Walter Lippmann believed that natural Laws are the principles of right reason and behavior in the good society governed by the western traditions of civility. It is possible to organize a state and conduct a government on quite different principles, but the outcome will not be freedom and the good life.
Thus the environment with which our public opinion is refracted in many ways, by censorship and privacy at the source, by 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. —Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion
Best to begin with a series of “large” questions and without either a liberal or conservative adjective.
Is public opinion these days relevant to policy-making processes or do politicians these days disregard public opinion creating a credibility gap?
Is public opinion these days at all coherent, organized, with consistency and defined by the public philosophy?
Or is public opinion inconsistent, characterized by erratic shifting responses and with no underlying public philosophy?
What would Walter Lippmann say?
And why should we care?
1. To Begin….
The phrase “credibility gap” has been part of public discourse since the 1960s when it came into being a bit like a flash card—not so much as a test question but how it has become impossible to get a straight answer from someone running for office. What’s interesting is that there’s a variation that’s been in use for a bit of time but before “credibility gap”: the “Lippmann Gap” which was applied to foreign policy but can also mean the incremental gap in domestic policy which in turn argues that we add to our peril when we ignore or make ourselves unaware of the difference between what is said or promised and what happens to be true. There is, in other words, a perceived discrepancy between public pronouncements and actual reality.
With that brief note in mind, and more to add a bit later, it’s interesting to pose three phrases in proximity one to the other: The Great Society, The Good Society, and The Great Society.
The first is the title to a book by Graham Wallas; the second the title to a book by Walter Lippmann; and the third the political platform campaign slogan of Lyndon Johnson to create a Great Society for the American people which became a prime example of the “Credibility/Lippmann Gap.”
2. Graham Wallas And The Art Of Thought….
It became a mantra for education and progressive philosophy in the newly modern Twentieth Century. Wallas’ book became grist for the Progressive Movement which aims to state social problems and then vis-a-vis social psychology create solutions, i.e., possibilities for improvement but through the auspices of administrative measures which aim to organize thought and organize the will in a manner that affords happiness and intellectual enjoyment.
So to speak.
My copy is nearly 500 pages.
The chapter titled “Organization of Thought” owns a unique political color since it argues that the Great Society can only be brought about not by denying mankind the capacity to think but psychologically show how to do so to improve the human condition’s happiness.
We likely know this as behaviorism writ large.
Some might say the ideas are passé these days and Wallas a forgotten if not superfluous man.
Today’s “Progressive Promise,” however, suggests differently. It owns a manifesto in which government is the great equalizer of opportunity for everyone and aims to end poverty and income equality and secure a living wage for all people while dismantling discrimination.
The “Promise” ensures regulation and aims to democratize society and goes on to demand bold and visionary legislation.
It’s a “Promise”….
And it’s entirely possible; given the current political climate a new progressive era may be upon us with big agendas.
There will be music, and stump speeches by various members of “The Squad.”
III. Walter Lippmann And The Good Society….
The generation to which we belong is now learning from experience what happens when men retreat into a coercive organization of their affairs. —Walter Lippmann, The Good Society
Walter Lippmann’s own The Good Society which appeared in 1937, twenty-three years after Wallas’ treatise, is equally a diagnosis of political malady but suggests that the consequence of the “Great Society” is not a happy liberal civilization but running by one course or another into forms of totalitarianism. Those visibly operative progressive aims at the century’s beginning did not bring about a great society but had become in process the “probability” of physical destruction in a war which would negate genuine cultural life if not the physical destruction of the moral basis of civilized life of any kind.
The word “Great” is not necessarily a synonym for “Good” and the moral meaning of great owns the possibility of a logical danger whereas the moral meaning of good suggests first principles on which liberty can flourish again.
With that in mind, Lippmann’s political thinking for the social order had interestingly turned to a “pre-occupation… to find a law which would be superior to arbitrary power.” He goes on to argue that mankind has always endeavored to set up some check upon the exercise of force. Presciently, he adds that this is the meaning of the long debate about Natural Law which with a new generation should become the new intensifying authority opposed to the “gigantic authority of an apostate generation.”
IV. Some Context….
Lippmann’s column “Today and Tomorrow” ran for a good many years. I was taking an undergraduate political philosophy course where there was a semester beginning assignment: choose a syndicated columnist and read faithfully, taking notes and summarizing the implied “political philosophy” in an essay at semester’s end. Note that the assignment was “political philosophy” and not “political science.” The distinction is important.
Kindly note that the assignment required reading and not just watching and listening to Walter Cronkite recite the nightly news. This was also in time 1967 or 1968.
I chose Walter Lippmann and began reading in our library archives, but also researching his life and times and found points of disagreement, mostly from his early years and agreeable points from his middle and later years. I was reading chunks of his column in sequence but also his books. Please note, however, that I was an 18-or 19-year-old, late-blooming football player/quarterback/introvert and hardly a political philosophy sophisticate. Thus I had no real reason why I had points of agreement and disagreement except heredity and environment and my Aunt Luella, a Conservative to the bone.
The time period for me was the span of four years, 1965-1969, four years laden with more news than I sometimes care to remember, drawn from nightly television and the Minneapolis newspaper.
Call it an “Age of Crisis.” And with a fine point punctuating the idea.
As for books, I was obliged to read in sequence books which also trace the development of Lippmann’s thinking from embracing progressivism to, well, un-embracing and beginning with A Preface to Politics. Changes begin to merge slightly in Drift and Mastery and then more profoundly in Public Opinion and then enlarged in The Good Society, and, as I hope to make clear, profoundly in The Public Philosophy.
V. The Early Years…. A Preface To Politics And Drift And Mastery….
We need a new sense of political values. These times require a different order of thinking. We cannot expect to meet our problems with a few inherited ideas, uncriticized assumptions, a foggy vocabulary, and a machine philosophy. Our political thinking needs the infusion of contemporary insights…. Our primary care must be to keep the habits of the mind flexible and adapted to the movement of real life. —Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics
Researching Lippmann’s early life was easy enough and largely from encyclopedias, a traditional undergraduate reference source. He was still thriving in my early college years (he died in 1974 at a ripe age and after 60 years of journalistic activity) which also meant that Ronald Steel’s fine biography was not available until 1980.
Since I was young and beginning my serious education, I found good interest in his early education, secular although private. Precocious, he matriculated to Harvard in 1906 about the time of his 17th birthday concentrating in philosophy and languages, French especially, which meant classes with Santayana and William James and Graham Wallas from whom Lippmann learned to analyze the general social organization of a large modern state and he also made as part of his study an interesting language cross over to the more genteel Irving Babbitt.
At issue, then, is the still young and impressionable Lippmann whose social conscience was burgeoning. Steel makes the point still early in his Lippmann biography that the brilliant undergraduate also owned a passion for Swinburne whose aestheticism led young Walter to embrace Nietzsche, all of which was much in vogue at Harvard at the time.
And there were college student magazines in which Lippmann published his first article, an attack on Barrett Wendell and his defense of genteel manners in a book titled The Privileged Classes. The article owned bold words and drew the attention of William James, who congratulated the young author in person, suggesting the two might be “birds of a feather,” although it might have been more likely James’ happiness with Lippmann’s skewering Wendell.
The point to made here is that what followed was James’ influence; he exalted skepticism while urging his young follower to embrace new ideas, which were, one might add, antithetical to Irving Babbitt’s “tory conservatism.” There’s an interesting coincidence at this time since Babbitt was making an indelible impression on the young T.S. Eliot. Babbitt was also instrumental in Lippmann’s eventual forsaking his somewhat slavish admiration for Rousseau.
His instincts early in his professional and public life were left of center; how far is unclear. We know from his biographer that not long after graduating from Harvard, he worked as a secretary to the mayor of Schenectady, George Lunn, then a socialist, largely because he was concerned with poverty… the solution to which he found in the Social Gospel and with a wide enough range to qualify as a Democrat, which allowed Lunn a better opportunity to run for Congress.
When Lippmann then began his career as a “journalist,” it should be noted for the moment that at that time no such “career” profession then existed. Lippmann, however, was set on defining a “craft” far-removed from “tabloid” journalism. The particulars for Lippmann required an objective mind aiming not to persuade but to inform. With that in mind, when he examined contemporary coverage of events by newspapers, research revealed inaccuracies by the boatload; his conclusion was that reporting by The New York Times failed to meet journalistic standards. Lippmann’s argument focused on “reporting” by the Times on the Russian Revolution, which included stories that were often not based on fact but even referred to events that had never taken place, which one might suspect is an early version of “fake news.”
Steel notes in turn that what was appearing in the New York Times was an example of what people wanted to see and not what happened, which suggested in turn that the Times was engaging in propaganda, and often governmentally promoted if not provided.
Lippmann was concluding that mis-leading news was worse than no news at all.
His argument was that in times of supreme crisis, people could not secure the minimum of necessary information to form opinions of a supremely important historical event. Consider for a moment Lippmann’s controversy with George Creel, who he believed violated not only the canons of truthfulness but who was also reckless and incompetent.
At issue was Creel’s Committee on Public Information, the CPI, which was a slick way of manufacturing public opinion consent, a sort of vast propaganda enterprise to create an American public opinion verdict which would weld the American cause, consecrating the people of the democracy into a white-hot mass of determination boarding transport ships to go over there and fight the huns.
Colorful posters were created.
Apart from a variety of opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines, and desiring to write a book, Lippmann published A Preface to Politics in 1913, Drift and Mastery in 1914.
In both books he was rejecting the trend of muckraking journalism, which he noted is a manifestation of society’s bewilderment. And he took to task Wilson’s New Freedom, which he thought unrealistic in its assumption. Drift, he believed, was a spiritual problem aggravated by a too-thoughtless adherence to an older form of democracy.
Well, maybe so; it’s worth considering when confronting social problems. When he approaches the subject of mastery, therefore, his understanding is pragmatic, which he argues is distinguishing between fact and fancy, and making the best out of what is possible. It’s James’ pragmatism, of course.
Perhaps also to mollify conservatives, he affirms that a modern break with the accumulated wisdom of the past is unwise since the past—because of its variety of ways of life—can be a source of inspiration. But for social change to occur pragmatically, means must be found to make reality bend to our purposes. Institutions and ideas must evolve to keep pace with history’s changes. If not, our every days will become more and more evidence of his drift theory and what he believed were breaks from moral restraints, a subject he develops in his 1929 A Preface To Morals.
Still, he was mildly socialistic in those early years and the proof is again in his 1913 book, A Preface to Politics and a year later in 1914 with Drift and Mastery he was anti-Marxist.
In A Preface, however, it’s interesting to note that Lippmann’s early version of a statesman is a Harvard, ivory-tower “man” who would cast aside the traditional liberalism of the country’s founding years only to bring about an intellectually crafted progressivism. Such a statesman would be a natural leader, but embedded in this notion is the mythical superman who would upset the apple cart of those he called “routineers,” which he also reasoned were “stereotypes” who offered a distorted image in a person’s mind, passed from one generation to the next and in government a superior kind of righteousness.
Such too often glorifies the pharisee.
To combat this excessive reverence for ancestors who imitate the old fashion thing, powdered wigs and all, Lippmann offers up the men of fresh insight, the “inventors,” by which he does not mean radical but the kind of statesman who regards all social organizations as instruments which can achieve valuable results. It’s a paraphrase drawn from Wallas’ The Great Society.
The two stereotypes were also not spiritual cousins and he did not see his “inventors” as prophets advocating more and more centralized government but statesmen who had the wisdom to anticipate great social changes.
His conclusion is interesting: political “inventors” of his own day and age were defenseless against their “routeeners” because the former lacked a philosophy.
Thus we trudge the treadmill emulating the mule.
He adds to this thesis an argument that rational “scientific” governing cam overcome all the forces of social drift, the latter caused by old ideas and institutions that had come to lack relevance. Thus, in Drift and Mastery, Lippmann advocated scientific experimentation which would lead to new systems of incentives which would replace the current framework of competition and self-interest.
New systems, on the other hand, for Lippman are also in conflict with traditionalism, an inherited culture which one would find in Babbitt and More who prescribed an authority which for Lippmann caused the drift.
And thus as I’ve mentioned, he was eager to write “philosophical” books, A Preface especially, actually a series of essays, and which according to Lincoln Steffens offers the reader a bully state of mind. He was twenty-three and although the reviews were kind enough to turn his head the whole is not only spare but a stuffed potpourri with heavy doses of Herbert Croly, Henri Bergson, and, of course, Freud and when combining the whole is largely incoherent of any controlling philosophy except what would find with the scientific expertise of a class of managers.
Given, then, his early interest in Freud, the reader should expect a lengthy chapter on The Chicago Vice Report in which Lippmann notes that prostitution in Chicago is a measured problem, and one which defies control since “Lust has a thousand avenues.” If Chicago employed a “Morals Police” to solve the problem, the result would be to gain only a “fictitious sense of activity,” and no mastery. The political split therefore is between traditionalism and reform, which had led to a strange condition of partisan politics at this moment in history. Consider for a moment the election of Wilson in 1914, a Democrat who had also garnered the support of Mugwump Republicans and all complicated by Bull Moose progressives and Eugene Debs; one needs a scorecard to sort out the turbulence in American society. And there are other difficult issues: racism and feminism and the economy, about which those in administrative positions are unable to “manage.”
Early head-swelling praise for Lippmann also came even from Oliver Wendell Holmes, but fissures are beginning to appear in Lippmann, who slowly began to understand that he may have underestimated the durability of tradition. He began an education in economics, which meant an early embracing of Hayek and von Mises. And during the Wilson years he became more and more concerned with the suppression of free speech. The consequence was his enthusiasm for education of public opinion to build support for inclusive democratic ideals, public opinion being a truthful picture of reality upon which the public can act and which allowed for participation in the political process.
But to whom would these early books appeal?
Drift and Mastery especially brought Lippmann’s reputation to the forefront of the progressive movement and if that term is at all in use these days a Centennial Edition with an introduction by William Leuchtenburg and a polemically flourishing foreword by Gamesh Sitaraman make Drift a sacred text for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other congressional types who work to inspire transformational change with a progressive promise.
One might, however, best consider these two books as signposts leading to The Good Society in 1937 which stands in stark opposition to the more youthful Lippmann. And in the gap between those two early books is a very different critical assessment, his 1922 Public Opinion and a book upon which much of his reputation rests to this day,
VI. Turn We Then To Public Opinion….
It’s a grand book and one which applies presciently to our own times, more so if our times reveal an age of crisis. But in 1922 Lippmann was arguing that the traditional boundaries upon which our democracy rests, especially public opinion, had come to have no solid foundation. When the public came to think, when the public thought at all, such thinking was based upon misunderstanding and intolerance rather than facts. Even the best of minds had become unsteady, caught up in tensions which produced a certain sterility.
For Lippmann, the issue then was not bold resistance, storming the Capitol or opening windows and tossing the television to the concrete below while bellowing that we are all mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Thus it might be wise to backtrack for a moment to remark that for James Madison politics relies on a certain series of assumptions about public opinion. He believed public opinion to be sovereign and guided by the cool faculty of reason. One results was that those on the losing side during one election season could always have faith that on other issues they could hope to be on the winning side. Madison also knew that public opinion would be slow to form and what might be current would in time allow factional passions to fade. With time, in other words, a kind of moral objectivity would begin to emerge to control and regulate and settle around a public philosophy in the public square.
Lippmann had no sixth sense, of course, to foresee the technological phenomena in our own day and age during which “media” enables the much more rapid formation of public opinion; but he would likely voice a concern that what emerges is less legitimate public opinion and more a relentless appetite for gratification to the extent that what might exist as a public philosophy has steadily eroded. The consequence is little direct acquaintance between one’s own psychology and the environment of news networks.
Lippmann examines this dilemma in 1922 where he is well before his time in understanding the dangers of propaganda which he worried was creating a system in which there were doubts emerging about f the ability of citizens effectively to govern themselves.
Daily outrage, in other words, is not the same as cool, performative rational thought. For Lippmann the consequence is an enormous problem for public opinion especially for the traditional liberties of free speech which had devolved into a fear of speaking one’s mind. Lippmann adds that the problem was ripe for consideration in 1922 but I suspect the time is ripe for reconsideration.
Public Opinion is a detailed assessment of the human inability in 1922 to understand the surrounding environment. There is still a direct acquaintance between people and their surrounding environment, schools, churches, grocery stores, neighborhoods, which is objective but there is also a pseudo-environment which is subjective and could very often even be a fiction since what is observed is as fleeting as our mass communications technology presents.
VII. From 1937 And The Good Society To 1955 And The Public Philosophy ….
Once again, The Good Society puts a fine point on the years leading to 1937 and appears at an appropriate period of “threatening times.” The chapter headings alone are prescient announcements as to how Lippmann’s political philosophy has developed.
Progressivism and social control are beyond any man’s comprehension.
It is, rather, a nemesis and a great schism.
It leads to the collectivist movement which becomes a fascist reality as well as a communist reality.
Collectivism is a war on the economy as well as the revival of total war.
He returns in chapter twelve to a discussion as to how the people own the ultimate power through the will to be free. And he again argues that the testament of liberty is also to be found in the struggle for law found in classic examples, which are illustrations of the higher law of Natural Law.
The problem once again in that 1930s time period is the lost generation which Lippmann writes is a generation without convictions strong enough to challenge the ruthless.
Lippmann’s biographer writes in Chapter 38, “A Private Philosophy,” that in 1938 Lippmann was in Italy on his honeymoon with Helen. They were guests of Bernard Berenson, visiting often while living in a rented apartment. Lippmann enjoyed time on a balcony overlooking the Bay of Naples. For history buffs, this was the same time as the 1938 World Cup, which was controversial when the Italian team made fascist salutes before the kickoff and wore black shirts keeping in line with the Fascist Party’s colors.
Something worrisome was in the winds blowing inland from the Bay….
Lippmann had no precise project in mind, but according to Steel he began writing a series of random thoughts, notebook entries, which reflected his pessimism at the time. The notes suggest that Lippmann was concluding that the world’s democracies were paralyzed by indecision and defeatism, which was allowing totalitarian movements to capture the allegiance of what he called the “deracinated masses,” by which he meant separated from a traditional cultural background. The consequence was that Communism (Stalinism), Fascism, and Nazism had become the religion of the proletarianized masses and were passing laws which led to political monopoly and proletarianism and with time and history was becoming a method of civilizational suicide, if not genocide.
What to do, then, especially during war when liberty disappears as the community feels itself menaced? For Lippmann the solution is to argue for a philosophy as to “what modern liberty means” and by drawing the line between liberty and license. Trite also as it may seem, there can be no liberty for a community that lacks the information by which to detect lies.
Four simple words… but surrounded by hazards of both misunderstanding and intolerance. What’s become clear, and in this instance I’m posing as Lippmann, recent experience suggests that what we mean by liberty, say liberty of speech, rests on no solid foundation. One might assume without prejudice that such thinking by Lippmann could be found in those notes, which when combined with the printed text implies that ordinary folks can no longer judge public issues rationally except through slogans. The outcome, one might argue, is no real substratum to democracy since the classical theory of liberty was based on the idea of a competent citizen who was part of a competent public. The course of politics, therefore, rested with the people, at least in principle.
One might recall again for the moment Madison’s Federalist No. 10, in which he “worries” that a well-constructed Union subject to factions will sacrifice itself to ruling passions, both the public good and the rights of other citizens. If one thinks that a pure democracy would become the cure for factions, and partisanship, well, as in Federalist 63, such would require a cool and deliberate sense of community. His thinking, however, was built upon temporality, by which he believed public opinion would develop slowly and issues would be solved by slow confirmation. Madison was also not foreseeing the judiciary as the arbiter of ultimate issues. Pubic opinion was to be sovereign and rooted in a public philosophy informed by moral objectivity and the same sets of facts.
Lippmann, however argued that such had become a phantom public, especially in the modern media environment, which is these days irreconcilable with Madisonian politics; rather than checking the work of the government in the long intervals between elections, the public does not express its opinions but aligns itself as either for or against “proposals,” but only now and again, “proposals” which also measure the instant opinions of today’s multitude of factions, which include news networks.
Surely, then, there was a book to be made in 1938 and following on the heels of 1922’s Public Opinion and 1937’s The Good Society; but it would take a good many years before appearing in 1955 as The Public Philosophy. In the meanwhile, Lippmann’s working title was “Man’s Image of Man,” by which he meant a secularized image of man having lost sight of a higher moral order. It’s read today and also misread. Some reading versions argue that Lippmann was advocating the manufacture of consent by an elite group of technocratic experts. It’s more likely that Lippmann’s ideas were more nuanced and critical of propaganda. Even so, it’s beyond dispute a book for our times; unless our times are neither disordered nor in need of a remedy for the restoration of order.
There’s also a curiosity in terms, the word “public” and the word “philosophy.”
We usually understand the word philosophy only in an academic setting, a subject studied in college and something in which to major much to the dismay of many students’ parents who question the practicality of such a major: “What will you “do” with it?”
The larger question here, however, is less the academic notion of philosophy but what happens when philosophy engages with the public in the public square and with general audiences and thus outside an academic setting.
The consequence might occur as three aspects: (1) the public philosophy would create an occasion to define and discuss the political and legal controversies of our day and (2) bring moral and political philosophy to a bear on contemporary public discourse and (3) make clear with vigor and cogency the proposed restorative.
Which if you are still reading his missive is a bit like pie in the sky these days, pleasant to contemplate but very unlikely to be realized—a bit like building castles in the air.
Exertions, though, are needed and Lippmann would have been wise enough to now that he is not picturing a majestic vision entered upon immediately after some future January inauguration day.
Lippmann was aware that to speak about a public philosophy would be to open overt controversy. More so, to speak openly to a secularized people about moral regeneration would also require an articulate and sober reflective critique of their own culture. There was little prospect for agreement since the good society he had so articulated in 1938 had ceased to receive those traditions of civility upon which the liberal democratic way of life had originated and developed. With that in mind, Lippmann pointedly discusses what he calls a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The people as a corporate body can elect the government and they can remove it. They cannot administer the government, and immense problems occur when the people cannot discriminate the public philosophy.
The Public Philosophy received quizzical reviews largely because of Lippmann’s wide range of reading and moments in which his wonderful—but hardly to be avowed by all—prose and when he asserts that the adversaries of liberal direct democracy are types of direct but unrepresentative government, Leninism and Jacobinism. The reasons, apparent in the book’s index, which reveals Lippmann’s familiarity with centuries of ideas formed around common conceptions of law and order, which had come to own a universal validity. The ideas were expounded in the treatises of philosophers, among whom Socrates and St. Thomas come to mind and who cherished the idea of a sovereign Natural Law imprinted on the heart of man.
Imagine therefore a relatively homogenous 1950s society being treated to a few sentences on “man’s second nature,” during which Lippmann writes how Socrates is a person condemned by his fellow Athenians but governs himself by what St. Thomas later called a royal and politic rule over his irascible and concupiscent powers and which Cardinal Newman argued are ever-insurgent against reason.
Such sentences occurring in a single paragraph.
Of what value are these ideas when progressive ideas predict a steady progress toward a higher standard of living but if so the consequence is an anonymous mass and then quoting Karl Jaspers Lippmann argued that such is life without an authentic world, without provenance or roots.
It’s not clear whether he had Simone Weil in mind here as well.
Lippmann further takes up the “legal” issue of private property, but again his erudition, while superb and profoundly important, is wonderfully lofty and of course, classical.
How can the public philosophy understand the theory of private property when the foundations one might find by reading Blackstone have been ruptured?
Anyone educated in the civilized traditions of the West knows that there are rational limits put upon our possessive instinct.
When Lippmann writes in this manner with classical doctrines in mind, he references the principles of natural laws, which are not scientific laws like gravity and the motion of the heavenly bodies, and they do not describe human behavior as it is. Natural Law prescribes what right behavior should be. Natural Laws are the principles of right reason and behavior in the good society governed by the western traditions of civility.
It is possible, Lippmann believed and wrote, to organize a state and conduct a government on quite different principles, but the outcome will not be freedom and the good life.
What he might say about our current derangements would, I suggest, lead him into enlarged arguments about despotic power and how Cicero might be an aid to the renewal of a public philosophy.
What the citizens in a smallish city in Illinois might have to say is, of course, at the heart of the public philosophy issue.
Not to be cynical, however, but it’s a wonderment as to how many of our elected officials have ever made serious inquiry into the Federalist Papers?
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, Lippmann made solemn declarations on government limited by natural law as a supplemental check on the central issue of deranged power.
And as another world war approached during the later 1930s, Lippmann reflected on what he saw as the pessimism of the times, in which the European democracies especially seemed paralyzed by indecision and defeatism. It was a line of thinking he had been pursuing over the decades when he argued for the necessity of facing the limitations of democracy, but also that the people should not be hedged with divinity as kings once were.
Given, then, what he thought about those decades, Lippmann framed his argument by considering two main components, The Governed and the Government. And although there has always been an organic relation between the two, if one presumes the failure of democratic government and given what we know of Mussolini and Stalin and Hitler and Putin, for Lippmann both ancient and recent history give us a road map as to how the result might lead to a bona fide, narcissistic demagogue as President of the United States.
With that in mind, Lippmann’s survey of modern politics reveals more and more his disillusionment with technocratic political elitism and omniscient omnipotent experts.
VIII. To Conclude….
In my youthful study of Lippmann lo those many years ago, I first of all learned Lippmann was something of a celebrity courted and flattered by Lyndon Johnson. But by 1968 (when I was still an undergraduate), Lippmann began arguing that Johnson’s war policy had become a national embarrassment and extended beyond the war itself into civil matters, law and order, natural rights, and fiscal issues and thus the “gap” between “The Great Society” and “America’s War.” Whether or not Johnson had become unhinged is another matter, but there were some worries and concerns about his mental and emotional health. There is an abundance of articles written at the time when aides, un-named sources, began to talk privately about Johnson’s behavior. And we know that conspiracy theories abounded which included the argument that the three major networks were Communist controlled. But for Johnson, there were no great choices: The Great Society or the Vietnam War and thus the credibility gap.
Lippmann’s concerns, apart from the credibility gap, reflected matters of public opinion in the face of the public’s access to information, public debate, government accountability, and in other words the public’s need to know. Johnson became a critic of Lippmann, and we know the relationship soured. One wonders, hypothetically, that if the times were different, say 1535, Lippmann might have lost his head.
Having not lost his head, however, he has been gone now nearly a half-century and thus out of the public eye after so many years, but what he had to say about the tensions between liberty and democracy in the modern world might be prescient these days—more so since the political season is much upon us but likely has never left us. It also seems that the issues are much the same if not exasperated by a politicized media regarded collectively.
And if I may editorialize, it seems to me more and more these days that the “people” are hedged in, and what should pass for even the most modest civility is bound by a population tense and distraught. What’s left is the proud pursuit of perception management, which means to me changing what may have been a more accurate interpretation of a message or event by ordering around it a complex of emotional characteristics.
If there are apprehensions we may soon found out if they are to be rewarded.
Where, then, is Walter Lippmann now that we need him?
To be sure, he has taken refuge in the bosom of God.
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The featured image is a photograph of Walter Lippmann at his desk, 1936. This image comes from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection at the UCLA Library. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.