This, Lippmann argues, is a false ideal. They must judge externally, based on symbols and signs, and can act only by throwing their support behind one of the interests involved. The public is tremendously limited in its abilities, energies, capacities, and capabilities. The public, unable to understand the merits of each and every case, must rely on readily inteligible signs and symbols to direct their alignments. The public will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece. They do not direct continuously political affairs; instead, they occasionally mobilize in majorities to support or oppose the people who actually govern.

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We should come to accept that democracy is a myth and let rulers rule; the public can only exist as passive spectators watching shadows on the wall, blissfully ignorant of their meaning. This leads to a tendency towards centralisation, not just in the governance of society, but also in increasing monopolisation in business and workers organising themselves in trade unions Lippmann, , p.

Here we can see Lippmann beginning to formulate his own critique of collectivism and planning a contribution to a growing literature at the time , a critique that would be developed in The Good Society and would become so influential with later neoliberals. They are the victims of a superficial analysis of the evils they see so clearly. The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders.

Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land. Lippmann, , p. It is not that existing power and class relations distort democracy by centralising power and decision making, and also by excluding the public from access to knowledge that might allow them to criticise these decisions and question this unequal structure of society, but rather that the limitations of human knowledge mean that elitism is inevitable.

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd. If so, how can we recognise who can make it better? Notice that the public is never expected to understand how or why a system of government is failing, only to find someone who might sort the problem out for them.

Lippmann suggests some way that the public might do this: they could stage a debate between competing parties and see if anyone betrays a special interest p. To sum up, the most the public can be expected to do is: Support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when [the Ins] seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government.

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The Phantom Public

It followed his better-known work Public Opinion and moves further toward disillusionment with democratic politics. The book provoked a response from philosopher John Dewey , who argued in The Public and its Problems that the public was not a phantom but merely "in eclipse" and that robust democratic politics are possible. Lippmann counters that the public is none of those things but a "mere phantom," an abstraction 77 embedded in a "false philosophy" that depends on a "mystical notion of society " Democratic theories, he argues, vaguely assert that the public can act competently to direct public affairs and that the functioning of government is the will of the people, but Lippmann dismisses such notions of the capacities of the public as a fiction. Against the idealizations and obfuscations, Lippmann posits that society is made up of two types of people: agents and bystanders also referred to as insiders and outsiders. The agent is someone who can act "executively" on the basis of his own opinions to address the substance of an issue, and the bystander is the public, merely a spectator of action.


Book Review: The Phantom Public by Walter Lippmann (1927)




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