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Sun Jun 10, 2018, 06:04 PM

Lippmann and Dewey: Debating Democracy in the Age of Metropolis

At the beginning of another presidential election cycle, in which both major parties will spend billions of dollars in an effort to sway the public, it is instructive to revisit the historic clash between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey on the subject of democracy and, specifically, their disagreement as to whether the mass democracy that followed the Industrial Revolution was sustainable.

Walter Lippmann, a journalist and social critic, made a name for himself through a series of works published in the 1910’s and 1920’s, in which he questioned the logic behind democracy and the capacity of the ordinary citizen to fulfill their civic obligations, in the industrial age. Having been disabused of any romantic notions about electoral politics and the machinery of democratic legislation by his teacher, British political scientist Graham Wallas, Lippmann would go on to argue for the idea that men commonly were not rational, and that the modern world was too complex for them to play the role that liberal democracy expected.


Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann, consequently, was a matter of the solutions Lipmann proposed, rather than his diagnosis of the problem. Dewey rejected Lippmann’s suggestion that we address the challenges to democracy in the industrial age by empowering technocrats and bypassing the populace. More generally, Dewey believed that Lippmann’s resolution of the problem was largely inadequate. The issue of what to do about democracy, in light of the limitations of the ordinary person, could only be addressed fully, Dewey thought, through education. That meant not just the education of public officials listening to technocrats, but of the citizenry as a whole. As Dewey said in his review of Public Opinion, “Democracy demands a more thoroughgoing education than the education of officials, administrators, and directors of industry.”


Neither Lippmann nor Dewey have aged very much. The concerns they wrote about over a hundred years ago are as relevant now as ever. As to the solutions, some have noted that for all our support of Dewey’s participatory democracy, the reality is actually much closer to Lippmann’s. Undoubtedly, this is partly due to our broken educational system as well as our apparent inability to have public policy mirror our best natural and social sciences. The fundamental problems highlighted by Lippmann have not gone away and Dewey’s worries and recommendations seem as relevant as ever. In fact, one can argue that such concerns have become even more serious and pressing in an age when voters’ political knowledge is as abysmal as ever and corporate media conglomerates are the norm. It would behoove us, then, to take a very close look at the views both men and their diagnoses and solutions to the problems of modern democracy.


There are some sound comments on the link as well.

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