A Review of Lippmann's "Public Opinion"

During the presidential debates and the election season, we hear much about "public opinion". But what is public opinion, anyway? How do we form our opinions, where do they come from, and how do government officials use it? Can the press, or the Internet, provide us the knowledge we need to make informed opinions? The following is a paper originally written for my course in the Manship School of Mass Communication.

The main point of “Public Opinion” is to demonstrate the problem facing democracy in its original form “because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside” (p. 19) and to suggest a remedy based on organized intelligence and “representation of the unseen facts” (p. 19) of public affairs. Walter Lippmann supports his argument by discussing how public opinions consist of pictures inside men’s heads and why the picture “so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside” (p. 18). He reveals how stereotypes affect public opinions and how these individual opinions “are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion” (p. 19). Public opinions are the pictures inside men’s heads, “the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship” (p. 18). Public Opinion consists of those pictures collectively acted upon.

The world people deal with politically is “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind” (p. 18). Fictions and symbols become an important part of human communication in a world of complex, distant and unseen events. Man’s behavior becomes his response to a pseudo-environment, the environment as he knows it in pictures inside his head. People form mental images of events they do not experience and attach emotions to those images. Casual facts combine with a man’s creative imagination and his will to believe to create the fictions on which he acts. The analyst of public opinion must thus begin “by recognizing the triangular relationship between the scene of action, the human picture of that scene, and the human response to that picture working itself out upon the scene of action” (p. 11). Indirect, imagined, symbolic and stereotyped pictures of facts form the basis of public opinion.

In Part two, Lippmann explores the factors that limit people’s access to facts and thus the accuracy of the pictures inside their heads. Censorship and privacy intercept information at its source, forming barriers between the public and events. Physical and social barriers, monopolies, low incomes and lack of interest limit the circulation of ideas. Language becomes a limiting factor as words elicit different mental images and have different meanings for different people. Time constraints, distractions of urban life, emotional conflicts and fatigue also limit access to facts. These limitations “combine with the obscurity and complexity of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception, to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas” (p. 49).

In Parts three and four, Lippmann explores how stereotypes and self-interest guide public opinion, how images, preconceptions and prejudices affect incoming messages from the outside. People use their prejudices to interpret and fill out these messages. The observer of the outside world is selective and creative, bringing stereotypes and expectations to scenes such that his account of an event “is really a transfiguration of it” (p. 54). In a complex world, people perceive events and other people in forms stereotyped for them by their culture.  They accept stereotypes as mental shortcuts in order to minimize effort of thought and defend their positions in society and their self-respect. Moral codes, social philosophies and political agitations contribute to the stereotyped shapes that influence perceptions. People see those facts that fit their moral philosophy, support their stereotypes and compliment their variable interests. Lippmann suggests that public opinion is a “moralized and codified version of the facts” (p. 82) that is personal and variable in each individual.

In part five, Lippmann explores the question of how “great numbers of people feeling each so privately about so abstract a picture” (p. 125) could develop a common will, a collective Public Opinion. He discusses the role of vague ideas and universal symbols in uniting deeply felt individual opinions. Public figures use symbols such as Americanism and Progressivism to “amalgamate the emotion of conflicting factions” (p. 133). Lippmann equates this harmonization to a hierarchy of symbols. A higher order symbol collects more diverse ideas into a common emotional response while sacrificing concrete intellectual substance. Each individual gives the symbol his or her own private meaning. As authoritative figures begin to wield uniting symbols, men choose less between true and false and more between trustworthy and untrustworthy. They exercise their independence not through self-sufficiency but in controlling which authorities they listen to. Common symbols and issues constructed from a multitude of private notions limit the direct action of the public to assent or dissent, the simple expression of “yes” or “no.” Lippmann writes, “[b]ecause of its power to siphon emotion out of distinct ideas, the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation” (p. 151).

In Part six, Lippmann analyzes democratic theory of public opinion in its traditional and reformed forms. He concludes that in the absence of a simple self-contained community and reliable pictures of the world, democracy suffers from the problem of “turning a self-centered opinion into a social judgment” (p. 194) and good government. In popular government, men act without reliable pictures of the world. Lippmann points out that, despite hopes, the press will not provide the spontaneous knowledge of truth and self-governing ability required of the individual in a representative government. The source of the problems of representative government, industry and the press alike is “the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experiences and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge” (p. 229-230). Lippmann proposes a separate system of intelligence as a remedy to the limitations of the press, a “social organization based on a system of analysis and record” (p. 229). Lippmann proposes that a re-education based on objective methods of expert reporting and information organization “will help to bring our public opinions into grip with the environment” (p. 255).