lippmann: accepting who humans are and what they desire


IN 1922 WALTER LIPPMANN PUBLISHED HIS BEST selling book Public Opinion. He was only thirty-three years old, but already well on his way to becoming mid-century America’s preeminent public intellectual. His argument in Public Opinion was radical, and disturbing. Democracy did not work as it was commonly thought. In theory humans-as citizens-act rationally. They inform themselves on the issues of the day, weigh the evidence, discuss it with their fellow citizens, and then vote to maximize their interests. Democracy in practice, Lippmann claimed, resembles nothing like this. Citizens-as humans-act upon evocative symbols, evaluate according to feelings, consult their desires, and vote to fulfill their fantasies. Leaders who realize this can control democracy through the “manufacture of consent.”1

Today, Lippmann, while certainly not forgotten, is not exactly celebrated. His conclusions are too unsettling and his recommendations too pessimistic for mainstream political consumption. Among progressives he’s recalled, if at all, as the whipping boy of the well-known left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky, who regularly condemns him-with some justification-as the architect of modern technocratic rule. This neglect and censure is a shame, for lost with Lippmann is the knowledge of how politics works in an age of fantasy.

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