Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Phantom Public

by Jeff Polet

For many college professors, especially in the humanities, reading books is more than a habit, it’s compulsory. We can’t imagine not doing it. As the Preacher said millennia ago “to the making of books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” I don’t think I could begin to count the number of books I’ve read, but I know a fair number of them were not very good and were thus forgettable. Every now and then, however, I reard a book that sticks with me. One such book is Walter Lippmann’s The Phantom Public (I am also an admirer of his The Public Philosophy).

Lippmann was regarded in his day as one of the most important and intelligent journalists of his day, but he was much more than that. He was a thinker, a careful observer of the world who had the ability to ask the right questions. Written during a time of expansive democratic reforms, The Phantom Public brings into question the very idea that there is any such thing as an American “public,” and if there were whether it would be competent to perform any of the political tasks demanded of it.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,” as Shakespeare wrote. Lippmann draws attention to the large and impersonal forces that seem to sweep over the political world and overwhelm its inhabitants. He describes this as “drift,” that change occurs independently of the will of human actors. He draws this analogy:

"The private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to keep awake. He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. Rules and regulations continually, taxes annually and wars occasionally remind him that he is being swept along by great drifts of circumstance.”


“Yet these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes, by unnamed powers. As a private person he does not know for certain what is going on, or who is doing it, or where he is being carried. No newspaper reports his environment so that he can grasp it; no school has taught him how to imagine it; his ideals, often, do not fit with it; listening to speeches, uttering opinions and voting do not, he finds, enable him to govern it. He lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”

Like many critics of mass democracy, Lippmann worried about how its promise of liberty ended up with people feeling powerless and helpless. Tocqueville, a century earlier, when considering how politics was devolving into the selection of chief executives who would manage all our concerns, warned that we were becoming “more than kings and less than men.”

Lippmann’s particular object of criticism was “the unattainable idea” of “the omnicompetent citizen;” a person so versed in the details of governing and problems of political life with their solutions that he will be able to exercise proper oversight and judgment.

“But nowhere in this well-meant book is the sovereign citizen of the future given a hint as to how, while he is earning a living, rearing children and enjoying his life, he is to keep himself informed about the progress of the swarming confusion of problems.”

Indeed, built into our Constitutional system of representation is the idea that most people are too busy to pay attention to politics, an idea even more pronounced in our contemporary context. One of the things that make our contemporary politics dysfunctional is that the average voter believes the story of omnicompetence and is, as a result, far more confident in his or her political knowledge or understanding than he or she has a right to be. I recall interviewing a higher-up official at the Social Security Administration. When I asked about the solvency of the program she stared at me blankly and reemphasized the narrow nature of her particular tasks. I remember thinking that if people at the SSA don’t know what’s going on, where does that leave the average voter?

Back to Lippmann, who is therefore critical of the idea that public opinion should direct our politics, although he does hold to the view that it places an important check upon the tyrannical use of arbitrary power.

“This, then, is the ideal of public action which our inquiry suggests. Those who happen in any question to constitute the public should attempt only to create an equilibrium in which settlements can be reached directly and by consent. The burden of carrying on the work of the world, of inventing, creating, executing, of attempting justice, formulating laws and moral codes, of dealing with the technic and the substance, lies not upon public opinion and not upon government but on those who are responsibly concerned as agents in the affair. Where problems arise, the ideal is a settlement by the particular interests involved. They alone know what the trouble really is. No decision by public officials or by commuters reading headlines in the train can usually and in the long run be so good as settlement by consent among the parties at interest.”

Lippmann’s main concern is that we are “asking men to find a way of working effectively on highly complex affairs by very simple means,” and for this reason it will often be the case that “the public can only produce muddle if it meddles.”

Nor, Lippmann argues, can the problem be solved with reference to competent leadership, for “No scheme of education can equip him [the leader] in advance for all the problems of mankind; no device of publicity, no machinery of enlightenment, can endow him during a crisis with the antecedent detailed and technical knowledge which is required for executive action.” Lippmann thus argues that proper democratic rule comes not from the executive in particular nor the government in general, nor from elections, but from the individualized decision-making of democratic actors across all the spheres of life. Lippmann defends the idea of an institutionalized pluralism that respects the distinctive authority found in a broad range of social relations, and that means that he is freeing the individual from being subject to impersonal forces. “It is the painters who paint, not the artistic spirit of the age; it is the soldiers who fight and are killed, not the nation; it is the merchant who exports, not the country. It is their relations with each other that constitute a society.”

In other words, Lippmann’s book reminds us that personal well-being and democratic order are related to the question of the locus of control, and that a proper democracy will not place the locus of control in a centralized, bureaucratic regime — one that all too often will take criticisms of itself as “threats to democracy,” drawing attention away from the fact that its very presence is the real threat.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Lippmann arguing that a centralized bureaucratic state is a negation of “the public” rather than its voice or agent?
  2. Do you agree with Lippmann’s argument? What practical differences might it make whether we agree or disagree?
  3. Can “education” solve the problem Lippmann describes? Why, or why not?

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