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Dialogue — Democracy according to John Dewey and Walter Lippmann

Democracy and Its Discontents: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Politics (1919-1938)

Francesco REGALZI

Notes de la rédaction

Texte de la conférence donnée par Francesco Regalzi dans le cadre du LERMA le 12 avril 2011.

Texte intégral

1The interwar period was a moment of deep crisis everywhere. The already strong shock of World War I, a conflict that involved different continents with political and economic consequences, was soon followed by the 1929 crisis and by the growth of totalitarianisms.

2The United States of America, which had previously abandoned the principle of isolationism to join the war, quickly returned to it, rejecting Wilsonian idealism. The defeat of Wilsonianism granted the Republican party more than ten years of government, from 1920 to 1932, interrupted only by the consequences of the 1929 crisis and by the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This crisis, which was mainly socio-economic, had been preceded and was then accompanied by a political crisis, which we may define as a crisis of democracy. The so-called red scare, the growth of right-wing and racist groups like the Ku-Klux-Klan, the controversy between evolutionism and creationism and the admiration for Mussolini and Italian fascism - all typical tracts of the Twenties - were clear signals of those difficulties. The growing power of the Nazis as well as the threat of Fascisms and Communism in the Thirties, ideologies that seemed attractive to many Americans, illustrates how deep this crisis was getting.  

3Walter Lippmann was one of the brightest and most influential of the many intellectuals who debated these topics, to the extent that his works can now be considered as “classics”. Mostly known as a famous columnist, Lippmann was born in 1889 and died in 1974. Despite his important contributions to The New Republic, New York World, New York Herald Tribune, Washington Post, and several other magazines, Lippmann was not just a journalist, he was also an acute political thinker - or a public philosopher, as he would have probably defined himself - and an expert in international relations. At Harvard University, where he graduated in philosophy in 1910, he was deeply influenced by two of the most acclaimed professors of the discipline: the realist George Santayana and the pragmatist William James. In this context, Lippmann acquired a strong philosophical background, a genuine passion for Plato and Socrates, and a real interest for intellectual debates both in the United States and in Europe.

4In those same years, he was attracted to Socialism and Fabianism, but he soon converted to progressivism. A great admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and later of Woodrow Wilson, Lippmann was one of the first American intellectuals and journalists to call for American intervention in World War I. When the United States finally entered the conflict, Lippmann began to work for the government. That experience, which saw Lippmann working on the war propaganda and contributing to the outlining of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” gave new impulses to his reflection. Like many progressive intellectuals, he too became strongly disappointed by American conduct at the Paris Peace Conference and moved away from Wilsonian idealism, beginning to develop many doubts around the illusions of the progressive era.

5During the interwar period Lippmann was very active. He continued to work on his regular columns and collaborating to various magazines and academic reviews. He published four major books and various other pamphlets and collections of articles and speeches. As I have argued in my recent book, Walter Lippmann. Una biografia intellettuale (Regalzi, 2010), the investigation of the relationship between freedom and democracy in contemporary societies was a major life-long effort. This is the period when he sharpened his focus on these themes. During the Twenties - at least until the publication of A Preface to Morals in 1929 - Lippmann’s main interest was public opinion. However, we should avoid the frequent mistake of considering him a journalist who only wrote on news, propaganda and problems related to communication. He was, in fact, much more than that.

6Like other intellectuals who were involved in propaganda during World War I, Lippmann was profoundly interested in the relationship between public opinion and democracy. That considered, it should be clear that the focus of his work was not communication theory but rather the limits of democracy. He was not alone in his doubts about common assumptions regarding representative democracy. Edward Bernays, who like Lippmann worked for the Committee on Public Information during the war years, was attracted by the same topic. While Bernays presented himself as “the father of public relations” and worked within the field of commercial advertising, he also published several books on this topic, including Crystallizing Public Opinion (Bernays, 1923)and Propaganda (Bernays, 1928), his best known and most widely read book. In addition, several members of the Chicago School were studying these themes, along with Harold D. Lasswell in his famous Propaganda Technique in World War I (Lasswell, 1927). John Dewey, perhaps the greatest twentieth century American philosopher, also demonstrated his interest in these questions. He was an acute reviewer of Lippmann’s main works during the Twenties and the Thirties and his The Public and Its Problems (1927) reads like a long, optimistic reply to Lippmann’s theory of democracy and public opinion, whose conclusions ran counter to his approach as a pragmatist philosopher. In fact, when Dewey reviewed Public Opinion, he argued that it was “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned” (Dewey, 1922, p. 337). In Lippmann’s defense, it would now be fairer to say that he was not really attacking democracy. Rather, Lippmann was a true democrat who, in effect, was arguing for the necessity to think beyond the way the theory of democracy had been classically formulated.

7Democracy — not public opinion, propaganda or communication — was indeed at the center of Lippmann’s thought as well as at the center of the thought of many other intellectuals who took part in the debate. War propaganda demonstrated for the first time in world history how easy it was to build consent and to forge opinions. Once it was understood that this could be done, democracy obviously seemed to be facing serious problems.

8During those years Lippmann kept on demonstrating the flaws in the information system. For example, in 1920 he showed how the authoritative New York Times had been unable to give its readers adequate coverage of the events of the Bolshevik revolution. Lippmann and his co-author Charles Merz asserted that “a sound public opinion cannot exist without access to the news” and that their inquiry was “a piece of evidence” that there was, indeed, no access (Lippmann and Merz, 1920, p. 1). That same year, Lippmann published a pamphlet entitled Liberty and the News, where he argued that the present crisis of democracy was a consequence of the crisis of journalism, unable to fulfill its duties correctly, and suggested some reforms towards the improvement and professionalization of journalism.

9Aside from this, what is most important to remember is that Liberty and the News was, as the title itself suggests, a book on liberty, where Lippmann addressed the classical theories of John Milton and John Stuart Mill. Both these authors offered what Lippmann considered an inadequate theory of liberty because they both posited doctrines whose premises offered the bases for subsequent exceptions. Lippmann instead clearly stated “that the traditional liberties of speech and opinion rest on no solid foundation” and that in Milton’s and in Mill’s thought “liberty is to be permitted (only) where differences are of no great moment” (Lippmann, 1920, pp. 11 and 17). Their notion of liberty was based on that of indifference, which was “too feeble and unreal... to protect the purpose of liberty” (Lippmann, 1920, p. 21).

10This is something that can be considered one of the most interesting aspects of Lippmann’s thought during the Twenties. The books he had published in the previous decade, which were widely appreciated, were part of the progressive tradition. However, they were not groundbreaking even though they helped to make of him one of the most brilliant young intellectuals of that era. Something changed during the Twenties and a quotation from Liberty and the News sheds some light on that change: “We have learned that many of the hard-won rights of man are utterly insecure” (Lippmann, 1920, p. 12). The crisis of politics involved democracy and the rights of men.

11 Unlike his previous works, these new books were not part of any political tradition, either new or old, but they were clear attacks against some of the most relevant key concepts of political theory: “liberty” in Liberty and the News, “democracy” in Public Opinion and The Phantom Public and, to some extent, “majority” and “majority rule” in the lesser-known conferences American Inquisitors. Lippmann did not mean to destroy these categories of political thought, but sought to re-consider them in order to make them suitable for the contemporary world. Through this process, he did not create new definitions or new concepts, but his critiques were fundamental to the development of his perspective during the following years.

12In 1922 Lippmann published his most famous book, Public Opinion. Strongly influenced by Plato’s theory of knowledge, Lippmann argued that no one, from the man in the street to the journalist and to the President of the United States, could have a first-hand, adequate knowledge of the exterior world. Using the works of Graham Wallas and the psychology of Sigmund Freud, Lippmann illustrated the characteristics of a plurality of pseudo-environments, radically different from the external world, where every individual collected his stereotypes and all the information coming from the outside. In effect, people have a hard time in understanding the complexity of contemporary world. For this reason, Lippmann expressed his doubts about the existence of authentic public opinion, a view that was shared by people who were well informed and interested in public affairs. Lippmann offered a short definition of what he meant by “public opinion”:

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 (Lippmann, 1922, p. 29).

13The imperfect public described by Lippmann could not be the real substratum of democracy. This is the core of the book’s pars destruens. Lippmann argued that the classical theory of democracy as conceived by Rousseau and, even more importantly, by the American Founding Fathers, was based on the “myth of the omnicompetent citizen”. Only these “omnicompetent citizens” could develop an authentic public opinion, or volonté generale, capable of directing the course of government. This was a theory that could only fit the needs of very small communities, but was completely inadequate for great twentieth-century democracies and larger states. Lippmann believed it was a myth and that “life is too short for the pursuit of omniscience” (Lippmann, 1925, p. 35).

14In Lippmann’s next book, The Phantom Public, he prolonged and emphasized his line of thought when he developed a new theory of democracy somewhat similar to the one advanced by Joseph Schumpeter in his Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Schumpeter, 1942). What Lippmann suggested was that democracy had been reduced to the expression of people’s opinions in periodic consultations - elections and referendums - in which the citizen could only choose among a few names or parties, or between a “Yes” or a “No”. Even if Lippmann did not pose the question this way, we may assert that it was a courageous attempt at formulating a new democratic theory, smacking of elitism. This is a hypothesis that can be seconded by Lippmann’s readings during this period – the works of Robert Michels, Moisei Ostrogorski and James Bryce, authors that tended toward some form of elitism.

15Similar ideas were also at the center of The Phantom Public. This work is not just a simple integration or a sequel to the most known Public Opinion. Moving from the conclusions of Public Opinion, The Phantom Public reflects a greater pessimism about the human condition and about democracy. This was probably the main reason for its lack of critical success and readership. Nevertheless, the book is probably one of the most interesting ever written by Lippmann. Here he observed that the common man “has been saddled with an impossible task and that he is asked to practice an unattainable ideal” (Lippmann, 1925, p. 10). As he had argued in Public Opinion, he insisted on the fact that people can influence the government in quite a feeble way and only when elections come. Besides then, the only power of public opinion is to check the work of the Congress and the Government:

Government, in the long intervals between elections, is carried on by politicians, officeholders and influential men who make settlements with other politicians, officeholders and influential men. The mass of the people see these settlements, judge them and affect them only now and then. They are altogether too numerous, too complicated, too obscure in their effects to become the subject of any continuing exercise of public opinion (Lippmann, 1925, p. 31).

16In addition to this, not even with the elections can people really conduct the course of politics, as Lippmann argued in his main publications of this decade:

I do not wish to labor the argument any further than may be necessary to establish the theory that what the public does is not to express its opinions but to align itself for or against a proposal. If that theory is accepted, we must abandon the notion that democratic government can be the direct expression of the will of the people. We must abandon the notion that the people govern. We must abandon the notion that by their occasional mobilizations as a majority, people support or oppose the individuals who actually govern. We must say that the popular will does not direct continuously but that it intervenes occasionally (Lippmann, 1925, pp. 51-52).

17The third political concept at the center of Lippmann’s reflection in the Twenties, alongside those of liberty and democracy, was that of “majority.” He became interested in it while observing the controversy about evolutionism and the Tennessee law that forbade its teaching in public schools. As he clearly asserted in numerous articles and in his collected speeches American Inquisitors (Lippmann, 1927), he did not believe the opinion of a 51% majority should be considered better than that of the 49% of the population, especially on specific issues. In these speeches, which sometimes were posed as virtual Platonic dialogues, Lippmann demonstrated how a changing majority did not have the right to impose its decisions on everybody and how there was a vast array of topics, such as those related to science and education, about which the common man could not express adequate opinions and which should be left to experts.

18Although they are mostly to be found in half-forgotten and secondary writings, Lippmann’s reflections on “majority rule” represent the natural complement to his theories about public opinion. In his books he suggested that real public opinion could not govern a democracy because it was a “phantom”. Meanwhile, in these speeches he argued that the decisions made through public opinion, which on many occasions were certainly irrational, should not always be adopted by the community.

19Just a few months before the terrible bank crisis of 1929 Lippmann published a surprising book, A Preface to Morals. As suggested by its title, it was not exactly a political book but one more concerned with ethics. What Lippmann clearly stated was that the strength of the crisis of contemporary world was all the stronger as it was not merely a crisis of states, institutions and political concepts, but was, first and foremost, a harsh crisis for individuals. This was the effect of what Lippmann called “the dissolution of the ancestral order”, caused by “the acids of modernity”, mainly secularization and the destruction of political and moral authorities, “that not merely denies the central ideas of our forefathers, but dissolves the disposition to believe in them” (Lippmann, 1929, p. 68). People who had ceased to believe in old doctrines and authorities still needed something to believe in and still needed an authority capable of directing them. Because both were missing, people could be attracted to Bolshevism or Fascism.

20It was in this book, in fact, that Lippmann marked the similarities between those two models for the first time: they were both “attempts to cure the evils resulting from the breakdown of a somewhat primitive form of capitalism” (Lippmann, 1929, p. 251). The possible attractiveness of “Absolute Collectivisms”, as he defined them during the Thirties, was his main preoccupation during that decade. The need to find the correct and balanced relationship between liberty and democracy, the fil rouge of Lippmann’s political theory, had never been so urgent as it was during the Thirties, when the threat of totalitarianism was at its peak.

21Yet from the Twenties, Lippmann had been one of the most critical Americans in his comments about Italian fascism. His judgment was so harsh that Mussolini himself tried, without success, to win Lippmann over to the approval of his regime by sending him photos and materials and inviting him for an official visit in Italy (Steel, 1980). The growing spread of authoritarian models in Europe caught the attention of many Americans, even of those who generally did not care much about foreign politics. During the era of the New Deal, many opponents of the federal programs compared Roosevelt’s model with fascism, socialism and/or communism, criticizing the intervention of the state in the realm of economics and production. Along with Roosevelt himself, Lippmann rebutted these critics’ arguments strongly. Although he never was an enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt, he thought the New Deal was a program founded on the American tradition and not on the imitation of foreign models.

22From an economic perspective, after the banking crisis of 1929 came “the end of laissez-faire,” which meant the end of liberalism and its strict separation between economy and politics. Lippmann stated this was a true revolution in political theory, as it established a new “method of freedom” - which was also the title of a pamphlet he published in 1934. This situation led to a “Compensated Economy” in the Anglo-Saxon world, in which the state managed to keep and sustain a working equilibrium of private enterprise. The difference between this model and that of Absolute Collectivisms was clear. While in Fascist and Communist states the governments planned everything and imposed their decisions, the actions of the United States government were limited to the correction of some distortions without compromising the capitalist model.

23For Lippmann, this attitude was absolutely necessary:

If individuals are to continue to decide when they will buy and sell, spend and save, borrow and lend, expand and contract their enterprises, some kind of compensatory mechanism to redress their liability to error must be set up by public authority. It has become necessary to create collective power, to mobilize collective resources, and to work out technical procedures by means of which the modern State can balance, equalize, neutralize, offset, and correct the private judgments of masses of individuals. This is what I mean by a Compensated Economy and the method of Free Collectivism (Lippmann, 1934, pp. 50-51).

24This specific model appeared to be the sole possible alternative to Absolute Collectivisms, such as the ones that were taking control in Germany, Italy and Russia.

25During the Twenties, Lippmann’s main interest within the field of political theory was to criticize some traditional key concepts in order to re-invent them. However, during the Thirties, when facing totalitarianisms was inevitable, his main preoccupation was to defend the essence of democracy and liberty. What he wrote in those years does not contain many critiques of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical theories, aside from critiques of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. Even his attitude towards the American Founding Fathers had changed. This was the time for defense, not for attack. His new mood was not the consequence of a radical modification of his main ideas; rather, in a period of harsh attacks against democracy, Lippmann thought it was more important to prevent a hypothetic authoritarian turn than to reflect upon the limits of the representative system.

26Despite this new focus, he still expressed some doubts about majority rule and the influence of pressure groups in contemporary democracies. His pamphlet The Method of Freedom reads:

Under popular rule the assumption is that the government should be governed by popular opinion. But the compensatory method of control, as we have seen, requires that the State shall act, almost continually, contrary to the prevailing opinion in the economic world (Lippmann, 1934, p. 74).

27He confirmed this defense of the New Deal in his 1935 pamphlet The New Imperative. There he argued that Roosevelt’s policies were quite similar to those adopted by his Republican predecessor Herbert Hoover and had significant similarities with Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, something that FDR himself had maintained. Therefore the New Deal should be considered fully as part of the American tradition and not some sort of imitation of what was happening in Europe. It is within this context that the “new imperative” emerged as a new way to consider the role of the state, now engaged in the fundamental aim of ensuring a decorous standard of life to all citizens without excluding, if necessary, public intervention.

28Lippmann’s main work during the Thirties is An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, published in 1937, better known as The Good Society (Lippmann, 1937). In this book, his perspective shifts somewhat from his earlier ones. He was still looking for the right balance between democracy and liberty, but was now convinced that the method of Free Collectivism, which he had widely sustained in the previous years, was based on the same principles of Absolute Collectivism. His position, thanks to the influence of authors like Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, was moving back to liberalism. He argued that the complexity of contemporary societies required directions that should not be more authoritative, but “simpler, less intensive, less direct, more general” (Lippmann, 1937, p. 35). In fact, he wrote:

Though it is the fashion to believe that because the process of civilization has been arrested it is necessary to make organization more elaborate and to redouble the impact of authority, the truth of the matter is that the alleged remedy for the trouble is the real cause of it (Lippmann, 1937, p. 38).

29The contemporary world was then dominated by a collectivist spirit that ought to be opposed, as far as “a collectivist society can exist only under an absolute state” (Lippmann, 1937, p. 50). This meant that the only possible consequence of collectivism was dictatorship because democracy and a planned economy could not coexist.

30Lippmann then proposed what he defined as a “reconstruction of liberalism” as “the line of policy which seeks to re-form the social order to meet the needs and fulfill the promise of a mode of production based on the division of labor” (Lippmann, 1937, p. 180). Lippmann’s conception of liberalism at this point was quite close to that of economic liberalism, rather than to the defense of civil and political liberties. The error of laissez-faire supporters, especially in the nineteenth century, had been to suggest that law should not regulate any aspect of economy, work and property. This was a great mistake, as demonstrated by the role of corporations in contemporary American history.

31The “reconstruction of liberalism” outlined by Lippmann was based on a return to the principles of “common law” and on a sort of minimum state in which “the government of the people by a common law... defines the reciprocal rights and duties of persons” as “in a liberal democracy the law must seek primarily to regulate human affairs by a system of individual rights and duties rather than by administrative commands from the ruling officialdom” (Lippmann, 1937, pp. 266 and 289).

32The Good Society was successful not only in the United States, but also in Europe. Published in 1937, it was then translated into French and published the following year by the Librairie de Médicis with the title La Cité libre. It was the success of this edition that inspired the liberal philosopher Louis Rougier to organize in August 1938 a symposium titled LeColloque Walter Lippmann at the Institut National de Coopération Intellectuelle of Paris, with, apart from Lippmann himself, some of the most important European liberal thinkers, such as Raymond Aron, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Michael Polanyi and Wilhelm Röpke (Lecoq, 1989). As stated by Rougier, the idea of organizing this symposium came to him while he was reading The Good Society, described as “un maître-livre, un livre-clé, parce qu’il contient la meilleure explication des maux de notre temps” (Le Colloque Walter Lippmann, p. 13). The aim of the Colloque was to investigate the crisis of liberalism and its capacity to fulfill the needs of the masses, in order to manage what Rougier defined as “le retour à un libéralisme révisé qui est tout simplement le retour à l’état de civilisation” (Le Colloque Walter Lippmann, p. 19). This was in line with Lippmann’s own aims, as he stated them on that occasion, saying “la reconstruction du libéralisme est la discipline nécessaire, l’indispensable expérience dans laquelle les énergies vitales du monde civilisé doivent s’unir pour se défendre contre le danger qui les menace” (Le Colloque Walter Lippmann, p. 27).

33This danger was the threat of a new war for the survival of liberal democracies, as World War II was to be a war in which the “American destiny”, as Lippmann declared in 1940, was to defend the United States and the West from “the evil which is devastating the world” (Lippmann, 1940, p. 536).

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BERNAYS, Edward Louis. Propaganda. New York: Horace Liveright, 1928.

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 –. The Method of Freedom, New York: Macmillan, 1934.

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 –. [1937] An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2005.

 –. [1940]. “A Declaration of Faith and Hope. In The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy, ed. Clinton Rossiter and James Lare. New York: Random House, 1963.

 –, MERZ, Charles. “A Test of the News”. Supplement to The New Republic, August 4, 1920.

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SCHUMPETER, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942.

STEEL, Ronald. Walter Lippmann and the American Century. New Brunswick and London: Transaction publishers, 1980.

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Francesco REGALZI, « Democracy and Its Discontents: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Politics (1919-1938) »e-Rea [En ligne], 9.2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2012, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Francesco REGALZI

Università degli Studi di Torino.
Francesco Regalzi holds a Ph.D. in “European and Euro-American Political Studies” from the University of Turin, where he is at present collaborating with the Department of Culture, Politics and Society. His research focuses on U.S. contemporary political thought and intellectual history and particularly on the relationships between democracy, public opinion and élites. He is also on the editorial board of “Storia del pensiero politico”, published by Il Mulino. His recent publications include: Walter Lippmann - Una biografia intellettuale, Nino Aragno editore, Torino-Savigliano 2010; as editor and translator: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ripartiamo! Discorsi per uscire dalla crisi,Add, Torino 2011.

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