Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lippmann and Propaganda

This entry is a work in progress; updated/reviewed 5/22/2016; suggestions welcome -- please email

From: J. Michael Sproule, Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 92-94:
Alarmed about wartime obsessions and manic displays, proponents of straight thinking were emboldened to advocate direct intervention as essential for correcting weaknesses in people's modes of thought. Driven by a vision of an irrational citizenry helpless before clever propaganda, straight thinkers developed a theory and pedagogy premised on the idea of cognitive incompetence. They argued that people could not be trusted to think intelligently unless their logical skills were first measured and then meliorated through formal training. Walter Lippmann, the journalist-philosopher and John Dewey, America's philosopher-[p. 93]laureate, were the two best-known commentators on the public during the 1920s and 1930s, and they became -- albeit unintentionally -- the spiritual guides for the straight-thinking approach to propaganda.
Lippmann's metamorphosis from a fellow traveler of muckraking to a legitimizer of elitist democracy made him a weather vane for society's evolving conceptions of the public. However, Lippmann's deepening concern about democracy's rank and file was not born of a conversion experience; certain fissures were present from the beginning in how he conceived of his fellow Americans. While the young Lippmann spoke for outcasts and reformers and worked as a journalist under Lincoln Steffens, this precocious progressive also imbibed newer psychological conceptions from his mentor, Graham Wallas, the English guild socialist, and from his own readings of Freud. Harbingers of Lippmann's distrust of the people and his recourse to administrative steersmanship could be discerned in his two prewar books. In A Preface to Politics (1913), Lippmann's juxtaposing of psychoanalysis and politics supported his conclusion that progressives should consider not only the intellectual architecture of their reform measures but also the social intelligence of the people. In Drift and Mastery (1914), Lippmann faulted the small-town individualism that seemed to underlie Wilson's progressive program, arguing that the vast scope of modern life required large-scale administrative measures to harness the nation's considerable resources. He further argued that the "distracted soul" and "murky vision" of the people might be a greater obstacle to social progress than "the malicious contrivance of plutocracy." (1)
Lippmann's direct and sometimes painful immersion in political and psychological opinion control during the war may have diluted and even postponed his inchoate movement toward a paternalistic-administrative conception of mass democracy. As a worker in the army's psychological warfare unit, Lippmann contended with the jealousy of Creel's CPI [Committee on Public Information] and his own growing disdain of military organization. He fared little better in the war's political sphere, where he alternated between outside and inside, eventually losing his place as whiz kid of the Inquiry project that was shepherding Washington's vision of the postwar world. Lippmann experience firsthand how elites might be confused or spiteful and how they might mismanage their publics.  These perceptions suffused his Liberty and the News (1924) and his co-authored piece on the wishfully inaccurate reporting on the Russian civil war by the New York Times. (2)

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Lippmann's early works were reconcilable in varying degrees with the picture of an intelligence discursive democracy struggling to survive in an arid informational atmosphere characterized by a chiefly one-[p. 94:]way flow of communication about society. His later works merged the metaphor of the-public-as-cipher to an elitist notion of managed democracy and, therefore were less entangled with strands of progressive propaganda critique. In The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann extended the analysis, begun in Public Opinion, of a public confused by facts, overwhelmed by newspapers, and haunted by symbols. Lippmann presented citizens as consummate outsiders to government, unable to anticipate problems, and arriving late, if at all, to an issue. Nor was the public's civic retardation entirely unfortunate since "when public opinion attempts to govern directly it is either a failure or a tyranny," interests whenever they tried to deal with the specific merits of issues. The public was best situated as a reserve forces to which elites could appeal on those occasions when leaders proved unequal to the task (3)
Lippmann's writings constituted the most prominent indication of how theoreticians of political society were moving from the old democratic faith expressed by James Bryce to the notion of the irrational and helpless public seen in the works of Le Bon and Wallas. His influential views were significant in setting up the intellectual environment in which the straight-thinking movement grew, although his specific remedies did not focus on education. Never directly an apostle of straight thinking, Lippmann doubted whether either education or more information could better empower democracy's people. His specific reforms looked, on the one hand, to benign social science research, or on the other, to a kind of quasi-propaganda analysis that would help people to detect better the self-interested groups of special pleaders. (4) Nevertheless, in his role as the nation's best-known prophet of civic incompetence, Lippmann functioned as a doting uncle to those lesser-known minions working to improve the political and social reasoning power of Americans. ...
Page 97:
Lippmann ... informed progressivism's hope for practical administrative efficiency by holding out that science and education [JB -- and in the above Sproule writes that "Lippmann doubted whether ... education ... could better empower democracy's people:] might improve the process by which people thought about social issues. ... Lippmann's ... ideas fed a view that the weak-minded and dangerously neurotic public could not be trusted to take intelligent political action without formal training, supported by quantitative assessment, in how to think.
Page 235:
[M]edia muckraking emphasized the larger cultural landscape in which institutions monopolized information (as Lippmann demonstrated with regard to the Great War), in which professional persuaders orchestrated speakers and writers behind the scenes ..., and in which persuasion was disguised as education (in student contests), as information (in news), as entertainment (in sponsored films), or in religion (in preaching).
 Page 286:
(1) Steel 1980: 23-44; D. Steven Blum, Walter Lippmann (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 29-39; Lippmann, A Preface to Politics (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913); Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985 [1914]), 15-16.
(2) Lippmann 1920; Lippmann and Merz 1920.
(3) Lippmann 1922; Lippmann, The Phantom Public (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925), quotation 70-71.
(4) Lippmann 1925; Lippmann, The Good Society (Boston: Little, Brown, 1937).

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