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Government and Public Opinion


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

The Phantom Public. By Walter Lippmann. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company. $2.00.

One expects from Mr. Walter Lippmann incisive criticism. In “The Phantom Public” one finds it. The subject of the book is not a new one for Mr. Lippmann. It is public opinion, and about public opinion there is some plain speaking. Mr. Lippmann is concerned with proving that in current democratic theory impossible things are expected of public opinion. He therefore concludes that this current theory is based on fiction and pretence. Naturally, evil results. “The ideal of the omnicompetent, sovereign citizen is . . . a false ideal. It is unattainable. The pursuit of it is misleading.”

So far one may follow Mr. Lippmann in complete agreement. Moreover, Mr. Lippmann tends to give the impression that he goes no further. Squarely in the middle of his book he says “it is the thesis of this book that the members of the public, who are the spectators of action, cannot successfully intervene in a controversy on the merits of the case;” and on the very last page he asserts that he has “no conviction except that a false philosophy tends to stereotype thought against the lessons of experience.” Yet in spite of these assertions, Mr. Lippmann sets out in the intervening pages considerations of a more positive character. Having shown that an impossible task is assigned to public opinion, he is ready with suggestions concerning what in reality is possible for it. The suggestions contain some very close reasoning, and they are elaborated with great care. One would hesitate risking an attempt to summarize this argument, fearing to do an injustice to the author; but fortunately Mr. Lippmann makes such a summary himself. “I have suggested,” he says, “that the main value of debate is not that it reveals the truth about the controversy to the audience but that it may identify the partisans. I have suggested further that a problem exists where a rule of action is defective, and that its defectiveness can best be judged by the public through the test of assent and the test of conformity. For remedies I have assumed that normally the public must turn to the Outs as against the Ins, although these wholesale judgments may be refined by more analytical tests for specific issues. As samples of these more analytical tests I have suggested the test of inquiry for confused controversies, and for reforms the test of interpretation, of amendment and of due notice.”

One is impressed by this positive side of Mr. Lippmann’s contention, but one remains less convinced by it than by the negative side. At the same time, it is not simple readily to put a finger on the trouble. Little help is to be derived from the platitude that sound thinking more easily demolishes than it constructs; nor can one remain unconvinced and go no further than to observe that incisive criticism can point out defects in all human institutions, whereas, as Hudibras says, “to mend the world is a vast design.” The really weak point in Mr. Lippmann’s book would seem to be this: the implication of the negative argument and that of the positive argument are on essentially different planes. Thus, it is contended on the negative side that it is possible for the situation with respect to public opinion to be ameliorated by giving to public opinion a possible task, though it must be clear that to eradicate the prejudice at the basis of the existing situation is no simple matter. In other words, it is urged that what is should give place to what is desirable; and the implication is that this is possible. On the other hand, the positive argument has it that only what public opinion does at present and not what it is expected to do represents what it can do. It may well be that public opinion cannot do what it is at present expected to do, but it is manifestly fallacious to conclude from this that public opinion cannot do anything more desirable than that which it actually does do. Yet this is the clear implication of the positive argument, and it definitely differs in kind from that of the negative contention.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Lippmann in drawing his conclusions concerning the relationship between public opinion and the agents of government is apparently influenced primarily by the nature of this relationship in America. The plain fact is that the spirit underlying the relationship of governors and governed in the United States is different from and inferior to that at the basis of the same relationship in all other great nations. For the most part, the institutions commonly regarded as typical of the American governmental system are based on distrust of the agents of government. The federal organization of the state, the non-parliamentary relationship of executive and legislature, the doctrine of judicial supremacy, the principle of constitutional limitations,—all these and many other similar things represent an unwillingness to impose confidence in the individuals charged with the business of government. In the result, public opinion has an unhealthy basis; true leadership is practically unknown; and real responsibility is in almost equal degree absent. There is little wonder in the circumstances that these concepts of leadership and responsibility, though they are of paramount importance, receive practically no consideration in “The Phantom Public.”

There is a story from English History which is pregnant with suggestion for the political student. Though no love was lost between the elder William Pitt and his King, force of circumstances caused the latter to entrust the former with the direction of affairs. The veteran statesman, when summoned before the Sovereign, had decided to let bygones be bygones and said: “Sire, give me your confidence and I will deserve it.” The King, who was not equally ready to be gracious, replied, “Deserve my confidence and I will give it to you.” An almost infinite distance separates these two attitudes. That of the King lies at the basis of nearly all American political institutions; and the same attitude is adopted by Mr. Lippmann when he asserts that “a sound political theory must insist upon the largest factor of safety,” or when he warns that “it will require more than a good conscience to govern modern society, for conscience is no guide in situations where the essence of the difficulty is to find a guide for the conscience.” The attitude of Pitt must appear healthier and saner to the better side of men. It is a worthy ideal for American public opinion; and if it appears difficult of attainment, experience shows that it is not impossible.

What has been said may serve in a measure to explain Mr. Lippmann’s criticism of so-called “aristocratic theorists.” The latter, he admits, _ understand the evils of mistaken democratic theory as well as himself; but he believes that in assuming “a congenital difference between the masterful few and the ignorant many,” the aristocratic theorists “are the victims of a superficial analysis of the evil they see so clearly.” He continues: “In short, like democratic theorists, they miss the essence of the matter, which is that competence exists only in relation to function; that men are not good, but good for something; that men cannot be educated, but only educated for something.” One wonders if Mr. Lippmann does not miss “the essence of the matter” in assuming that the relation of competence to function is necessarily closer than it need be. Not a little is to be said for the principle of American civil service examinations, according to which a candidate’s fitness for a specific position is tested; but at least an equally good case can be made out for the different principle underlying corresponding British examinations, where the general fitness of the candidate is tested. If the opinion of the public, which need not for all time be identical with “the ignorant many,” can be furnished with tests based on the second principle, the aristocratic theory is worthy of careful consideration. When M. Henri Bergson was admitted to the Academie Franchise, he gave utterance to sentiments which deserve the best thought of the student of democracy. His words, perhaps, do not lose all their force in literal translation. “If,” he says, “Democracy does not accept government by a picked few (elite), it condemns itself to being only the decomposition of former organizations—a sort of transitory crisis tending either towards anarchy and the irremediable dissolution of the nation or towards a new organization emerged from the ruins of the old. If it pretends to be the definitive form of the State, it must be something other than an abstract juxtaposition of unities equal in quality or in lack of quality; it must confide its destinies to leaders (chefs). The principle of true Democracy is community of freely accepted obedience to a superiority of intelligence and of virtue. How shall there be recruited, how shall there be constituted as a directing class and as a council of government this new aristocracy ever to be renewed from talent, from ability, and above all from character? The whole problem of the organization of Democracy is there.”

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