Saving American Democracy, Part 1

This continues March 4: QAnon Mythology and CNN: The Flat Earth Conspiracy, a Darker Core? Part 1.


Walter Lippmann, a candidate for “most influential journalist” of the 20th century, and advisor to 6(?) presidents, explored the intersection of political science, social philosophy, and communications in a series of books. The centerpiece, Public Opinion, remains controversial, challenging the foundations of democracy. He  got away with his huge reputation intact. Today, cancel culture might X him off.

Lippmann’s world is unpleasantly at odds with the the myth of informed decision of the electorate. His ideas are vulnerable to exploit by the dictator.  So why look? The answer will come in a bit. We should examine the epochs of Lippmann’s life to  understand his freedom to write.

If I were to advocate Public Opinion as a solution to the fragile state of U.S. democracy, my minuscule reputation might be extinguished. Nor  would it be good advice.  But we should be free to  find points of inspiration. Perhaps we don’t have to repudiate the myth; instead of calling informed decision of the electorate fact, call it aspiration.

Lippmann’s World

 America is a much kinder place than it used to be.  All the old cruelties are still around, but they tend to hide in the corners and run from the light. More people accept  that for a significant proportion of Americans, their heritage is  oppression and victimization.  Still, for the majority, this is  not the preferred way to remember the past.

We prefer to remember the past for elegance, fine diction, natty attire, the piano, clever lyrics with inside jokes, speakeasies, and cigarettes that didn’t kill, hard-bound best sellers, and movie stars of aristocratic bearing. (That’s fine for memories; I wear tee shirts, and shoes with holes.)

America had social mobility, but to rise meant to join a business elite, or the one centered around the Ivy League. Inevitably, the two merged, so that by 1920, a classical elite was joined to the political establishment, vying with trade union organizers and ward heelers. The Progressive Era had been gone for a few years.

Walter Lippmann wrote Public Opinion in 1922. As background for thought, the year was perfect. Still young, Lippmann had seen the rapid evolution of U.S. politics: Diminished domination of the big city ward,  rise of Big Labor, and the still-current Dem-pro/GOP-anti union  alignments.

This was the era of grand social experiment. Intellectuals still had the untainted choices of capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, syndicalism… Fascism was an  infant, though the seed came from Nietzsche, celebrated in music by Wagner.  Racism itself had intellectual legitimacy, in the works of many authors we have not bothered to cancel. The poisonous fruit  was huge, in war and civil strife, that lasted through and beyond the world wars. Public Opinion was written when ideologies were mostly innocent coffee house conversation, long before the terrible costs were understood.

Future historians may mark the beginning of modern America with the  Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Equality is promoted by enlightened laws, but remains elusive in the last mile, the real world. Cancel culture tackles the last mile. In Lippmann’s time, cancel culture did not exist. Lippmann was one of the elite, with little contact with the blue collar majority. If cancel culture had existed in 1922, it would not have applied to him.

With that freedom from cancellation, which no longer exists, Lippmann sought to undermine the electoral myth, and improve the durability of democracy. It sounds very suspicious. Can we suppress the urge to cancel long enough to see if there is any inspiration for our current situation? A significant portion of the electorate is having a psychotic episode.

To be continued shortly.



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