Public Opinion | Reflections & Notes

Walter Lippmann. Public Opinion. Free Press, 1922. (272 pages)

cf. Google Play; .pdf; Wikipedia Page; The Basic Problem of Democracy.


In short, Public Opinion has surmised and summarized the great weaknesses of democracy being located in our human psychology and offered solutions akin to a “technocratic elite” to mitigate these failings. The basic premise of a healthy democracy is the “omnicompetent citizen” which Lippmann proposes is both a fantasy and fallacy. We do not–no–we cannot have the right information to make the right decisions because we do not live in the real world. Rather, we live within “pseudo-environments” of our own emotional imagination informed and shaped by our own experiences. This, in turn, supports and substantiates the institutions of the academy and the media that inform our political thinking. And, due to the force of division being stronger than the force for the common good, politicians are ultimately elected not because they’re good for the country, but because they protect my interests.

There is virtually no argument against Lippmann’s general assessment. Indeed, so much of what Lippmann writes about is confirmed in Liliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement. That is perhaps the first astounding observation, that this analysis is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. So, too, is the main challenge which is how to think about democracy in light of our social psychology, and what practical solutions can we deploy to mitigate its flaws.

One of the most intriguing ideas is an “epistocracy,” in which an informed citizen’s vote gets more weight than an uninformed citizen. Jason Brennan in Against Democracy proposes various possibilities for how this would work including letting citizens decide what should determine the parameters of an “informed citizen.” It is paradoxically and simultaneously democratic and epistocratic. Sean Illing of takes issue with several elements of this idea and proposes we not think so grimly of democracy saying,

Democracy has always been a mess, and yet the democratic world has, over time, gotten more wealthy, more stable, and more tolerant. So democracy is self-evidently not a disaster. Why should we expect an epistocracy to produce a better outcome? [November 9, 2018]

On August 9, 2018, @seanilling published, Intellectuals have said democracy is failing for a century. They were wrong.: Walter Lippmann’s famous critique of democracy revisited. [Updated December 20, 2018]. In this article, Illing concedes points of Lippmann’s arguments, but proposes that John Dewey, not Walter Lippmann, is more correct:

There is no limit to the intellectual endowment which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates by word of mouth from one to another in the communications of the local community. That and that only gives reality to public opinion. We lie, as Emerson, said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.

I won’t solve the debate here, but will “cast my vote” with Lippmann and Brennan while conceding merit to Dewey and Illing. In short,

  • Illing’s suggestion that “the democratic world has, over time, gotten more wealthy, more stable, and more tolerant,” needs some serious qualifications, socially, historically, and economically. The statement could also betray the fact that he may be speaking more as an elite.
  • Social systems are no match for social psychology. I believe–presently–in the power of human fear to sabotage human intelligence.
  • 2020 is turning out to be an apocalyptic year that cannot fully be blamed on a virus. Democracy, in this instance, has failed. America has lost its pride of place in the world, and while there may be course correction coming in this election year, the fact that it is so uncertain right now is an indictment on our citizenry and evidence for Lippmann and Brennan.
  • Dewey’s suggestion that “intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium” is just plain false. Intelligence runs in small elite groups of people that have a significant influence on our lives all the time, and that is what sustains our current civic existence.
  • While I don’t believe that an epistocracy will ever become our stated governing system, I would argue we are already operating like one. Illing writes:

Instead of abandoning democracy, maybe what we need is more and better democracy. Maybe, as Dewey taught, we need to educate and empower more citizens.

Which is precisely the point, to “educate and empower more citizens.” In other words, grow the “epistocratic base.” Add in a good portion of “technocracy” and I think we’ve found our solution where knowledge and engineered solutions rule and reign. I think most Americans would agree that we need a good dose of both right now.

While a bit of a more difficult read, this book is an important one for political science and the ways in which we conceive our civic lives. So, read below these notes and highlights, and you’ll be several steps further along the journey of becoming that “omnicompetent citizen” our world so desperately needs.


“Behold! human beings living in a sort of underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all across the den; they have been here from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them; for the chains are arranged in such a manner as to prevent them from turning round their heads. At a distance above and behind them the light of a fire is blazing, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have before them, over which they show the puppets.

I see, he said.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying vessels, which appear over the wall; also figures of men and animals, made of wood and stone and various materials; and some of the prisoners, as you would expect, are talking, and some of them are silent?

This is a strange image, he said, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said: how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would see only the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to talk with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

– The Republic of Plato, Books Seven. (Jowett Translation)

Forward by Ronald Steel

How could the public get the information it needs to make rational political judgments if it could not rely on the press? Unbiased information had become essential, he argued, because “decisions in a modern state tend to be made by the interaction, not of Congress and the executive, but of public opinion and the executive.” The power of public opinion, that is, had become greater than that of the legislative branch of government. For this reason the accuracy of news reporting, the protection of the sources of public opinion, had become the “basic problem of democracy.” (xi)

| But what if accuracy was not enough? What if the problem was not only one of ensuring fair reporting and removing government censorship and other interference, but also involve the way that the average reader formed his opinions? What were the psychological forces that affected understanding? How did people interpret information, accurate or not? What emotional reactions did it trigger in them? How did their emotions affect their political judgment?</mark? (xii)

What if the public didn’t know what it didn’t know? (xii)

…the very nucleus of democratic theory: the assumption of an “omnicompetent citizen” capable of making reasoned judgments on public issues when presented with the “facts.” … This was because human beings are creatures not only of reason, but also of emotions, habits, and prejudices. Since no one can see everything and respond to it, we choose and categorize among the things we observe. How we categorize determines not only how, but also what we see. “We do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see,” Lippmann wrote… (xii)

[Stereotypes] are, [Lippman] wrote, the “guarantee of our self-respect … the projection upon the world of our own value.” But of greater significance to decision-making is that if stereotypes determine what we see, our perceptions may be no more than partial truths. What we assume to be “facts” may be only judgments. (xiii)

But while men are willing to admit that there are two sides to a ‘question’ they do not believe that there are two sides to what they regard as a ‘fact.’ – Lippman

We live partly in a real world and partly in a fabricated one that we construct from what other stell us: from stories, pictures, newspaper accounts, and the like. This constitutes not a real environment but, in his vivid term, a “pseudo-environment.” (xiii)

Theories of democratic decision-making, however, were based on the assumption that every person would have a direct experience of the issues he was called upon to decide. The problem is that most of us do not live in the world of the Greek city-state or the New England village; we are called upon as voters to make decisions about issues we cannot experience first hand or often even fully comprehend. … The external world has become too complex for any person, however well intentioned, to grasp. This condition has serious political implications. Classic democracy, Lippman argued, “never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside.” Stereotyping, prejudice, propaganda all conspire to distort the image. Since democratic theory assumes a knowledgeable and unbiased electorate, Lippman’s analysis undercut the very foundation of popular government.  Because of built-in limitations of the press and even of the popular mind, it was no longer possible, he asserted, to believe in the “original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart.” (xiii)

The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts.

One should not ask too much of the average man. He would arrive at a problem “in the middle of the third act and leave before the last curtain.” Great states could not be run on such a casual basis. The notion that there is a general public that directs events was an abstraction,… But the wider, uninformed public is, and must be, limited in its powers. It can do certain things: choose among those who are capable of making informed political decisions, and elect the Outs when it grows disgruntled with the Ins. (xv)


1. The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads

There was a moment when the picture of Europe on which men were conducting their business as usual, did not in any way correspond to the Europe which was about to make a jumble of their lives. (3)

Great men, even during their lifetime, are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality. Hence the modicum of truth in the old saying that no man is a hero to his valet. (5)

…a counterfeit of reality… For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. (10)

…we must note particularly one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. (10)

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. (11)

To expect that all men for all time will go on thinking different things, and yet doing the same things, is a doubtful speculation. It is not founding society on a communion, or even on a convention, but rather on a coincidence. (14)

[via: Once again, “covenant” is a really important category in human affairs.]

And so before we involve ourselves in the jungle of obscurities about the innate differences of men, we shall do well to fix our attention upon the extraordinary differences in what men know of the world. I do not doubt that there are important biological differences. Since man is an animal it would be strange if there were not. But as rational beings it is worse than shallow to generalize at all about comparative behavior until there is a measurable similarity between the environments to which behavior is a response. (15)

To my mind it shows the uselessness of pontificating about what man is and always will be from what we observe man to be doing, or about what are the necessary conditions of society. For we do not know how men would behave in response to the facts of the Great Society. All that we really know is how they behave in response to what can fairly be called a most inadequate picture of the Great Society. No conclusion about man or the Great Society can honestly be made on evidence like that. (16)

| This, then, will be the clue to our inquiry. We shall assume that what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. … The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results. (16)

The very fact that men theorize at all is proof that their pseudo-environments, their interior representations of the world, are a determining element in thought, feeling, and action. For if the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown,… (17)

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. (18)

| 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. … 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. (18)

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. … 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. (19)

[via: 100 years ago, this is astute, prophetic, and depressing. Are we simply doomed to our own devices and limitations? 100 years later, nothing has changed.]


2. Censorship and Privacy

Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible. In order to conduct a propaganda there must be some barrier between the public and the event. Access to the real environment must be limited, before anyone can create a pseudo-environment that he thinks wise or desirable. (28)

[via: It is my understanding that Lippmann is here referring to propaganda coming from sources of authority, such as government. What appears now different is that we ourselves are self-perpetuating our own propaganda. Yes?]

Whether the reasons for privacy are good or bad, the barriers exist. … It is often very illuminating, therefore, to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. … You can ask yourself these questions, but you can rarely answer them. They will remind you, however, of the distance which often separates your public opinion from the event with which it deals. And the reminder is itself a protection. (29)

3. Contact and Opportunity

While censorship and privacy intercept much information at its source, a very much larger body of fact never reaches the whole public at all, or only very slowly. For there are very distinct limits upon the circulation of ideas. (30)

They live in grooves… …the circulation of ideas is influenced. (31)

The size of a man’s income has considerable effect on his access to the world beyond his neighborhood. (32)

Whatever the tests of admission, the social set when formed is not a mere economic class, but something which more nearly resembles a biological clan. Membership is intimately connected with love, marriage and children, or, to speak more exactly, with the attitudes and desires that are involved. In the social set, therefore, opinions encounter the canons Family Tradition, Respectability, Propriety, Dignity, Taste and Form,…. (33)

Within each social set there are augurs…who are recognized as the custodians and the interpreters of its social pattern. (34)

The hierarchy, in fact, is bound together by the social leaders. (34)

Some of the sets are so placed that they become what Professor Ross has called “radiant points of conventionality.” Thus the social (34) superior is likely to be imitated by the social inferior, the holder of power is imitated by subordinates, the more successful the less successful, the rich by the poor, the city by the country. (35)

…it is no wonder that moral judgment is so much more common than constructive thought. Yet in truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious and open-hearted. Man’s history being what it is, political opinion on the scale of the Great Society requires an amount of selfless equanimity rarely attainable by any one for any length of time. We are concerned in public affairs, but immersed in our private ones. The time and attention are limited that we can spare for the labor of not taking opinions for granted, and we are subject to constant interruption. (36)

4. Time and Attention

5. Speed, Words, and Clearness

A few words must often stand for a whole succession of acts, thoughts, feelings, and consequences. (42)

Men command fewer words than they have ideas to express, and a language, as Jean Paul said, is a dictionary of faded metaphors. (42)

[via: see George Lakoff]

The power to dissociate superficial analogies, attend to differences and appreciate variety is lucidity of mind. It is a relative faculty. (44)

We easily identify, says Ferenczi, two only partially similar things: the child more easily than the adult, the primitive or arrested mind more readily than the mature. … Only very gradually does function define itself. To complete inexperience this is a coherent and undifferentiated world, in which, as someone has said of a school of philosophers, all facts are born free and equal. Those facts which belong together in the world have not yet been separated from those which happen to lie side by side in the stream of consciousness. (45)

Under modern industrialism thought goes on in a bath of noise. If its discriminations are often flat and foolish, here at least is some small part of the reason. (47)

Every man whose business it is to think knows that he must for part of the day create about himself a pool of silence. But in the helter-skelter which we flatter by the name of civilization, the citizen performs the perilous business of government under the worst possible conditions. (47)

We learn to understand why our addled minds seize so little with precision, why they are caught up and tossed about in a kind of tarantella by headlines and catch-words, why so often they cannot tell things apart or discern identity in apparent differences. (47)

| But this external disorder is complicated further by internal. Experiment shows that the speed, the accuracy, and the intellectual quality of association is deranged by what we are taught to call emotional conflicts. (47)

The mass of absolute illiterate, of feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished and frustrated individuals, is very considerable, much more considerable there is reason to think than we generally suppose. Thus a wide popular appeal is circulated among persons who are mentally children or barbarians, people whose lives are a morass of entanglements, people whose vitality is exhausted, shut-in people, and people whose experience has comprehended no factor in the problem under discussion. The stream of public opinion is stopped by them in little eddies of misunderstanding, where it is discolored with prejudice and far fetching analogy. (48)

Thus the environment with which our public opinions deal is refracted in many ways, by censorship and privacy at the source, by (48) physical and social barriers at the other end, by scanty attention, by the poverty of language, by distraction, by unconscious constellations of feeling, by wear and tear, violence, monotony. These limitations upon our access to that environment combine with the obscurity and complexity of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception, to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas, and to deprive us of adequate checks upon those who consciously strive to mislead. (49)


6. Stereotypes

Of any public event that has wide effects we see at best only a phase and an aspect. … Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. (53)

The problem of the acquisition of meaning by things, or (stated in another way) of forming habits of simple apprehension, is thus the problem of introduction (a) definiteness and distinction and (2) consistency or stability of menaing into what is otherwise vague and wavering. (54)

For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define (54) first and then see. (55)

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. (57)

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. (59)

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. (59)

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. (60)

| 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. (60)

Any description in words, or even any inert picture, requires an effort of memory before a picture exists in the mind. But on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you. (61)

[via: What McLuhan described as a “hot” medium, versus a “cold,” medium.]

7. Stereotypes as Defense

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. (63)

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. (63)

The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy. (64)

If the experience contradicts the stereotype, one of two things happens. If the man is no longer plastic, or if some powerful interest (65) 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. But if he is still curious and open-minded, the novelty is taken into the picture, and allowed to modify it. (66)

8. Blind Spots and Their Value

Thus Marxism is not necessarily what Karl Marx wrote in Das Kapital, but whatever it is that all the warring sects believe, who claim to be the faithful. From the gospels you cannot deduce the history of Christianity, nor from the Constitution the political history (69) of America. 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. (70)

With the stereotype of “progress” before their eyes, Americans have in the mass seen little that did not accord with that progress. (72)

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. (75)

9. Codes and Their Enemies

Certainly for the most part, the way we see things is a combination of what is there and of what we expect to find. (76)

Expertness in any subject is, in fact, a multiplication of the number of aspects we are prepared to discover, plus the habit of discounting our expectations. (76)

But in our public opinions few can be expert,… Those who are experts are so on only a few topics. (76)

For when a system of stereotypes is well fixed, our attention is called to those facts which support it, and diverted from those which contradict. So perhaps it is because they are attuned to find it, that kindly people discover so much reason for kindness, malicious people so much malice. We speak quite accurately of seeing through rose-colored spectacles, or with a jaundiced eye. If, as Philip Littell once wrote of a distinguished professor, we see life as through a class darkly, our stereotypes of what the best people and the lower classes are like will not be contaminated by understanding. What is alien will be rejected, what is different will fall upon unseeing eyes. We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account. Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy. (78)

[via: Apparently “confirmation bias” was “discovered” and coined in 1960, over forty years after Lippmann’s writing.]

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. (79)

| For a moral code is a scheme of conduct applied to a number of typical instances. (79)

But in daily living how does a man know whether his predicament is the one the law-giver had in mind? … Therefore, around every code there is a cloud of interpreters who deduce more specific cases. (79)

At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. (80)

What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power (80) 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. (81)

That is one reason why it is so dangerous to generalize about human nature. A loving father can be a sour boss, an earnest municipal reformer, and a rapacious jingo abroad. His family life, his business career, his politics, and his foreign policy rest on totally different versions of what others are like and how he should act. These versions differ by codes in the same person, the codes differ somewhat among persons in the same social set, differ widely as between social sets, and between two nations, or two colors, may differ to the point where there is no common assumption whatever. That is why people professing the same stock of religious beliefs can go to war. The element of their belief which determines conduct is that view of the facts which they assume. (81)

The orthodox theory holds that a public opinion constitutes a moral judgment on a group of facts. The theory I am suggesting is that, in the present state of education, a public (81) opinion is primarily a moralized and codified version of the facts. (82)

It is only when we are in the habit of recognizing our opinions as a partial experience seen through our stereotypes that we become truly tolerant of an opponent. Without that habit, we believe in the absolutism of our own vision, and consequently in the treacherous character of all opposition. For while men are willing to admit that there are two sides to a “question,” they do not believe there are two sides to what they regard as a “fact.” (82)

10. The Detection of Stereotypes

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. (89)

Into almost every social problem the proper calculation of time enters. (92)

Suppose, for example, that engineers conclude that the present fuels are being exhausted at a certain rate; that barring new discoveries industry will have to enter a phase of contraction at some definite time in the future. We have then to determine how much thrift and self-denial we will use, after all feasible economies have been exercised, in order not to rob posterity. But what shall we consider posterity? Our grandchildren? Our great-grandchildren? Perhaps we shall decide to calculate on a hundred years, believing that to be ample time for the discovery of alternative fuels if the necessity is made clear at once. The figures are, of course, hypothetical. But in calculating that way we shall be employing what reason we have. We shall be giving social time its place in public opinion. (92)

[via: Painfully prescient.]

Far better to give the company a subsidy now in order to attract capital than to stimulate investment by indulging a fallacious sense of eternity. (93)

But the future is the most illusive time of all. (94)

In putting together our public opinions, not only do we have to picture more space than we can see with our eyes, and more time than we can feel, but we have to describe and judge more people, more actions, more things than we can ever count, or vividly imagine. We have to summarize and generalize. We have to pick out samples, and treat them as typical. (95)

Prophecy would be so much easier if only they would stay where we put them. But, as a matter of fact, a phrase like the working class will cover only some of the truth for a part of the time. When you take all the people, below a certain level of income, and call them the working class, you cannot help assuming that the people so classified will behave in accordance with your stereotype. … The tendency, when you are appealing to the “working class,” is to fix your attention on two or three million more or less confirmed trade unionists, and treat them as Labor;… (97)

The more untrained a mind, the more readily it works out a theory that two things which catch its attention at the same time are causally connected. …public opinions are still further beset, because in a series of events seen mostly through stereotypes, we readily accept sequence or parallelism as equivalent to cause and effect. (99)

| This is most likely to happen when two ideas that come together arouse the same feeling. If they come together they are likely to arouse the same feeling; and even when they do not arrive together a powerful feeling attached to one is likely to suck out of all the corners of memory any idea that feels about the same. Thus everything painful tends to collect into one system of cause and effect, and likewise everything pleasant. (99)


11. The Enlisting of Interest

But the human mind is not a film which registers once and for all each impression that comes through its shutters and lenses. The human mind is endlessly and persistently creative. The pictures fade or combine, are sharpened here, condensed there, as we make them more completely our own. They do not lie inert upon the surface of the mind, but are reworked by the poetic faculty into a personal expression of ourselves. We distribute the emphasis and participate in the action. (103)

The deepest of all the stereotypes is the human stereotype which imputes human nature to inanimate or collective things. (103)

We cannot be much interested in, or much moved by, the things we do not see. (104)

Pictures have always been the surest way of conveying an idea, and next in order, words that call up pictures in memory. But the idea conveyed is not fully our own until we have identified ourselves with some aspect of the picture. (105)

What will be accepted as true, as realistic, as good, as evil, as desirable, is not eternally fixed. These are fixed by stereotypes, acquired from earlier experiences and carried over into judgment of later ones. And, therefore, if the financial investment in each film and in popular magazines were not so exorbitant as to require instant and widespread popularity, men of spirit and imagination would be able to use the screen and the periodical, as one might dream of their being used, to enlarge and to refine, to verify and criticize the repertory of images with which our imaginations work. But, given the present costs, the men who make moving pictures, like the church and the court painters of other ages, must adhere to the stereotypes that they find, or pay the price of frustrating expectation. (107)

For the skillful 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. (109)

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. (109)

12. Self-Interest Reconsidered

For as the audience grows larger, the number of common words diminishes. Thus the common factors in (110) the story become more abstract. This story, lacking precise character of its own, is heard by people of highly varied character. They give it their own character. (111)

As you descend from generalities to detail, it becomes more apparent that the character in which men deal with their affairs is not fixed. (111)

There is no one self always at work. And therefore it is of great importance in the formation of any public opinion, what self is (111) engaged. (112)

If the selves are too unrelated, (112) we distrust the man; if they are too inflexibly on one track we find him arid, stubborn, or eccentric. In the repertory of characters, meager for the isolated and the self-sufficient, highly varied for the adaptable, there is a whole range of selves, from that one at the top which we should wish God to see, to those at the bottom that we ourselves do not dare to see. There may be octaves for the family,–father, Jehovah, tyrant,–husband, proprietor, male,–lover, lecher,–for the occupation,–employer, master, exploiter,–competitors, intriguer, enemy,–subordinate, courtier, snob. Some never come out into public view. Others are called out only by exceptional circumstances. But the characters take their form from a man’s conception of the situation in which he finds himself. (113)

cf. Hippocrates formulation of the doctrine of the humors: “sanguine, the melancholic, the choleric, and the phlegmatic…”

just as psychoanalysis can bring to the surface a buried impulse, so can social situations. It 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. (114)

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 con-(115)ceived, 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 situation 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. … 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. (116)

[via: Perhaps we can call this another “structure of existence.”]

[James] Madison was arguing for the federal constitution, and “among the numerous advantages of the union” he set forth “its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” Faction was what worried Madison. And the causes of faction he traced to “the nature of man,” where latent dispositions are “brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preëminence and power, or to persons of (116) other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to coöperate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” (117)

The socialist practice is based on a belief that if men are economically situated in different ways, they can then be induced to hold certain views. (117)

For in trying to explain a certain public opinion, it is rarely obvious which of a man’s many social relations is effecting a particular opinion. (118)

A man’s various economic contacts limit or enlarge the range of his opinions. (118)

Yet nothing is more certain than that all classes of men are in constant perplexity as to what their interests are. (119)

| This dissolves the impact of economic determinism. For if our economic interests are made up of our variable concepts of those interests, then as the master key to social processes the theory fails. (119)

The socialist theory of human nature is, like the hedonistic calculus, an example of false determinism. Both assume that the unlearned dispositions fatally but intelligently produce a certain type of behavior. The socialist believes that the dispositions pursue the economic interest of a class; the hedonist believes that they pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Both theories rest on a naïve view of instinct,… (120)

In other words, man has an instinct of fear, but what he will fear and how he will try to escape, is determined not from birth, but by experience. (121)


13. The Transfer of Interest

The working of the popular will, therefore, has always called for explanation. … An oversoul seems to be needed, for the emotions and ideas in the members of a group do not disclose anything so simple and so crystalline as the formula which those same individuals will accept as a true statement of their Public Opinion. (127)

| But the facts can, I think, be explained more convincingly without the help of the oversoul in any of its disguises. After all, the art of inducing all sorts of people who think differently to vote alike is practiced in every political campaign. (127)

This representative gathering is a happy augury. It means the strength of reunion. It means that the party of Lincoln is restored…

The italicized [underlined] words are bindersLincoln in such a speech has of course, no relation to Abraham Lincoln. It is merely a stereotype by which the piety which surrounds that name can be transferred to the Republican candidate who now stands in his shoes. (128)

Where superficial harmony is the aim and conflict the fact, obscurantism in a public appeal is the usual (130) result. Almost always vagueness at a crucial point in public debate is a symptom of cross-purposes. (131)| But how is it that a vague idea so often has the power to unite deeply felt opinions? These opinions, we recall, however deeply they may be felt, are not in continual and pungent contact with the facts they profess to treat. … The account of what has happened out of sight and hearing in a place where we have never been, has not and never can have, except briefly as in a dream or fantasy, all the dimensions of reality. But in case arouse all, and sometimes even more emotion than the reality. For the trigger can be pulled by more than one stimulus. (131)

[via: So, in posting this quote from pp.130-131 on FB, I entered an exchange which was painfully ironic. Here’s the exchange, for posterity, and to honor the request of the individual:

Posted by: “MS”

MS: What mess are you referring to? Public debate about what?

KN: Lippman was referring specifically to the socio-political divides and how they develop, what forms they take, and the psychologies that drive “vagueness,” his term for the oversimplification of real issues and ideas that naturally happen because people can’t sustain complex and nuanced thinking about too many things. The result? We no longer have a “shared public opinion,” because we’re all forming our own individual views and perspectives, based upon our circumstances and temperaments. The result of that? Division, polarization, and increasing ignorance and disdain.

“Public debate” is a general term to describe any discussion in the public sphere that is important and critical to the nation’s welfare.

Does that help?

JH: I would suggest we no longer have a shared public opinion because we let relativism take over the church and the culture.

MS: That helps me to understand what he was saying but I still don’t know what you mean exactly. There’s so many issues that people as always have their own personal take on because we’re all individuals with different personalities and sets of life experiences.

I mean you can get most everyone to agree that it’s wrong to go outside and shoot the first stranger you see walking down the street, but nowadays there are people who say that right and wrong are dependent upon how you feel and there are no moral absolutes.

So if someone thinks that it’s ok to go shoot someone for no reason then it’s right for them and we shouldn’t try to impose our own views on them.

KN: So, I’m not sure what your question is. What specifically is your question in regards to your reference to “relativism” as a moral epistemology, and the phenomenon that Lippman’s quote refers to, and my explanation?

JH: He is referring to your explanation of Lippman’s quote.

“Lippman was referring specifically to the socio-political divides and how they develop, what forms they take, and the psychologies that drive “vagueness,” his term for the oversimplification of real issues and ideas that naturally happen because people can’t sustain complex and nuanced thinking about too many things. The result? We no longer have a “shared public opinion,” because we’re all forming our own individual views and perspectives, based upon our circumstances and temperaments. The result of that? Division, polarization, and increasing ignorance and disdain.”

KN: Understood. That’s why I said, “…and my explanation.” What’s the question?

MS: What are you seeing today that you characterize as a mess?

TR: What makes it a mess is that on top of all of this debate there’s a layer of laws that we as a people have established. These laws have consequences if they are broken. So someone could you walk down the street and shoot people but then there will be a response from law enforcement. This is where Theory meets the road. and roadkill makes a mess

MS: I was using that as an extreme example of how as our nation falls further and further away from Biblical truths that we can’t even get everyone to agree that it’s wrong to murder a stranger.

I was wondering if that’s what PK was referring to by the writings that he quoted as being prophetic.

We used to all agree with God that He created us male and female, but now that’s a topic of great debate.

We used to agree with God, backed up by biology that the life of every human being starts when a sperm unites with an egg in the mother’s womb, but now many say that until a developing baby escapes from the womb that it isn’t a human being and therefore it’s Ok to have a doctor end that life right up until the moment of birth.

We used to agree with God that sex with another human being should not happen until a man marries a woman and that formication and having sex with someone of the same sex was immoral.

But now we have people saying the opposite.

So, the “mess” that I personally see in the context of what PK quoted and explained is that people no longer fear the Lord, they don’t want to have a God telling them what is right and wrong, and instead want to define their own views of what is moral and immoral, and so we no longer have a group consensus about things that we once did.

So is that what you are talking about or is it something else or something more?

KN: So, as with previous misunderstandings, there seems to be more explanation that’s needed. I’m working on my post for Lippman’s book, and I ask you, may I have permission to put your inquiry in that blog post? I’ll post that to FB sometime in the next couple months and address your question there? Is that okay?

MS: sure, feel free, thank you for asking

The irony is how our exchange exemplified the very point, that even my interlocutor could not grasp or understand.]

| The stimulus which originally pulled the trigger may have been a series of pictures in the mind aroused by printed or spoken words. These pictures fade and are hard to keep steady; their contours and their pulse fluctuate. Gradually the process sets in of knowing what you feel without being entirely certain why you feel it. The fading pictures are displaced by other pictures, and then by names or symbols. But the emotion goes on, capable now of being aroused by the substituted images and names. Even in severe thinking these substitutions take place, for if a man is trying to compare two complicated situations, he soon finds exhausting the attempt to hold both fully in mind in all their detail. He employs a shorthand of names and signs and samples. He has to do this if he is to advance at all, because he cannot carry the whole baggage in every phrase through every step he takes. But if he forgets that he has substituted and simplified, he soon lapses into verbalism,  and begins to talk about names regardless of objects. And then he has no way of knowing when the name divorced from its first thing is carrying on a misalliance with some other thing. It is more difficult still to guard against changelings in casual politics. (131)

| For by what is known to psychologists as conditioned response, an emotion is not attached merely to one idea. … The whole structure of human (131) culture is in one respect an elaboration of the stimuli and responses of which the original emotional capacities remain a fairly fixed center. No doubt the quality of emotion has changed in the course of history, but with nothing like the speed, or elaboration, that has characterized the conditioning of it. (132)

| People differ widely in their susceptibility to ideas. (132)

When political parties or newspapers declare for Americanism, Progressivism, Law and Order, Justice, Humanity, they hope to amal-(132)gamate the emotion of conflicting factions which would surely divide it, instead of these symbols, they were invited to discuss a specific program. For when a coalition around the symbol has been effected, feeling flows toward conformity under the symbol rather than toward critical scrutiny of the measures. It is, I think, convenient and technically correct to call multiple phrases like these symbolic. They do not stand for specific ideas, but for a sort of truce or junction between ideas. … A leader or an interest that can make itself master of current symbols is master of the current situation. (133)

14. Yes or No

In thinking about symbols it is tempting to treat them as if they possessed independent energy. Yet no end of symbols which once provoked ecstasy have quite ceased to affect anybody. The museums and the books of folklore are full of dead emblems and incantations, since there is no power in the symbol, except that which it acquires by association in the human mind. The symbols that have lost their power, and the symbols incessantly suggested which fail to take root, remind us that if we were patient enough to study in detail the circulation of a symbol, we should behold an entirely secular history. (141)

For we are not born out of an egg at the age of eighteen with a realistic imagination. …in infancy we are dependent upon older beings for our contacts. And so we make our connections with the outerworld through certain beloved and authoritative persons. They are the first bridge to the invisible world. And though we may gradually master for ourselves many phases of that larger environment, there always remains a vaster one that is unknown. To that we still relate ourselves through authorities. Where all the facts are out of (142) sight a true report and a plausible error read alike, sound alike, feel alike. Except on a few subjects where our own knowledge is great, we cannot choose between true and false accounts. So we choose between trustworthy and untrustworthy reporters. (143)

| Theoretically we ought to choose the most expert on each subject. But the choice of the expert, though a good deal easier than the choice of truth, is still too difficult and often impracticable. The experts themselves are not in the least certain who among them is the most expert. And at that, the expert, even when we can identify him, is, likely as not, too busy to be consulted, or impossible to get at. But there are people whom we can identify easily enough because they are the people who are at the head of affairs. Parents, teachers, and masterful friends are the first people of this sort we encounter. (143)

What holds the machine together is a system of privileges. (145)

It is not necessary, then, to invent a collective intelligence in order to explain why the judgments of a group are usually more coherent, and often more true to form than the remarks of the man in the street. One mind, or a few can pursue a train of thought, but a group trying to think in concert can as a group do little more than assent or dissent. (145)

Distance alone lends enchantment to the view that masses of human beings ever coöperate in any complex affair without a central (145) machine managed by a very few people. (146)

15. Leaders and the Rank and File

There are many affairs which cannot wait for a referendum or endure publicity, and there are times, during war for example, when a nation, an army, and even its commanders must trust strategy to a very few minds; when two conflicting opinions, though one happens to be right, are more perilous than one opinion which is wrong. The wrong opinion may have bad results, but the two opinions may entail disaster by dissolving unity. (151)

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 tranquility and harmony. And so (152) where masses of people must coöperate 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. (153)

Every official is in some degree a censor. And since no one can suppress information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it, without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every leader is in some degree a propagandist. (158)

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. (158)

| Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables.  It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach. (158)


16. The Self-Centered Man

The existence of a force called Public Opinion is in the main taken for granted, and American political writers have been most interested either in finding out how to make government express the common will, or in how to prevent the common will from subverting the purposes for which they believe the government exists. According to their traditions they have wished either to tame opinion or to obey it. Thus the editor of a notable series of text-books writes that “the most difficult and the most momentous question of ‘government (is) how to transmit the force of individual opinion into public action.” (161)

There is…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 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 and the (161) 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. (162)

| Yet democracies, if we are to judge by the oldest and most powerful of them, have made a mystery out of public opinion. (162)

In deciding who was most fit to govern, knowledge of the world was taken for granted. (164)

But the facts men could come to possess in this effortless way were limited. They could know the customs and more obvious character of the place where they lived and worked. But the outer world they had to conceive, and they did not conceive it instinctively, nor absorb trustworthy knowledge of it just by living. Therefore, the only environment in which spontaneous politics was possible was one confined within the range of the ruler’s direct and certain knowledge. … “If,” as Aristotle said, “the citizens of a state are to judge and distribute offices according to merit, then they must know each other’s characters; where they do not possess this knowledge, both the election to offices and the decision of law suits will go wrong.” (164)

17. The Self-Contained Community

That groups of self-centered people would engage in a struggle for existence if they rubbed against each other has always been evident. This much truth there is at any rate in that famous passage in the Leviathan where Hobbes says that “though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet at all times kings and persons of sovereign authority because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on the another…” (167)

wrapt up in the fullness of self-consequence and strong enough, in reality, to defend ourselves against every invader, we might enjoy an eternal rusticity and live, forever, thus apathized and vulgar under the shelter of a selfish, satisfied indifference. – Samuel F. Bradford, An Inquiry into the Present State of the Foreign Relations of the Union, p.19

If democracy is to be spontaneous, the interest of democracy must remain simple, intelligible, and easily managed. (171)

[The democrat] is for Self-Government, Self-Determination, Independence. Not one of these ideas carries with it any notion of consent or community beyond the frontiers of the self-governing groups. The field of democratic action is a circumscribed area. Within protected boundaries the aim has been to achieve self-sufficiency and avoid entanglement. …because life outside the national boundaries is more distinctly alien than any life within. And as history shows, democracies in their foreign policy have had generally to choose between splendid isolation and a diplomacy that violated their ideals. (171) The most successful democracies, in fact, Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and America until recently, have had no foreign policy in the European sense of that phrase. Even a rule like the Monroe Doctrine arose from the desire to supplement the two oceans by a glacis of states that were sufficiently republican to have no foreign policy. (172)

| Whereas danger is a great, perhaps an indispensable condition of autocracy, security was seen to be a necessity if democracy was to work. There must be as little disturbance as possible of the premise of a self-contained community. Insecurity involves surprises. It means that there are people acting upon your life, over whom you have no control, with whom you cannot consult. It means that forces are at large which disturb the familiar routine, and present novel problems about which quick and unusual decisions are required. Every democrat feels in his bones that dangerous crises are incompatible with democracy, because he knows that the inertia of masses is such that to act quickly a very few must decide and the rest follow rather blindly. This has not made non-resistants out of democrats, but it has resulted in all democratic wars being fought for pacifist aims. Even when the wars are in fact wars of conquest, they are sincerely believed to be wars in defense of civilization. (172)

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. (173)

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. … 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 the 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. … It followed that truth could be obtained by liberty within these limits. (174)

18. The Role of Force, Patronage, and Privilege

In one very important sense, then, the doctrine of checks and balances was the remedy of the federalist leaders for the problem of public opinion. They saw no other way to substitute “the mild influence of the magistracy” for the “sanguinary agency of the sword” except by devising an ingenious machine to neutralize local opinion. They did not understand how to manipulate a large electorate, any more than they saw the possibility of common consent upon the basis of common information. (177)

When the constitution was written, “politics could still be managed by conference and agreement among gentlemen” and it was to the gentry that Hamilton turned for a government. (177)

We must take man as we find him, and if we expect him to serve the public we must interest his passions in doing so. – Hamilton

Jefferson referred to his election as “the great revolution of 1800,” but more than anything else it was a revolution in the mind. No great policy was altered, but a new tradition was established. For it was Jefferson who first taught the American people to regard the Constitution as an instrument of democracy, and he stereotyped the images, the ideas, and even many of the phrases in which Americans ever since have described politics to each other. So complete was the mental victory, that twenty-five years later de Tocqueville, who was received in Federalist homes, noted that even those who were “galled by its continuance”–were not uncommonly heard to “laud the delights of a republican government, and the advantages of democratic institutions when they are in public.” (178)

[via: What can be done by executive order can be undone by executive order. Likewise, what can be established in the mind by the mind can be disestablished in the mind by the mind. “The Constitution” is not a document, but a religion.]

Jefferson was confused in thought and action because he had a vision of a new and tremendous idea that no one had thought out in all its bearings. But though popular sovereignty was not clearly understood by anybody, it seemed to imply so great an enhancement of human life, that no constitution could stand which frankly denied it. (179)

The American people came to believe that their Constitution was a democratic instrument, and treated it as such. They owe that fiction to the victory of Thomas Jefferson, and a great conservative fiction it has been. …because loyalty to the Constitution and loyalty to democracy would have seemed incompatible. (179)

But the democratic theory had as one of its main principles the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen. (180)

Curious as it sounds to us, the principle of rotation in office with short terms was regarded as a great reform. Not only did it acknowledge the new dignity of the average man by treating him as fit for any office, not only did it destroy the monopoly of a small social class and appear to open careers to talent, but “it had been advocated for centuries as a sovereign remedy for political corruption,” and as the one way to prevent the creation of a bureaucracy. The practice of rapid change in public office was the application to a great territory of the image of democracy derived from the self-contained village.  (180)

Thus, rotation in office might be the ostensible theory, in practice the offices oscillated between the henchmen. Tenure might not be a permanent monopoly, but the professional politician was permanent. … The stereotype of democracy controlled the visible government; the corrections, the exceptions and adaptations of the American people to the real facts of their environment have had to be invisible, even when everybody knew all about them. It was only the words of the law, the speeches of politicians, the platforms, and the formal machinery of administration that have had to conform to the pristine image of democracy. (181)

Indeed it is more probable that the reverse is true, and that Congress ceased to attract the eminent as it lost direct influence on the shaping of national policy. (182)

| The main reason for the discredit, which is world wide, is, I think, to be found in the fact that a congress of representatives is essentially a group of blind men in a vast, unknown world. With some exceptions, the only method recognized in the Constitution or in the theory of representative government, by which Congress can inform itself, is to exchange opinions from the districts. There is no systematic, adequate, and authorized way for Congress to know what is going on in the world. … They can be known only by controlled reporting and objective analysis. (182)

[via: Neither to “know” nor “value” what is really going on in the world.]

So bad is the contact of legislators with necessary facts that they are forced to rely either on private tips (182) or on that legalized atrocity, the Congressional investigation, where Congressmen, starved of their legitimate food for thought, go on a wild and feverish man-hunt, and do not stop at cannibalism. (183)

There are but two other alternatives. One is government by terror and obedience, the other is government based on such a highly developed system of information, analysis, and self-consciousness that “the knowledge of national circumstances and reasons of state” is evident to all men. The autocratic system is in decay, the voluntary system is in its very earliest development; and so, in calculating the prospects of association among large groups of people, a League of Nations, industrial government, or a federal union of states, the degree to which the material for a common consciousness exists, determines how far coöperation will depend upon force, or upon the milder alternative to force, which is patronage and privilege. The secret of great state-builders, like Alexander Hamilton, is that they know how to calculate these principles. (184)

[via: So, it comes down to tyranny or wisdom? The problem is that we’ve been governed by the “tyranny of the elites,” in many ways forcing society to “obey” higher education and ideals. The current crisis we’re in is the deconstruction and demolition of that tyranny, which, unfortunately, means, therefore, the decline of wisdom with it.]

19. The Old Image in a New Form: Guild Socialism

Whenever the quarrels of self-centered groups become unbearable, reformers in the past found themselves forced to choose between two great alternatives. They could take the path to Rome and impose a isolation, to autonomy and self-sufficiency. Almost always they chose that path which they had least recently travelled. If they had tried out the deadening monotony of empire, they cherished above all other things the simple freedom of their own community. But if they had seen this simple freedom squandered in parochial jealousies they longed for the spacious order of a great and powerful state. (185)

If decisions were decentralized they soon floundered in a chaos of local opinions. If they were centralized, the policy of the state was based on the opinions of a small social set at the capital. (185)

And even though you define function as carefully as possible, once you admit that the view of each shop on that function will not necessarily coincide with the new of other shops, you are saying that the representative of one interest is concerned in the proposals made by other interests. You are saying that he must conceive a common interest. And in voting for him you are choosing a man who will not simply represent your view of your function, which is all you know at first hand, but a man who will represent your views about other people’s views of that function. (191)

20. A New Image

The lesson is, I think, a fairly clear one. In the absence of institutions and education by which the environment is so successfully reported that the realities of public life stand out sharply against self-centered opinion, the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality. (195)

The democratic theory by failing to admit that self-centered opinions are not sufficient to procure good government, is involved in perpetual conflict between theory and practice. According to the theory, the full dignity of man requires that his will should be, as Mr. Cole says, expressed “in any and every form of social action.” It is supposed that the expression of their will is the consuming passion of men, for they are assumed to possess by instinct the art of government. But as a matter of plain experience, self-determination is only one of the many interests of a human personality. (195)

…men do not long desire self-government for its own sake. They desire it fo the sake of the results. That is why the impulse to self-government is always strongest as a protest against bad conditions. 9196)

| 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. (196)

…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. … 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. (197)


21. The Buying Public

The idea that men have to go forth and study the world in order to govern it, has played a very minor part in political thought. It could figure very little, because the machinery for reporting the world in any way useful to government made comparatively little progress from the time of Aristotle to the age in which the premises of democracy were established. (21)

| Therefore, if you had asked a pioneer democrat where the information was to come from on which the will of the people was to be based, he would have been puzzled by the question. It would have seemed a little as if you had asked him where his life or his soul came from. The will of the people, he almost always assumed, exists, at all times;… (201)

Behind this classic doctrine of liberty, which American democrats embodied in their Bill of Rights, there are, in fact, several different theories of the origin of truth. One is a faith that in the competition of opinions, the truest will win because there is a peculiar strength in the truth. (202)

the suppression of thought is a risk to civilization which might prevent its recovery from the effects of war, if the hysterics, who exploit the necessity, were numerous enough to carry over into peace the taboos of war. (202)

Somebody has said quite aptly that the newspaper editor has to be re-elected every day. (203)

| This casual and one-sided relationship between readers and press is an anomaly of our civilization. There is nothing else quite like it, and it is, therefore, hard to compare the press with any other business or institution. It is not a business pure and simple, partly because the product is regularly sold below cost, but chiefly because the community (203) applies one ethical measure to the press and another to trade or manufacture. Ethically a newspaper is judged as if it were a church or a school. But if you try to compare it with these you fail; the taxpayer pays for the public school, the private school is endowed or supported by tuition fees, there are subsidies and collections fo the church. You cannot compare journalism with law, medicine or engineering, for in every one of these professions the consumer pays for the service. A free press, if you judge by the attitude of the readers, means newspapers that are virtually given away. (204)

It is a question of whether the readers, who do not pay in cash for their news, will pay for it in loyalty. (207)

22. The Constant Reader

though everything turns on the constancy of the reader, there does not exist even a vague tradition to call that fact to the reader’s mind. His constancy depends on how he happens to feel, or on his habits. And these depend not simply on the quality of the news, but more often on a number of obscure elements that in our casual relation to the press, we hardly take the trouble to make conscious. The most important of these is that each of us tends to judge a newspaper, if we judge it at all, by its treatment of that part of the news in which we feel ourselves involved. … 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. (208)

[via: Could we call this a “pervading/proximity bias?”]

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. (209)

1. 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 this 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 mamoth beet, or harvests a bounteous yield of wheat or corn, set forth the fact as concisely and unexceptionally as possible. – Horace Greeley, April 3, 1860, “Friend Fletcher” who was about to start a country newspaper.

He cannot convince anybody, not even himself, that the anti-capitalist press is the remedy for the capitalist press. (213)

One would have supposed that the inability to take any non-capitalist paper as a mode of truthfulness and competence would have caused Mr. Sinclair, and those who agree with him, to look somewhat more critically at their assumptions. They would have asked themselves, for example, where is the fair body of truth, that Big Business prostitutes, but anti-Big Business does not seem to obtain? For that question leads, I believe, to the heart of the matter, to the question of what is news. (213)

23. The Nature of News

The course of events must assume a certain definable shape, and until it is in a phase where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not separate itself from the ocean of possible truth. (215)

The development of the publicity man is a clear sign that the facts of modern life do not spontaneously take a shape in which they can be known. They must be given a shape by somebody, and since in the daily routine reporters cannot give a shape to facts, and since there is little disinterested organization of intelligence, the need for some formulation is being met by the interested parties. (218)

You have, therefore, the circumstances in all their sprawling complexity, the overt act which signalizes them, the stereotyped bulletin which publishes the signal, and the meaning that the reader himself injects, after he has derived that meaning from the experience which directly affects him. (220)

Every newspaper when it reaches the reader is the result of a whole series of selections as to what items shall be printed, in what position they shall be printed, how much space each shall occupy, what emphasis each shall have. There are no objective standards here. There are conventions. (223)

News which does not offer this opportunity to introduce oneself into the struggle which it depicts cannot appeal to a wide audience. The audience must participate in the news, much as it participates in the drama, by personal identification. (224)

This is the plight of the reader of the general news. If he is to read it at all he must be interested, that is to say, he must enter into the situation and care about the outcome. But if he does that he cannot rest in a negative, and unless independent means of checking the lead given him by his newspaper exists, the very fact (224) that he is interested may make it difficult to arrive at that balance of opinions which may most nearly approximate the truth. The more passionately involved he becomes, the more he will tend to resent not only a different view, but a disturbing bit of news. That is why many a newspaper finds that, having honestly evoked the partisanship of its readers, it can not easily, supposing the editor believes the facts warrant it, change position. (225)

24. News, Truth, and a Conclusion

The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. (226)

The story of why John Smith failed, his human frailties, the analysis of the economic conditions on which he was shipwrecked, all of this can be told in a hundred different ways. There is no discipline in applied psychology as there is a discipline in medicine, engineering, or even law, which has authority to direct the journalist’s mind when he passes from the news to the vague realm of truth. (227)

The press, in other words, can fight for the extension of reportable truth. 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. (228)

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 (228) bundle of “problems,” which the population as a whole, reading the press as a whole, is supposed to solve. (229)

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. (229)

The press is no substitute for institutions. … They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and eruptions. (229)

…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. (230)


25. The Entering Wedge

…bureaus of governmental research, industrial audits, budgeting and the like are the ugly ducklings of reform. They reverse the process by which interesting public opinions are built up. Instead of presenting a casual fact, a large screen of stereotypes, and a dramatic identification, they break down the drama, break through the stereotypes, and offer men a picture of facts, which is unfamiliar and to them impersonal. (233)

…the social scientist … is in the nature of things far more responsible, and far less certain. (234)

The man of affairs, observing that the social scientist knows only from the outside what he knows, in part at least, from the inside, recognizing that the social scientist’s hypothesis is not in the nature of things susceptible of laboratory proof, and that verification is possible only in the “real” world, has developed a rather low opinion of social scientists who do not share his views of public policy. (235)

Consequently, if so much of social science is apologetic rather than constructive, the explanation lies in the opportunities of social science, not in “capitalism.” The physical scientists achieved their freedom from clericalism by working out a method that produced conclusions of a sort that could not be suppressed or ignored. They convinced themselves and acquired dignity, and knew what they were fighting for. The social scientist will acquire his dignity and his strength when he has worked out his method. (235)

To-day, the sequence is that the man of affairs finds his facts, and decides on the basis of them; then, some time later, the social scientist deduces excellent reasons why he did or did not decide wisely. This ex post facto relationship is academic in the bad sense of that fine word. (236)

27. Intelligence Work

It is no accident that the best diplomatic service in the world is the one in which the divorce between the assembling of knowledge and the control of policy is most perfect. (240)

He did not understand that the power of the expert depends upon separating himself from those who make the decisions, upon not caring, in his expert self, what decision is made. (241)

Men cannot long act in a way that they know is a contradiction of the environment as they conceive it. If they are bent on acting in a certain way they have to reconceive the environment, they have to censor out, to rationalize. But if in their presence, there is an insistent fact which is so obtrusive that they cannot explain it away, one of three courses is open. They can perversely ignore it, though they will cripple themselves in the process, will overact their part and come to grief. They can take it into account but refuse to act. They pay in internal discomfort and frustration. Or, and I believe this to be the most frequent case, they adjust their whole behavior to the enlarged environment. (241)

[via: I wish…]

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. (245)

…in the end knowledge must come not from the conscience but from the environment with which that conscience deals. When men act on the principle of intelligence they go out to find the facts and to make their wisdom. When they ignore it, they go inside themselves and find only what is there. They elaborate their prejudice, instead of increasing their knowledge. (249)

27. The Appeal to the Public

The purpose, then, is not to burden every citizen with expert opinions on all questions, but to push that burden away from him (250) towards the responsible administrator. (251)

The private citizen, beset by partisan appeals for the loan of his Public Opinion, will soon see, perhaps, that these appeals are not a compliment to his intelligence, but an imposition on his good nature and an insult to his sense of evidence. (252)

The value of expert mediation is not that it sets up opinion to coerce the partisans, but that it disintegrates partisanship. (254)

The study of error is not only in the highest degree prophylactic, but is serves as a stimulating introduction to the study of truth. As our minds become more deeply aware of their own subjectivism, we find a zest in objective method that is not otherwise there. We see vividly, as normally we should not, the enormous mischief and casual cruelty of our prejudices. And the destruction of a prejudice, though (256) painful at first, because of its connection with our self-respect, gives an immense relief and a fine pride when it is successfully done. … Prejudices are so much easier and more interesting. For if you teach the principles of science as if they had always been accepted, their chief virtue as a discipline, which is objectivity, will make them dull. But teach them at first as victories over the superstitions of the mind, and the exhilaration of the chase and of the conquest may carry the pupil over that hard transition from his own self-bound experience to the phase where his curiosity has matured, and his reason has acquired passion. (257)

28. The Appeal to Reason

In politics the hero does not live happily ever after, or end his life perfectly. There is no concluding chapter, because the hero in politics has more future before him than there is recorded history behind him. (258)

For there is an inherent difficulty about using the method of reason to deal with an unreasoning world. … By definition the crew does not know what he knows, and the pilot, fascinated by the stars and winds, does not know how to make the crew realize the importance of what he knows. … For education is a matter of years, the emergency a matter of hours. (259)

…nothing will put a greater strain upon their wisdom than the necessity of distinguishing false crises from real ones. 9260)

Our rational ideas in politics are still large, thin generalities, much too abstract and unrefined for practical guidance,… Reason in politics is especially immature in predicting the behavior of individual men, because in human conduct the smallest initial variation often works out into the most elaborate differences. (260)

For the rate at which reason, as we possess it, can advance itself is slower than the rate at which action has to be taken. …there is, therefore, a tendency for one situation to change into another, before the first is clearly understood, and so to make much political criticism hindsight and little else. (260)

…the immediate struggle of politics will continue to require an amount of native wit, force, and unprovable faith, that reason can neither provide nor control, because the facts of life are too undifferentiated for its powers of understanding. The methods of social science are so little perfected that in many of the serious decisions and most of the casual ones, there is as yet no choice but to gamble with fate as intuition prompts. (261)

| But we can make a belief in reason one of those intuitions. We can use our wit and our force to make footholds for reason. Behind our pictures of the world, we can try to see the vista of a longer duration of events, and wherever it is possible to escape from the urgent present, allow this longer time to control our decisions. And yet, even when there is this will to let the future count, we find again and again that we do not know for certain how to act according to the dictates of reason. The number of human problems on which reason is prepared to dictate is small. (261)

And where so much is uncertain, where so many actions have to be carried out on guesses, the demand upon the reserves of mere decency is enormous, and it is necessary to live as if good will would work. We cannot prove in every instance that it will, nor why hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion. We can only insist that they are a poison; and taking our stand upon a view of the world which outlasts our own predicaments, and our own lives, we can cherish a hearty prejudice against them. (262)

| We can do this all the better if we do not allow frightfulness and fanaticism to impress us so deeply that we throw up our hands peevishly, and lose interest int he longer run of time because we have lost faith in the future of man. There is no ground for this despair, because all the ifs on which, as James said, our destiny hangs, are as pregnant as they ever were. (262)

And if amidst all the evils of this decade, you have not seen men and women, known moments that you would like to multiply, the Lord himself cannot help you. (262)





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