In the midst of our civic crisis, Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion still speaks
Mis- and disinformation, partisanship and polarization, crisis points and public trust—the big problems of 2022 were tackled by Walter Lippmann in his book Public Opinion, published one century ago. Certainly, the book’s central image of an average citizen spending thirty minutes a day with a print newspaper now seems quaint. Political media has exploded since 1922, and thirty minutes per day may sound healthier than the relentless torrent from multiple sources available now. Even so, Public Opinion holds up remarkably well. While Lippmann’s remedies were lacking, his diagnosis was dead-on.
A towering journalist and public intellectual through most of the twentieth century, Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) left a lexicon that is still with us. He coined the phrase “cold-war,” defining an era. In the pages of Public Opinion he repurposed the term “stereotype,” succinctly naming the simplistic preconceptions humans tend to rely on. The book’s similar notion of a “pseudo-environment” anticipates the concept of social constructionism. Although many associate the phrase “manufacture of consent” with Noam Chomsky, it first appeared in Public Opinion.
Indeed, Chomsky and others have fueled the widely held perception of Lippmann as an elitist who believed ordinary citizens lack intelligence and thus democracy to be fatally flawed because it relies on their judgment. This is not the view, however, that Lippmann puts forward in Public Opinion.
The book is partially rooted in Lippmann’s experience as an intelligence officer in the US Army during World War I. He describes developing public information amid a bewildering reality, while remaining acutely aware of two distinct audiences: a home front that craves affirmation and an enemy who both prompts and reacts to their reports. Though uncertain of battlefield realities themselves, intel officers both manipulated information aggressively and fabricated baseless stories; meanwhile, the enemy apparently did the same. Home-front audiences had no way of knowing the difference.
Lippmann suggests that wartime propaganda is not so different from the peacetime press. Yet, he also thought the image of elites pushing self-serving narratives to control the masses did not capture the problem. Indeed, Lippmann went out of his way to dispel this notion by noting that the socialist press, certainly not in thrall to the capitalist elite, was no less prone to distortions and misrepresentations. Lippmann argued that the real problem went much deeper.
The problem is this: The world is complex and human understanding is limited. This impacts both the production and consumption of media.
In Lippmann’s reckoning, everyday citizens aren’t unintelligent—they’re just not the “omnicompetent” information processors and decision-makers that purist democratic theory presumes. They have normal, natural limits of time, experience, and understanding. As they act in a world beyond their ken, they have no choice but to make judgments based on simplifying, distorting stereotypes. As a result, “public opinion” is not a unified organism but an internally conflicted mass.
In a striking passage, Lippmann anticipates the polarizing feedback loops of today’s social media. He writes that a large number of individuals responding to the same stimuli would scatter amid “a polygon of error” where clusters of like minded people could be classified together. “These classifications would begin to harden as individuals in each of these classifications made their reactions vocal. That is to say, when the vague feelings of those who felt vaguely were put into words, they would know more definitely what they felt, and would then feel it more definitely.”
This strength of feeling, generally tied to slogans and symbols, often prompts public discussion to be overwrought and discordant with the blandness of actual governance. Something as work-a-day as setting a subway fare can boil over into a battle for the nation’s soul: “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 is implied in [our war dead].”
Such depictions of the public invite charges of elitism. But Lippman makes clear that citizens must act on imperfect information, with little choice but to work with packaged accounts of events and subjects they can only know at second or third hand. Journalists and editors have cognitive and perceptive limitations of their own, notwithstanding their expertise and closer connection to reported events. Even with the best intentions and conditions, they must make complexity simple, first for themselves and then for their audiences.
For Lippmann, it’s not that the media are wholly and deliberately misleading. Rather, they are arbitrary, and inevitably incomplete. He compares the press to the “beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about,” leaving some things in darkness to illuminate others. And once an event is deemed newsworthy, its myriad elements can be framed, organized, contextualized, and narrativized any number of ways, entailing various emphases and omissions. One word chosen over another can imply different conceptions of reality. Veracity levels fluctuate as a malleable reality is massaged or exploited. Degrees of distortion are an unavoidable byproduct. It is impossible to escape bias, or charges of bias: It’s one-sideism! It’s both-sidesism!
While Lippmann saw general epistemic limitations as a fundamental problem, he also recognized ideology and confirmation bias as important factors. He depicts his kitchen table newsreaders preferring papers that comport with their beliefs, and editors playing to this desire.
Seeing grassroots politics as mostly illusory, he pitched top-down solutions: Policy would be mostly shaped by experts, technocrats, or oversight panels. We see the pitfalls of this approach (but no less the populist approach!) in our muddling through the Covid 19 pandemic. As for social media anarchy, Lippmannesque responses have been floated, but who or what can be the universally accepted final arbiter of truth and reality online—or off?
In the end, Lippmann describes a problem that can’t be solved. Instead, it must be managed. Lately, we’ve not managed it well, as we endure a cold civil war in which many seem willing to subvert our institutions.
So how can citizens hope to manage the maladies Lippmann diagnosed? First, we should follow the news with humility, mindful of its gaps and biases as well as our own limitations. We should use it less as validation and more as a source of imperfect but needed information. Second, we should note how vulnerable fervent belief can make us. We can hold our beliefs strongly, but we should also recognize that ideologies are systems of stereotypes in Lippmann’s sense: They are useful simplifications that help us operate in the world. In short, we must continually remind ourselves not to equate our stereotypes with reality.
Daniel Cole is an Associate Professor of Writing Studies and Rhetoric at Hofstra University.