killing? The Ten Commandments are silent on the point. Therefore, around every code there is a cloud of interpreters who deduce more specific cases. Suppose, then, that the doctors of the law decide that he may kill in self-defense. For the next man the doubt is almost as great; how does he know that he is defining self-defense correctly, or that he has not misjudged the facts, imagined the attack, and is really the aggressor? Perhaps he has provoked the attack. But what is a provocation?


Far more serious in the modern world than any difference of moral code is the difference in the assumptions about facts to which the code is applied. Religious, moral and political formulae are nothing like so far apart as the facts assumed by their votaries. Useful discussion, then, instead of comparing ideals, reexamines the visions of the facts. Thus the rule that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you rests on the belief that human nature is uniform. Mr. Bernard Shaw’s statement that you should not do unto others what you would have them do unto you, because their tastes may be different, rests on the belief that human nature is not uniform. The maxim that competition is the life of trade consists of a whole tome of assumptions about economic motives, industrial relations, and the working of a particular commercial system.


The moralist who submits to the scientific discipline knows that though he does not know everything, he is in the way of knowing something; the dogmatist, using a myth, believes himself to share part of the insight of omniscience, though he lacks the criteria by which to tell truth from error. For the distinguishing mark of a myth is that truth and error, fact and fable, report and fantasy, are all on the same plane of credibility.

The myth is, then, not necessarily false. It might happen to be wholly true. It may happen to be partly true. If it has affected human conduct a long time, it is almost certain to contain much that is profoundly and importantly true. What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion. And if you ask why the test of evidence is preferable to any other, there is no answer unless you are willing to use the test in order to test it. 959

How the event horizon informs opinion:

A presumption about time enters widely into our opinions. To one person an institution which has existed for the whole of his conscious life is part of the permanent furniture of the universe: to another it is ephemeral. Geological time is very different from biological time. Social time is most complex. The statesman has to decide whether to calculate for the emergency or for the long run. Some decisions have to be made on the basis of what will happen in the next two hours; others on what will happen in a week, a month, a season, a decade, when the children have grown up, or their children’s children. An important part of wisdom is the ability to distinguish the time-conception that properly belongs to the thing in hand. The person who uses the wrong time-conception ranges from the dreamer who ignores the present to the philistine who can see nothing else. A true scale of values has a very acute sense of relative time. 1053

The political must become personal to draw the engagement of the individual:

The ideologies of politics obey these rules. The foothold of realism is always there. The picture of some real evil, such as the German threat or class conflict, is recognizable in the argument. There is a description of some aspect of the world which is convincing because it agrees with familiar ideas. But as the ideology deals with an unseen future, as well as with a tangible present, it soon crosses imperceptibly the frontier of verification. In describing the present you are more or less tied down to common experience. In describing what nobody has experienced you are bound to let go. You stand at Armageddon, more or less, but you battle for the Lord, perhaps…. A true beginning, true according to the standards prevailing, and a happy ending. Every Marxist is hard as nails about the brutalities of the present, and mostly sunshine about the day after the dictatorship. So were the war propagandists: there was not a bestial quality in human nature they did not find everywhere east of the Rhine, or west of it if they were Germans. The bestiality was there all right. But after the victory, eternal peace. Plenty of this is quite cynically deliberate. For the skilful propagandist knows that while you must start with a plausible analysis, you must not keep on analyzing, because the tedium of real political accomplishment will soon destroy interest. So the propagandist exhausts the interest in reality by a tolerably plausible beginning, and then stokes up energy for a long voyage by brandishing a passport to heaven.

The formula works when the public fiction enmeshes itself with a private urgency. But once enmeshed, in the heat of battle, the original self and the original stereotype which effected the junction may be wholly lost to sight. 1253

Social mores are contextual:

The modern psychologists are disposed to regard the outward behavior of an adult as an equation between a number of variables, such as the resistance of the environment, repressed cravings of several maturities, and the manifest personality. It is only when our surroundings remain normal and placid, when what is expected of us by those we meet is consistent, that we live without knowledge of many of our dispositions. When the unexpected occurs, we learn much about ourselves that we did not know.

The selves, which we construct with the help of all who influence us, prescribe which impulses, how emphasized, how directed, are appropriate to certain typical situations for which we have learned prepared attitudes. For a recognizable type of experience, there is a character which controls the outward manifestations of our whole being. Murderous hate is, for example, controlled in civil life. Though you choke with rage, you must not display it as a parent, child, employer, politician. You would not wish to display a personality that exudes murderous hate. You frown upon it, and the people around you also frown. But if a war breaks out, the chances are that everybody you admire will begin to feel the justification of killing and hating. At first the vent for these feelings is very narrow. 1306

The prevailing moral culture generally remains “diffident at the awful complications of the modern world:”

The preparation of characters for all the situations in which men may find themselves is one function of a moral education. Clearly then, it depends for its success upon the sincerity and knowledge with which the environment has been explored. For in a world falsely conceived, our own characters are falsely conceived, and we misbehave. So the moralist must choose: either he must offer a pattern of conduct for every phase of life, however distasteful some of its phases may be, or he must guarantee that his pupils will never be confronted by the situations he disapproves. Either he must abolish war, or teach people how to wage it with the greatest psychic economy; either he must abolish the economic life of man and feed him with stardust and dew, or he must investigate all the perplexities of economic life and offer patterns of conduct which are applicable in a world where no man is self-supporting. But that is just what the prevailing moral culture so generally refuses to do. In its best aspects it is diffident at the awful complication of the modern world. In its worst, it is just cowardly. Now whether the moralists study economics and politics and psychology, or whether the social scientists educate the moralists is no great matter. Each generation will go unprepared into the modern world, unless it has been taught to conceive the kind of personality it will have to be among the issues it will most likely meet. 1311

What Marx (and other purely economic theories of social behavior, eg, capitalism) got wrong:

Did the theory have the validity which is so often claimed for it, it would enable us to prophesy. We could analyze the economic interests of a people, and deduce what the people was bound to do. Marx tried that, and after a good guess about the trusts, went wholly wrong. The first socialist experiment came, not as he predicted, out of the culmination of capitalist development in the West, but out of the collapse of a pre-capitalist system in the East. Why did he go wrong? Why did his greatest disciple, Lenin, go wrong? Because the Marxians thought that men’s economic position would irresistibly produce a clear conception of their economic interests. They thought they themselves possessed that clear conception, and that what they knew the rest of mankind would learn. The event has shown, not only that a clear conception of interest does not arise automatically in everyone, but that it did not arise even in Marx and Lenin themselves. After all that Marx and Lenin have written, the social behavior of mankind is still obscure. It ought not to be, if economic position alone determined public opinion. Position ought, if their theory were correct, not only to divide mankind into classes, but to supply each class with a view of its interest and a coherent policy for obtaining it. Yet nothing is more certain than that all classes of men are in constant perplexity as to what their interests are. As a matter of fact, when it came to the test, Lenin completely abandoned the materialistic interpretation of politics. Had he held sincerely to the Marxian formula when he seized power in 1917, he would have said to himself: according to the teachings of Marx, socialism will develop out of a mature capitalism… here am I, in control of a nation that is only entering upon a capitalist development… it is true that I am a socialist, but I am a scientific socialist… it follows that for the present all idea of a socialist republic is out of the question… we must advance capitalism in order that the evolution which Marx predicted may take place. But Lenin did nothing of the sort. Instead of waiting for evolution to evolve, he tried by will, force, and education, to defy the historical process which his philosophy assumed. 1331

From the perspective of the individual, only emotion about public event / foreign affairs actually exists — all other information is secondhand:

People differ widely in their susceptibility to ideas. There are some in whom the idea of a starving child in Russia is practically as vivid as a starving child within sight. There are others who are almost incapable of being excited by a distant idea. There are many gradations between. And there are people who are insensitive to facts, and aroused only by ideas. But though the emotion is aroused by the idea, we are unable to satisfy the emotion by acting ourselves upon the scene itself. The idea of the starving Russian child evokes a desire to feed the child. But the person so aroused cannot feed it. He can only give money to an impersonal organization, or to a personification which he calls Mr. Hoover. His money does not reach that child. It goes to a general pool from which a mass of children are fed. And so just as the idea is second hand, so are the effects of the action second hand. The cognition is indirect, the conation is indirect, only the effect is immediate. Of the three parts of the process, the stimulus comes from somewhere out of sight, the response reaches somewhere out of sight, only the emotion exists entirely within the person. Of the child’s hunger he has only an idea, of the child’s relief he has only an idea, but of his own desire to help he has a real experience. It is the central fact of the business, the emotion within himself, which is first hand. 1461

We are social beings that necessarily rely on information from each other every day:

At any rate we do find ourselves trusting certain people, who constitute our means of junction with pretty nearly the whole realm of unknown things. Strangely enough, this fact is sometimes regarded as inherently undignified, as evidence of our sheep-like, ape-like nature. But complete independence in the universe is simply unthinkable. If we could not take practically everything for granted, we should spend our lives in utter triviality. The nearest thing to a wholly independent adult is a hermit, and the range of a hermit’s action is very short. Acting entirely for himself, he can act only within a tiny radius and for simple ends. If he has time to think great thoughts we can be certain that he has accepted without question, before he went in for being a hermit, a whole repertory of painfully acquired information about how to keep warm and how to keep from being hungry, and also about what the great questions are.

On all but a very few matters for short stretches in our lives, the utmost independence that we can exercise is to multiply the authorities to whom we give a friendly hearing. As congenital amateurs our quest for truth consists in stirring up the experts, and forcing them to answer any heresy that has the accent of conviction. In such a debate we can often judge who has won the dialectical victory, but we are virtually defenseless against a false premise that none of the debaters has challenged, or a neglected aspect that none of them has brought into the argument. We shall see later how the democratic theory proceeds on the opposite assumption and assumes for the purposes of government an unlimited supply of self-sufficient individuals.

The people on whom we depend for contact with the outer world are those who seem to be running it. They may be running only a very small part of the world. The nurse feeds the child, bathes it, and puts it to bed. That does not constitute the nurse an authority on physics, zoology, and the Higher Criticism. Mr. Smith runs, or at least hires, the man who runs the factory. That does not make him an authority on the Constitution of the United States, nor on the effects of the Fordney tariff. Mr. Smoot runs the Republican party in the State of Utah. That in itself does not prove he is the best man to consult about taxation. But the nurse may nevertheless determine for a while what zoology the child shall learn, Mr. Smith will have much to say on what the Constitution shall mean to his wife, his secretary, and perhaps even to his parson, and who shall define the limits of Senator Smoot’s authority?

The priest, the lord of the manor, the captains and the kings, the party leaders, the merchant, the boss, however these men are chosen, whether by birth, inheritance, conquest or election, they and their organized following administer human affairs. They are the officers, and although the same man may be field marshal at home, second lieutenant at the office, and scrub private in politics, although in many institutions the hierarchy of rank is vague or concealed, yet in every institution that requires the cooperation of many persons, some such hierarchy exists. In American politics we call it a machine, or “the organization.” 1587

Democratic decision making always involves a finite list of items for vote, a list selected by only a few people — the selection of ballet items is undemocratic:

The abuses of the steering committee have led to various proposals such as the initiative, referendum and direct primary. But these merely postponed or obscured the need for a machine by complicating the elections, or as H. G. Wells once said with scrupulous accuracy, the selections. **For no amount of balloting can obviate the need of creating an issue, be it a measure or a candidate, on which the voters can say Yes, or No. There is, in fact, no such thing as “direct legislation.” **For what happens where it is supposed to exist? The citizen goes to the polls, receives a ballot on which a number of measures are printed, almost always in abbreviated form, and, if he says anything at all, he says Yes or No. The most brilliant amendment in the world may occur to him. He votes Yes or No on that bill and no other. You have to commit violence against the English language to call that legislation. I do not argue, of course, that there are no benefits, whatever you call the process. I think that for certain kinds of issues there are distinct benefits. But the necessary simplicity of any mass decision is a very important fact in view of the inevitable complexity of the world in which those decisions operate. The most complicated form of voting that anyone proposes is, I suppose, the preferential ballot. Among a number of candidates presented the voter under that system, instead of saying yes to one candidate and no to all the others, states the order of his choice. But even here, immensely more flexible though it is, the action of the mass depends upon the quality of the choices presented. And those choices are presented by the energetic coteries who hustle about with petitions and round up the delegates. The Many can elect after the Few have nominated. 1642

On the power of symbols in politics:

BECAUSE 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. The 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, sometimes called by free spirits the elimination of buncombe. “Above all things,” says Bagehot, “our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it.” 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. The disintegration of a symbol, like Holy Russia, or the Iron Diaz, is always the beginning of a long upheaval.

These 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. The great symbols take up these devotions, and can arouse them without calling forth the primitive images. The lesser symbols of public debate, the more casual chatter of politics, are always referred back to these proto-symbols, and if possible associated with them. The question of a proper fare on a municipal subway is symbolized as an issue between the People and the Interests, and then the People is inserted in the symbol American, so that finally in the heat of a campaign, an eight cent fare becomes unAmerican. The Revolutionary fathers died to prevent it. Lincoln suffered that it might not come to pass, resistance to it was implied in the death of those who sleep in France.

Because 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. 1659

Democracy is designed for a state of peace, not emergency:

But so also is a conspiracy of silence. Says Captain Wright: “It is in the High Command and not in the line, that the art of camouflage is most practiced, and reaches to highest flights. All chiefs everywhere are now kept painted, by the busy work of numberless publicists, so as to be mistaken for Napoleons — at a distance….It becomes almost impossible to displace these Napoleons, whatever their incompetence, because of the enormous public support created by hiding or glossing failure, and exaggerating or inventing success…. But the most insidious and worst effect of this so highly organized falsity is on the generals themselves: modest and patriotic as they mostly are, and as most men must be to take up and follow the noble profession of arms, they themselves are ultimately affected by these universal illusions, and reading it every morning in the paper, they also grow persuaded they are thunderbolts of war and infallible, however much they fail, and that their maintenance in command is an end so sacred that it justifies the use of any means…. These various conditions, of which this great deceit is the greatest, at last emancipate all General Staffs from all control. They no longer live for the nation: the nation lives, or rather dies, for them. Victory or defeat ceases to be the prime interest. What matters to these semi-sovereign corporations is whether dear old Willie or poor old Harry is going to be at their head, or the Chantilly party prevail over the Boulevard des Invalides party.”

Yet Captain Wright who can be so eloquent and so discerning about the dangers of silence is forced nevertheless to approve the silence of Foch in not publicly destroying the illusions. There is here a complicated paradox, arising as we shall see more fully later on, because the traditional democratic view of life is conceived, not for emergencies and dangers, but for tranquillity and harmony. And so where masses of people must cooperate in an uncertain and eruptive environment, it is usually necessary to secure unity and flexibility without real consent. The symbol does that. It obscures personal intention, neutralizes discrimination, and obfuscates individual purpose. It immobilizes personality, yet at the same time it enormously sharpens the intention of the group and welds that group, as nothing else in a crisis can weld it, to purposeful action. It renders the mass mobile though it immobilizes personality. The symbol is the instrument by which in the short run the mass escapes from its own inertia, the inertia of indecision, or the inertia of headlong movement, and is rendered capable of being led along the zigzag of a complex situation. 1669

A suggestion for better empowering citizen participation in public decision making given that we all have private opinions informed by second hand information we get from the media. Informed public opinion takes time and effort, so how can we motivate people to spend this time?

But surely there is a still more momentous question, the question of how to validate our private versions of the political scene. There is, as I shall try to indicate further on, the prospect of radical improvement by the development of principles already in operation. But this development will depend on how well we learn to use knowledge of the way opinions are put together to watch over our own opinions when they are being put together. For casual opinion, being the product of partial contact, of tradition, and personal interests, cannot in the nature of things take kindly to a method of political thought which is based on exact record, measurement, analysis and comparison. Just those qualities of the mind which determine what shall seem interesting, important, familiar, personal, and dramatic, are the qualities which in the first instance realistic opinion frustrates. Therefore, unless there is in the community at large a growing conviction that prejudice and intuition are not enough, the working out of realistic opinion, which takes time, money, labor, conscious effort, patience, and equanimity, will not find enough support. That conviction grows as self-criticism increases, and makes us conscious of buncombe, contemptuous of ourselves when we employ it, and on guard to detect it. Without an ingrained habit of analyzing opinion when we read, talk, and decide, most of us would hardly suspect the need of better ideas, nor be interested in them when they appear, nor be able to prevent the new technic of political intelligence from being manipulated. 1752

Democracy in the US presupposes a certain amount of standardization of techniques and ideologies that were the product of a historically unique set of physical world conditions and local constraints:

And so for many different reasons, self-sufficiency was a spiritual ideal in the formative period. The physical isolation of the township, the loneliness of the pioneer, the theory of democracy, the Protestant tradition, and the limitations of political science all converged to make men believe that out of their own consciences they must extricate political wisdom. It is not strange that the deduction of laws from absolute principles should have usurped so much of their free energy. The American political mind had to live on its capital. In legalism it found a tested body of rules from which new rules could be spun without the labor of earning new truths from experience. The formulae became so curiously sacred that every good foreign observer has been amazed at the contrast between the dynamic practical energy of the American people and the static theorism of their public life. That steadfast love of fixed principles was simply the only way known of achieving self-sufficiency. But it meant that the public opinions of any one community about the outer world consisted chiefly of a few stereotyped images arranged in a pattern deduced from their legal and their moral codes, and animated by the feeling aroused by local experiences.

Thus democratic theory, starting from its fine vision of ultimate human dignity, was forced by lack of the instruments of knowledge for reporting its environment, to fall back upon the wisdom and experience which happened to have accumulated in the voter. God had, in the words of Jefferson, made men’s breasts “His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” **These chosen people in their self-contained environment had all the facts before them. The environment was so familiar that one could take it for granted that men were talking about substantially the same things. The only real disagreements, therefore, would be in judgments about the same facts. There was no need to guarantee the sources of information. They were obvious, and equally accessible to all men. Nor was there need to trouble about the ultimate criteria. In the self-contained community one could assume, or at least did assume, a homogeneous code of morals. The only place, therefore, for differences of opinion was in the logical application of accepted standards to accepted facts. And since the reasoning faculty was also well standardized, an error in reasoning would be quickly exposed in a free discussion. It followed that truth could be obtained by liberty within these limits. **The community could take its supply of information for granted; its codes it passed on through school, church, and family, and the power to draw deductions from a premise, rather than the ability to find the premise, was regarded as the chief end of intellectual training. 1864

★ On the fundamental fallacy of democracy and a more tenable reframing of the objectives of government (this, I think, is one of the most important passages of the book).

The democratic fallacy has been its preoccupation with the origin of government rather than with the processes and results…. For no matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source.

If you try to control government wholly at the source, you inevitably make all the vital decisions invisible. For since there is no instinct which automatically makes political decisions that produce a good life, the men who actually exercise power not only fail to express the will of the people, because on most questions no will exists, but they exercise power according to opinions which are hidden from the electorate.

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

There is no prospect, in any time which we can conceive, that the whole invisible environment will be so clear to all men that they will spontaneously arrive at sound public opinions on the whole business of government. And even if there were a prospect, it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered, or would take the time to form an opinion on “any and every form of social action” which affects us. The only prospect which is not visionary is that each of us in his own sphere will act more and more on a realistic picture of the invisible world, and that we shall develop more and more men who are expert in keeping these pictures realistic. Outside the rather narrow range of our own possible attention, social control depends upon devising standards of living and methods of audit by which the acts of public officials and industrial directors are measured. We cannot ourselves inspire or guide all these acts, as the mystical democrat has always imagined. But we can steadily increase our real control over these acts by insisting that all of them shall be plainly recorded, and their results objectively measured. I should say, perhaps, that we can progressively hope to insist. For the working out of such standards and of such audits has only begun. 2074

A prescient strategy for building an audience that seems to have really taken off…

There are newspapers, even in large cities, edited on the principle that the readers wish to read about themselves. The theory is that if enough people see their own names in the paper often enough, can read about their weddings, funerals, sociables, foreign travels, lodge meetings, school prizes, their fiftieth birthdays, their sixtieth birthdays, their silver weddings, their outings and clambakes, they will make a reliable circulation.

The classic formula for such a newspaper is contained in a letter written by Horace Greeley on April 3, 1860, to “Friend Fletcher” who was about to start a country newspaper:

“I. Begin with a clear conception that the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that he is most concerned about his neighbors. Asia and the Tongo Islands stand a long way after these in his regard…. Do not let a new church be organized, or new members be added to one already existing, a farm be sold, a new house raised, a mill set in motion, a store opened, nor anything of interest to a dozen families occur, without having the fact duly, though briefly, chronicled in your columns. If a farmer cuts a big tree, or grows a mammoth beet, or harvests a bounteous yield of wheat or corn, set forth the fact as concisely and unexceptionally as possible.” 2182

PR must create moments / rely on stunts:

Were reporting the simple recovery of obvious facts, the press agent would be little more than a clerk. But since, in respect to most of the big topics of news, the facts are not simple, and not at all obvious, but subject to choice and opinion, it is natural that everyone should wish to make his own choice of facts for the newspapers to print. The publicity man does that. And in doing it, he certainly saves the reporter much trouble, by presenting him a clear picture of a situation out of which he might otherwise make neither head nor tail. But it follows that the picture which the publicity man makes for the reporter is the one he wishes the public to see. He is censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers, and to the whole truth responsible only as it accords with the employers’ conception of his own interests.


The good press agent understands that the virtues of his cause are not news, unless they are such strange virtues that they jut right out of the routine of life. This is not because the newspapers do not like virtue, but because it is not worth while to say that nothing has happened when nobody expected anything to happen. So if the publicity man wishes free publicity he has, speaking quite accurately, to start something. He arranges a stunt: obstructs the traffic, teases the police, somehow manages to entangle his client or his cause with an event that is already news. 2258

The press is essential to democracy, but easily corruptible, and not a substitute for institutions:

If the newspapers, then, are to be charged with the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic, they fail, they are bound to fail, in any future one can conceive they will continue to fail. It is not possible to assume that a world, carried on by division of labor and distribution of authority, can be governed by universal opinions in the whole population. Unconsciously the theory sets up the single reader as theoretically omnicompetent, and puts upon the press the burden of accomplishing whatever representative government, industrial organization, and diplomacy have failed to accomplish. Acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours, the press is asked to create a mystical force called Public Opinion that will take up the slack in public institutions. The press has often mistakenly pretended that it could do just that. It has at great moral cost to itself, encouraged a democracy, still bound to its original premises, to expect newspapers to supply spontaneously for every organ of government, for every social problem, the machinery of information which these do not normally supply themselves. Institutions, having failed to furnish themselves with instruments of knowledge, have become a bundle of “problems,” which the population as a whole, reading the press as a whole, is supposed to solve.

The press, in other words, has come to be regarded as an organ of direct democracy, charged on a much wider scale, and from day to day, with the function often attributed to the initiative, referendum, and recall. The Court of Public Opinion, open day and night, is to lay down the law for everything all the time. It is not workable. And when you consider the nature of news, it is not even thinkable. For the news, as we have seen, is precise in proportion to the precision with which the event is recorded. Unless the event is capable of being named, measured, given shape, made specific, it either fails to take on the character of news, or it is subject to the accidents and prejudices of observation.

Therefore, on the whole, the quality of the news about modern society is an index of its social organization. The better the institutions, the more all interests concerned are formally represented, the more issues are disentangled, the more objective criteria are introduced, the more perfectly an affair can be presented as news. At its best the press is a servant and guardian of institutions; at its worst it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends. In the degree to which institutions fail to function, the unscrupulous journalist can fish in troubled waters, and the conscientious one must gamble with uncertainties. 2336

Lippmann advocates for competition (in the realm of information and government) over planning. The real value is a sort of meta, in defining the rules of competition and the standards of measurement:

But, of course, each of the ten bureaus could not work in a watertight compartment. In their relation one to another lies the best chance for that “coordination” of which so much is heard and so little seen. Clearly the various staffs would need to adopt, wherever possible, standards of measurement that were comparable. They would exchange their records. Then if the War Department and the Post Office both buy lumber, hire carpenters, or construct brick walls they need not necessarily do them through the same agency, for that might mean cumbersome over-centralization; but they would be able to use the same measure for the same things, be conscious of the comparisons, and be treated as competitors. And the more competition of this sort the better.

For the value of competition is determined by the value of the standards used to measure it. Instead, then, of asking ourselves whether we believe in competition, we should ask ourselves whether we believe in that for which the competitors compete. No one in his senses expects to “abolish competition,” for when the last vestige of emulation had disappeared, social effort would consist in mechanical obedience to a routine, tempered in a minority by native inspiration. Yet no one expects to work out competition to its logical conclusion in a murderous struggle of each against all. The problem is to select the goals of competition and the rules of the game. Almost always the most visible and obvious standard of measurement will determine the rules of the game: such as money, power, popularity, applause, or Mr. Veblen’s “conspicuous waste.” What other standards of measurement does our civilization normally provide? How does it measure efficiency, productivity, service, for which we are always clamoring?

By and large there are no measures, and there is, therefore, not so much competition to achieve these ideals. For the difference between the higher and the lower motives is not, as men often assert, a difference between altruism and selfishness. It is a difference between acting for easily understood aims, and for aims that are obscure and vague. Exhort a man to make more profit than his neighbor, and he knows at what to aim. Exhort him to render more social service, and how is he to be certain what service is social? What is the test, what is the measure? A subjective feeling, somebody’s opinion. Tell a man in time of peace that he ought to serve his country and you have uttered a pious platitude, Tell him in time of war, and the word service has a meaning; it is a number of concrete acts, enlistment, or buying bonds, or saving food, or working for a dollar a year, and each one of these services he sees definitely as part of a concrete purpose to put at the front an army larger and better armed, than the enemy’s.

So the more you are able to analyze administration and work out elements that can be compared, the more you invent quantitative measures for the qualities you wish to promote, the more you can turn competition to ideal ends. If you can contrive the right index numbers you can set up a competition between individual workers in a shop; between shops; between factories; between schools; between government departments; between regiments; between divisions; between ships; between states; counties; cities; and the better your index numbers the more useful the competition. 2478

Direct democracy is impossible due to the limits of the attention / time of the citizenry (and the admission that partisan rhetoric is far more entertaining than reports and statistics):

In real life no one acts on the theory that he can have a public opinion on every public question, though this fact is often concealed where a person thinks there is no public question because he has no public opinion. But in the theory of our politics we continue to think more literally than Lord Bryce intended, that “the action of Opinion is continuous,” even though “its action… deals with broad principles only.” And then because we try to think of ourselves having continuous opinions, without being altogether certain what a broad principle is, we quite naturally greet with an anguished yawn an argument that seems to involve the reading of more government reports, more statistics, more curves and more graphs. For all these are in the first instance just as confusing as partisan rhetoric, and much less entertaining.

The amount of attention available is far too small for any scheme in which it was assumed that all the citizens of the nation would, after devoting themselves to the publications of all the intelligence bureaus, become alert, informed, and eager on the multitude of real questions that never do fit very well into any broad principle. 2536

★ Here is another outstanding articulation of one of the failure modes of democracy (and how democratic ideals are subverted by demagogues):

For the practice of appealing to the public on all sorts of intricate matters means almost always a desire to escape criticism from those who know by enlisting a large majority which has had no chance to know. The verdict is made to depend on who has the loudest or the most entrancing voice, the most skilful or the most brazen publicity man, the best access to the most space in the newspapers. For even when the editor is scrupulously fair to “the other side,” fairness is not enough. There may be several other sides, unmentioned by any of the organized, financed and active partisans. 2552

Insistence on procedure (of public discourse) is the only possible public opinion that the majority can hold (for they cannot possibly be well informed on intricacies of every matter):

There is, for example, a grave dispute in the steel industry. Each side issues a manifesto full of the highest ideals. The only public opinion that is worth respect at this stage is the opinion which insists that a conference be organized. For the side which says its cause is too just to be contaminated by conference there can be little sympathy, since there is no such cause anywhere among mortal men. Perhaps those who object to conference do not say quite that. Perhaps they say that the other side is too wicked; they cannot shake hands with traitors. All that public opinion can do then is to organize a hearing by public officials to hear the proof of wickedness. It cannot take the partisans’ word for it. But suppose a conference is agreed to, and suppose there is a neutral chairman who has at his beck and call the consulting experts of the corporation, the union, and, let us say, the Department of Labor.

Judge Gary states with perfect sincerity that his men are well paid and not overworked, and then proceeds to sketch the history of Russia from the time of Peter the Great to the murder of the Czar. Mr. Foster rises, states with equal sincerity that the men are exploited, and then proceeds to outline the history of human emancipation from Jesus of Nazareth to Abraham Lincoln. At this point the chairman calls upon the intelligence men for wage tables in order to substitute for the words “well paid” and “exploited” a table showing what the different classes are paid. Does Judge Gary think they are all well paid? He does. Does Mr. Foster think they are all exploited? No, he thinks that groups C, M, and X are exploited. What does he mean by exploited? He means they are not paid a living wage. They are, says Judge Gary. What can a man buy on that wage, asks the chairman. Nothing, says Mr. Foster. Everything he needs, says Judge Gary. The chairman consults the budgets and price statistics of the government. He rules that X can meet an average budget, but that C and M cannot. Judge Gary serves notice that he does not regard the official statistics as sound. The budgets are too high, and prices have come down. Mr. Foster also serves notice of exception. The budget is too low, prices have gone up. The chairman rules that this point is not within the jurisdiction of the conference, that the official figures stand, and that Judge Gary’s experts and Mr. Foster’s should carry their appeals to the standing committee of the federated intelligence bureaus.

Nevertheless, says Judge Gary, we shall be ruined if we change these wage scales. What do you mean by ruined, asks the chairman, produce your books. I can’t, they are private, says Judge Gary. What is private does not interest us, says the chairman, and, therefore, issues a statement to the public announcing that the wages of workers in groups C and M are so-and-so much below the official minimum living wage, and that Judge Gary declines to increase them for reasons that he refuses to state. After a procedure of that sort, a public opinion in the eulogistic sense of the term can exist.

The value of expert mediation is not that it sets up opinion to coerce the partisans, but that it disintegrates partisanship. Judge Gary and Mr. Foster may remain as little convinced as when they started, though even they would have to talk in a different strain. But almost everyone else who was not personally entangled would save himself from being entangled. For the entangling stereotypes and slogans to which his reflexes are so ready to respond are by this kind of dialectic untangled. 2566

I cannot recommend Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion highly enough.

You may also enjoy:

Tweet Like andrew.kortina@gmail.com