A review of Public Opinion
(Author: Walter Lippmann)
Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.
Walter Lippmann’s trenchant 1922 analysis of the origins of public opinion happens to dovetail with my own program of fighting our modern political media complex. Lippmann identified realities that most of us today would—whether easily, or grudgingly—accept. Yet, in the past one hundred years, little has been done about them. And, as a result, the recent evolution of media in our society is an escalating crisis.
The most important reality is the “pseudo-environment” in which every one of us exists. None of us has direct knowledge of our government or of the wider world. Our understandings of these are constructed out of images and out of what Lippmann called “stereotypes.” (He is credited, incidentally, for being one of the first to use this term in its modern sense. More about stereotypes later.) Citizens will never have the capability to guide national decision-making, and the idea that the press informs us in any meaningful way is illusory.
Lippmann’s critique rests, necessarily, on human psychology as it was understood then. Having studied cognitive science, I regard his understanding as pretty accurate. There are cognitive models today that are more sophisticated than what existed then, and a nitpicker might regard some of his more florid prose as psychobabble. Yet, he gets at the heart of social cognition issues in a way that seems rare today. As an illustration: there is much current academic research about the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning.” Compare to Lippmann’s account:
A pattern of stereotypes is not neutral. It is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and something more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them.
Its hallmark is that it precedes the use of reason; is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach the intelligence. The stereotype is like the lavender window-panes on Beacon Street, like the door-keeper at a costume ball who judges whether the guest has an appropriate masquerade. There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype. It stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence.
If the experience contradicts the stereotype, one of two things happens. If the man is no longer plastic, or if some powerful interest makes it highly inconvenient to rearrange his stereotypes, he pooh-poohs the contradiction as an exception that proves the rule, discredits the witness, finds a flaw somewhere, and manages to forget it.
Similarly: what political expert today is not enamored with the trendy concept of tribalism? It is frequently brought up using behavioral or anthropological language, but how is it experienced by individuals? Compare again to Lippmann:
There is another reason, besides economy of effort, why we so often hold to our stereotypes when we might pursue a more disinterested vision. The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society. They are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members.
No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.
Lippmann devotes much discussion to the other reasons why our picture of the world is so incomplete – including: the poverty of language; natural (and not always malevolent) forms of censorship; and, of course, our extremely-limited time, attention, and interest.
Again, most of us could accept all of this, or might even retort that it is too obvious to merit discussion. Though do we, accordingly, discount our own views about public and political affairs? Are we, therefore, open-minded about what our opposition thinks?
The Democratic Fantasy
In view of these realities, Lippmann is rather scornful of democracy as a form of government (including representative forms of it like ours). He discusses democracy’s history at great length. The flaw has always been there; however, as through ancient times, the theory retained an element of mysticism.
For in almost every political theory there is an inscrutable element which in the heyday of that theory goes unexamined. Behind the appearances there is a Fate, there are Guardian Spirits, or Mandates to a Chosen People, a Divine Monarchy, a Vice-Regent of Heaven, or a Class of the Better Born. The more obvious angels, demons, and kings are gone out of democratic thinking, but the need for believing that there are reserve powers of guidance persists. It persisted for those thinkers of the Eighteenth Century who designed the matrix of democracy. They had a pale god, but warm hearts, and in the doctrine of popular sovereignty they found the answer to their need of an infallible origin for the new social order. There was the mystery, and only enemies of the people touched it with profane and curious hands.
The “infallible origin” is, of course, public opinion. What actually drove democratic theorists was a particular idealism familiar to all Americans:
They were engaged, as against the prejudice of ages, in the assertion of human dignity. What possessed them was not whether John Smith had sound views on any public question, but that John Smith, scion of a stock that had always been considered inferior, would now bend his knee to no other man.
The critics were about as welcome as a small boy with a drum. Every one of these observations on the fallibility of man was being exploited ad nauseam. Had democrats admitted there was truth in any of the aristocratic arguments they would have opened a breach in the defenses. And so just as Aristotle had to insist that the slave was a slave by nature, the democrats had to insist that the free man was a legislator and administrator by nature. They could not stop to explain that a human soul might not yet have, or indeed might never have, this technical equipment, and that nevertheless it had an inalienable right not to be used as the unwilling instrument of other men.
Criticism of democracy’s Stupid Electorate is, of course, hardly uncommon. In recent years, for example, Achen and Bartels have discussed what they call the “folk theory” of democracy, and have used data to document how divorced from reality that conception is. (As politicians continue to publicly associate themselves with the “wisdom of the People.”)
Solutions unfortunately are hard to imagine. Perhaps the most commonly raised is more civic education—or, even, just more education. Libertarian thinkers such as Jason Brennan suggest “epistocracy,” that is, more votes for those citizens who are provably more knowledgeable; and Bryan Caplan recommends curbing voter turnout efforts.
It’s worthy of mention that Lippmann did not think that sending popularly-elected representatives from the various states made any difference to the problem, since these people also lacked the knowledge to manage national affairs. He provides a comical picture of a congressman desperately trying to “bone up” on a topic prior to a legislative vote, like a college student pulling an all-nighter to get through an exam. The real expertise, of course, resides within government agencies, access to which is largely controlled by the President.
Lippmann’s basic proposal—not, by any means, sketched out in practical detail—is to delegate most governmental decision-making to experts, while enforcing procedures for transparency. Here his perspective is perhaps the most charmingly dated. The early twentieth century was notable for its optimism about progress in the newish social sciences—including psychology, sociology, political science, and even management theory—and Lippmann looked forward to a day when scientific management could cure democracy’s ills.
Fundamentally, at any rate, America is cursed by its founding and its idealistic elevation of individual dignity. I find the following passage very unsettling:
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.
Certainly one is reminded here of the bizarre “originalist” view of our Constitution, which insists that all the wisdom we need can be deduced from a 200-year-old document. There are jurists who take this to an extreme, but even in the mainstream it is accepted that such old assumptions are a sufficient guide in the internet age. We live on our capital.
But the more important consequence, I think, is the way that individualism was hard-wired into our society. Each of us is special, my liberty to swing my fists ends at your nose, my opinion is as good as anyone else’s, don’t tread on me. Knowledge of government, economics, history, and science is not needed. Just my conscience. I am self-sufficient.
The News Business
I have lately become more interested in understanding the news business (e.g. and e.g.). Though much has changed in the past century, with television, cable news, nationalization, fragmentation, and social media, the most basic structural problems highlighted by Lippmann remain surprisingly relevant. Lippmann coined the phrase “manufacture of consent” decades before Herman and Chomsky arrived on the scene, and he devotes several chapters to the topic of “the press.”
The object of every publisher is, therefore, to turn his circulation from a medley of catch-as-catch-can news stand buyers into a devoted band of constant readers.
If the newspaper gives a satisfactory account of that which we think we know, our business, our church, our party, it is fairly certain to be immune from violent criticism by us. What better criterion does the man at the breakfast table possess than that the newspaper version checks up with his own opinion? Therefore, most men tend to hold the newspaper most strictly accountable in their capacity, not of general readers, but of special pleaders on matters of their own experience.
The news is an account of the overt phases that are interesting, and the pressure on the newspaper to adhere to this routine comes from many sides. It comes from the economy of noting only the stereotyped phase of a situation. It comes from the difficulty of finding journalists who can see what they have not learned to see. It comes from the almost unavoidable difficulty of finding sufficient space in which even the best journalist can make plausible an unconventional view. It comes from the economic necessity of interesting the reader quickly, and the economic risk involved in not interesting him at all, or of offending him by unexpected news insufficiently or clumsily described.
The economic pressure to give consumers whatever they want may be the biggest factor leading away from truth. Another, Lippmann reminds us, is the level of indirection: journalists either obtain information from documentation produced after the fact by institutions, or from spokespeople and PR departments that each have their own agendas.
But as social truth is organized to-day, the press is not constituted to furnish from one edition to the next the amount of knowledge which the democratic theory of public opinion demands. This is not due to the Brass Check, as the quality of news in radical papers shows, but to the fact that the press deals with a society in which the governing forces are so imperfectly recorded. The theory that the press can itself record those forces is false. It can normally record only what has been recorded for it by the working of institutions. Everything else is argument and opinion, and fluctuates with the vicissitudes, the self-consciousness, and the courage of the human mind.
He sees the function of the Fourth Estate as resting upon false assumptions:
It [the press] is too frail to carry the whole burden of popular sovereignty, to supply spontaneously the truth which democrats hoped was inborn. And when we expect it to supply such a body of truth we employ a misleading standard of judgment. We misunderstand the limited nature of news, the illimitable complexity of society; we overestimate our own endurance, public spirit, and all-round competence. We suppose an appetite for uninteresting truths which is not discovered by any honest analysis of our own tastes.
And Lippmann always brings it back to the constraints of the pseudo-environment:
For the troubles of the press, like the troubles of representative government, be it territorial or functional, like the troubles of industry, be it capitalist, cooperative, or communist, go back to a common source: to the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge. It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three-legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.
Democratic accountability does, still, have its virtues. And it is going to be a core feature of the US political system for a long, long time.
The phenomenon of stereotypes is a complicated one, though their existence and importance is not in dispute. They do, certainly, go by many different names and labels. Lippmann himself at times refers to them as “fixed impressions” and as “fictions.” Off the top of my head, I can think of many other such labels for what essentially are the same thing:
- metaphors (Lakoff)
- schemas (Bartlett)
- frames (Minsky)
- fictions (Harari)
- mental models (AI)
- myths (Ellul)
- tropes, narratives, ideologies, etc.
Though there are shades of meaning, in all cases they are simple mental structures that determine—almost always unconsciously—how we will interpret incoming information. (Note that today the word “stereotype” is popularly used as a synonym for “caricature” as in, “stereotyping women as irrational.” But I’ll continue here to use the word in Lippmann’s more general, non-normative sense.)
Stereotypes often introduce blind spots. An example Lippmann gives that is rather interesting from our vantage point today was the ideology of progress:
Men who were born at the beginning of the century had seen, before they had passed the age of thirty, the rapid development of steam navigation, the illumination of towns and houses by gas, the opening of the first railway.” In the consciousness of the average householder miracles like these formed the pattern of his belief in the perfectibility of the human race.
…the rush of their victory over mountains, wildernesses, distance, and human competition has even done duty for that part of religious feeling which is a sense of communion with the purpose of the universe. The pattern has been a success so nearly perfect in the sequence of ideals, practice, and results, that any challenge to it is called un-American.
Lippmann describes how this particular belief about Progress excluded visibility of other real phenomena (such as accretion of slums, environmental costs, poor labor relations) and led to naïve strategies in World War I.
He also described the blind spots in other prominent stereotypes:
There is in each set of stereotypes a point where effort ceases and things happen of their own accord, as you would like them to. The progressive stereotype, powerful to incite work, almost completely obliterates the attempt to decide what work and why that work. Laissez-faire, a blessed release from stupid officialdom, assumes that men will move by spontaneous combustion towards a pre-established harmony. Collectivism, an antidote to ruthless selfishness, seems, in the Marxian mind, to suppose an economic determinism towards efficiency and wisdom on the part of socialist officials. Strong government, imperialism at home and abroad, at its best deeply conscious of the price of disorder, relies at last on the notion that all that matters to the governed will be known by the governors. In each theory there is a spot of blind automatism.
That spot covers up some fact, which if it were taken into account, would check the vital movement that the stereotype provokes. If the progressive had to ask himself, like the Chinaman in the joke, what he wanted to do with the time he saved by breaking the record, if the advocate of laissez-faire had to contemplate not only free and exuberant energies of men, but what some people call their human nature, if the collectivist let the center of his attention be occupied with the problem of how he is to secure his officials, if the imperialist dared to doubt his own inspiration, you would find more Hamlet and less Henry the Fifth. For these blind spots keep away distracting images, which with their attendant emotions, might cause hesitation and infirmity of purpose. Consequently the stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.
It is remarkable to me, incidentally, how perfectly Lippmann described the stereotypes for laissez-faire capitalism and for socialism. In his thinking here, there is no dated quality whatsoever. In fact, the effect of reading these one-hundred-year-old words today is to make current, spirited debates about these topics seem ridiculously stale and shameful.
As shown, there are blind spots that ignore the existence of powerful phenomena. There are also blind spots that ignore proportionality: of time (how quickly?), space (how far?), quantity (how much?), and causality (how related?) For example, stereotypical thinking about climate action is rife with this issue. Proponents are right that action is needed, but their language of emergency obscures the impossibility of changing society overnight. And oil-industry apologists’ “planetary temperature fluctuation is natural” intentionally obscures the degree of human causality. Our “love of the absolute,” as Lippmann puts it, leads people to welcome simplistic narratives that eliminate gradations and amounts.
Stereotypes also interact with the individual’s religious beliefs, prejudices, and even temperament. Lippmann refers to these generically as one’s moral code.
As we adjust ourselves to our code, we adjust the facts we see to that code. Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.
…In the codes that are under the influence of science, the conception is known to be an hypothesis, whereas in the codes that come unexamined from the past or bubble up from the caverns of the mind, the conception is not taken as an hypothesis demanding proof or contradiction, but as a fiction accepted without question.
…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.
It is not the case that most people conceive of or apply a particular stereotype in the way that intellectuals assume or expect:
Most of us would deal with affairs through a rather haphazard and shifting assortment of stereotypes, if a comparatively few men in each generation were not constantly engaged in arranging, standardizing, and improving them into logical systems, known as the Laws of Political Economy, the Principles of Politics, and the like. Generally when we write about culture, tradition, and the group mind, we are thinking of these systems perfected by men of genius. Now there is no disputing the necessity of constant study and criticism of these idealized versions, but the historian of people, the politician, and the publicity man cannot stop there. For what operates in history is not the systematic idea as a genius formulated it, but shifting imitations, replicas, counterfeits, analogies, and distortions in individual minds.
It is Das Kapital as conceived, the gospels as preached and the preachment as understood, the Constitution as interpreted and administered, to which you have to go. For while there is a reciprocating influence between the standard version and the current versions, it is these current versions as distributed among men which affect their behavior.
But unfortunately it is ever so much harder to know this actual culture than it is to summarize and to comment upon the works of genius. The actual culture exists in people far too busy to indulge in the strange trade of formulating their beliefs.
There is, in short, a vast amount of guess work involved, and it is no wonder that scholars, who enjoy precision, so often confine their attentions to the neater formulations of other scholars.
Lippmann failed to take this analysis much further, but the details of how stereotypes are communicated and used among different categories of participants in public dialogue—academicians, journalists, politicians, the educated public, and the less-educated public—is pretty important. It has undoubtedly changed over time. Today there are more cynical propaganda factories setting much of the terms of the dialogue, including think tanks, partisan media, and, most recently, organizations optimized for social media like PragerU. One could say the primary purpose of these is to promote a small set of standardized stereotypes.
Fast Forward to 2021
The human mind has not changed since Lippmann’s time, but obviously there have been changes to the media landscape: television, the 24-hour news cycle, social media. From a historical perspective, it’s not easy to assess how radical these changes really are. Neil Postman, for example, identified the mid-1800s as a sea change moment when the telegraph and photography supplanted an era of rational public discourse for one of triviality and novelty; he most likely would see 1922 and 2021 as resting on the same, long continuum.
What certainly has been changing are the crumbling of decency and restraint, and continuing advances in the technology of political manipulation. Lippmann discussed the latter:
The 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.
And, of course, such technic, focusing upon emotions and stereotypes, will only keep improving.
For issues, as they are stated by a partisan, almost always consist of an intricate series of facts, as he has observed them, surrounded by a large fatty mass of stereotyped phrases charged with his emotion.
Unfortunately, this technic, combined with the modern trend towards geographic and ideological sorting, has taken partisanship to new heights, leading to a crippling polarization.
Another trend is the progressively-growing ratio of (a) the number of public voices joining the cacophony, to (b) the total amount (in a generously broad sense) of investigative journalism. As previously discussed, the news business is hobbled by economics, and is incented towards both partisan bias and conflict entertainment. Yet, we refuse to see the political media complex as a problem, wedded as we are to our “Fourth Estate” stereotypes.
Given the past century of progress in all of the sciences, and given our new information technology tools, shouldn’t we feel astonishment and outrage that public dialogue in our country is less connected to reality than in Lippmann’s time? Are we this helpless?
Fixing the Problem
Given the limitations of the press, Lippmann proposed a solution:
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.
Lippmann thought that creating information bureaus with carefully-designed operating processes would produce information grounded in reality and seriousness, which the press could then disseminate. It is a reasonable idea with a fundamental flaw: it fails to put citizens’ curiosity and interest at the center. Any solution that does not do this is certain to fail.
Lippmann’s one-hundred-year-old criticism of Political Science is, though, just as relevant today. Public dialogue is tearing our country apart, and all that political scientists do is measure it. An isolated exception that comes to mind is the newish phenomenon of fact checking; however, catching the fibs of politicians ignores the big picture and, unsurprisingly, does not generate much interest.
For a problem of this magnitude, what is really needed is the crafting of new institutions that ensure public dialogue is productive rather than destructive. As Lippmann himself said, the gauzy stereotype of letting thousands of voices ring, with a faith that the best and soundest decisions will win out through open discussion, has long proved to be a myth. If we care about our society, we need to create some kind of permanent “knowledge entity” that all citizens are willing to rely upon. I would not be able to say whether it is an amendment to the First Amendment, a new government agency, a takeover of media, some enhanced version of Lippmann’s information bureaus, or a combination of any of these.
None of them, however, seem politically possible to create today because of our polarization, and because of citizens’ lack of interest in (and outrage towards) the problem. The prerequisite step, then, is to persuade enough Americans that it is a real and serious problem.
Citizens must see the sham. The pseudo-environment. They need to become aware of and conversant about stereotypes. No doubt, promotion of critical thinking is central to it, both in school and in adult life. I hesitate though to even use that term because, for most people, it evokes the stereotype of a schoolmarm wagging her finger at a bored class. It would need to be made enticing.