Among journalists of a certain age no one is as well respected as Walter Lippmann. Lippmann defined American journalism in the first half of the 20th-century. But he should be more controversial than he is. The reason? He gradually developed a very elitist view of government in a representative democracy. When you have a chance, you should peruse his 1922 book Public Opinion. Here’s a taste.
Because of their transcendent practical importance, no successful leader has ever been too busy to cultivate the symbols which organize his following. What privileges do within the hierarchy, symbols do for the rank and file. They conserve unity. From the totem pole to the national flag, from the wooden idol to God the Invisible King, from the magic word to some diluted version of Adam Smith or Bentham, symbols have been cherished by leaders, many of whom were themselves unbelievers, because they were focal points where differences merged. The detached observer may scorn the “star-spangled” ritual which hedges the symbol, perhaps as much as the king who told himself that Paris was worth a few masses. But the leader knows by experience that only when symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd.
You see? Flag-pins are vitally important. Lippmann’s insight was that representative democracy is an imperfect device. No sampling of the public will ever be a suitable tool for determining the correct economic or foreign policy, especially in real time where leaders must make snap decisions. Using a contemporary example, Lippman makes the point:
Thus [Ferdinand] Foch and Sir Henry Wilson, who foresaw the impending disaster to Cough’s army, as a consequence of the divided and scattered reserves, nevertheless kept their opinions well within a small circle, knowing that even the risk of a smashing defeat was less certainly destructive, than would have been an excited debate in the newspapers. For what matters most under the kind of tension which prevailed in March, 1918, is less the rightness of a particular move than the unbroken expectation as to the source of command. Had Foch “gone to the people” he might have won the debate, but long before he could have won it, the armies which he was to command would have dissolved. For the spectacle of a row on Olympus is diverting and destructive.
Lippmann’s Public Opinion is a tour de force that is filled with brilliant observations that were novel at the time. For example:
Those programs are immediately most popular, like prohibition among teetotalers, which do not at once impinge upon the private habits of the followers. That is one great reason why governments have such a free hand in foreign affairs.
Leaders in touch with popular feeling are quickly conscious of these reactions. They know that high prices are pressing upon the mass, or that certain classes of individuals are becoming unpopular, or that feeling towards another nation is friendly or hostile. But, always barring the effect of suggestion which is merely the assumption of leadership by the reporter, there would be nothing in the feeling of the mass that fatally determined the choice of any particular policy. All that the feeling of the mass demands is that policy as it is developed and exposed shall be, if not logically, then by analogy and association, connected with the original feeling.
So when a new policy is to be launched, there is a preliminary bid for community of feeling, as in Mark Antony’s speech to the followers of Brutus.7 In the first phase, the leader vocalizes the prevalent opinion of the mass. He identifies himself with the familiar attitudes of his audience, sometimes by telling a good story, sometimes by brandishing his patriotism, often by pinching a grievance. Finding that he is trustworthy, the multitude milling hither and thither may turn in towards him. He will then be expected to set forth a plan of campaign. But he will not find that plan in the slogans which convey the feelings of the mass. It will not even always be indicated by them. Where the incidence of policy is remote, all that is essential is that the program shall be verbally and emotionally connected at the start with what has become vocal in the multitude. Trusted men in a familiar role subscribing to the accepted symbols can go a very long way on their own initiative without explaining the substance of their programs.
But wise leaders are not content to do that.
But this is the really important insight that has ramifications for our democracy:
The established leaders of any organization have great natural advantages. They are believed to have better sources of information. The books and papers are in their offices. They took part in the important conferences. They met the important people. They have responsibility. It is, therefore, easier for them to secure attention and to speak in a convincing tone. But also they have a very great deal of control over the access to the facts. Every official is in some degree a censor. And since no one can suppress information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it, without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every leader is in some degree a propagandist. Strategically placed, and compelled often to choose even at the best between the equally cogent though conflicting ideals of safety for the institution, and candor to his public, the official finds himself deciding more and more consciously what facts, in what setting, in what guise he shall permit the public to know.
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.
The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.
Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.
Now, the real tension exists at the point where one internalizes Lippmann’s truth that public opinion is at once, incapable of governing and subject to manipulative molding. That is where the role of journalism in a representative democracy comes into play. Is their job to take the walking orders of Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, and Douglas Feith and manufacture consent for an invasion of Iraq, or is it to arm the public with as many objective facts as they can to enable us to make proper decisions of support or opposition to public policy?
There is no simple answer to that question, despite our instinct to prefer the latter option. In some sense, we are reliant on the wisdom of our leaders. We hope that they will not embark on foreign policies that are unwise and unworthy of public support. Provided that our leaders, or elites, make prudent decisions, we are safe in supporting their causes once initiated. Few people complain about the stifling of dissent during the second world war because the cause was manifestly just and the outcome was satisfactory.
But two problems present themselves. Our foreign interventions since the second world war have not been unambiguously good or necessary causes. From Korea to Vietnam to Panama to Kuwait to Iraq, we have followed our leaders into one intervention after another, often with bad information provided in support. In each of those cases, the media initially played the role of manufacturing consent by demonizing the enemy, only to come later (in most examples) to question the wisdom of the elites and to amend the information that they initially provided to the public.
All of this is a long way of prefacing the point that last night’s debate that was moderated by ABC was a disservice to our nation. It was a disservice in much the same way as the media failed us in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Ordinary citizens cannot make foreign policy because no public will (as expressed by majority opinion) will ever be qualified to make those types of tough decisions. And the public will is only measured in elections and more imperfectly in polling. But that makes it all the more imperative that the public is provided with the best information that the media and our educational institutions can provide. We must know, in as far as possible, what the facts are, and what our candidates believe and advocate. Only then does the public have the ability to express an informed will.
But the media has no faith in public opinion, and so it emphasizes ‘character’ as expressed by flag-pins and other symbols that can be used as ‘handles to move a crowd’. This is a problem that is endemic in our society. But it doesn’t have to be this way. One reason that new citizen-driven media is so important is that ordinary citizens have no investment in manufacturing consent for the policies of elites. Regular citizens do not allow easy demonification of foreign leaders like Hugo Chavez, who run afoul of American businessmen. They do not fall in line when the government says we must invade another country on faulty intelligence.
When ABC uses a presidential debate to harp on games of gotcha they waste prime opportunities to educate the public not only about the candidates, but about policy in general. And that is the great sin of what Gibson and Stephanopoulos perpetrated last night.