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Dialogue — Democracy according to John Dewey and Walter Lippmann

Afterword —Lippmann and Dewey: The Varieties of Liberal Experience


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1Both Lippmann and Dewey sensed that democracy carried in its unformulated assumptions a conception of knowledge, and they disagreed on what those assumptions are and on what they should be. This initial difference reverberates through their political thinking. Lippmann’s and Dewey’s dialog in the twenties recapitulates some of the most vital questions about democracy: what is it that makes a “good citizen”, and is a “good man” de facto a “good citizen”? To what extent can democracy be predicated on a vision of the good life, and conversely, to what extent can democracy do without a comprehensive conception of the good life? How well is democracy adapted to the challenge of a mass society in which the voice of the stentor dear to Aristotle has been replaced by the din of the media, face-to-face relationships and mutual recognition by the anonymity of transient crowds? How well has the dream of the Enlightenment, that of an “autonomous” subject and citizen, been fulfilled?

2In his review of Walter Lippmann’s 1922 Public Opinion, John Dewey wrote that “one finishes the book without realizing that it is perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned” (MW 13, 337). Dewey’s appraisal of Lippmann’s 1925 The Phantom Public is slightly more indulgent: “Mr. Lippmann’s essay is in reality a statement of faith in a pruned and temperate democratic theory” (LW 2, 213). The change in the tone of Dewey’s view does not reflect a change in Lippmann’s, but rather an evolution in Dewey’s own perception of democracy and of democratic theory. If Public Opinion qualifies as a powerful indictment of democracy, it is primarily for the onslaught on the principle of representative democracy. Lippmann’s argument, first stated in Public Opinion and then repeated in The Phantom Public is well-known. First, there is no such thing as “a public” which could be considered as the expression, via the majority rule, of the people. Instead, there is an aggregate of individuals who are treated as consumers by politicians and who respond as such, giving “yes” or “no” answers to the questions they are asked. Second, the majority rule is really a fraud in the sense that what 51% of the population thinks does not make it a sure guide to action and decision-making. Third, the ideal of the omni-competent citizen which is taken for granted by the democratic mind is a myth: the individual citizen simply does not possess the knowledge that is required to make enlightened decisions. Lippmann calls the assumption of the omni-competent citizen the “mystical fallacy of democracy” (Lippmann, 1925, 28): the ideal may be laudable, but it is unattainable. The remedy lies in the forming of an “independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions” (Lippmann, 1922, 14). What clearly transpired from Lippmann’s statements is the idea that a public really finds its unity thanks to shared opinions. Lippmann is careful to distinguish “opinion” from expert knowledge. Individuals approach reality through a set of stereotypes, prejudices that are far from the truth accessible only to experts.

3 Dewey reacted promptly to Lippmann’s essays in his review, but he really responded to Lippmann’s “indictment” of democracy, and his criticism of democracy in favor of a “temperate” version of it with a full book: The Public and Its Problems (1927). Individualism, Old and New, published in 1928-1930, can be considered as a sequel to it. In both books, the main issue is basically the following: how to transcend the individual versus society dualism within a democratic framework?

4 Dewey argued that Lippmann’s mistake consisted in looking for the public in the wrong place. The public does not originate anything: “the wrong place to look [...] is in the realm of alleged causal agency, of authorship, of forces which are supposed to produce a state by an intrinsic vis generatrix” (Dewey, 1927, 37). Instead, “those indirectly and seriously affected for good or for evil form a group distinctive enough to require recognition and a name. The name selected is the Public” (Dewey, 1927, 35). But the organization of a state through representatives and officials is only a formal device: there is no sanctity about it. For Dewey, true democracy is really community: “regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is “the idea of community life itself” (Dewey, 1927, 148).

5Dewey’s thinking seems to be at the juncture of Whitman and of Durkheim. Dewey finds support in Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity and adds the distinctive Whitmanian assertion that democracy is a moral ideal: “Associated or joint activity is a condition of the creation of a community. But association itself is physical and organic, while communal life is moral, that is, emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained” (Dewey, 1927, 151). Organic solidarity, which is based on the social division of work, does not suffice: “we are not born organic beings associated with others, but we are not born members of a community” (Dewey, 1927, 154). When Dewey tries to specify “what are the conditions under which it is possible for the Great Society to approach more closely and vitally the status of a Great Community, and thus take form in genuinely democratic societies and state” (Dewey, 1927, 157), he falls back on the issue of knowledge. He opposes Lippmann and all those who believe that “a thing is known when it is found out” (Dewey, 1927, 176). For Dewey, “a thing is fully known when it is published, shared, socially accessible”. But what does that really mean? What is really the nature of the knowledge at issue here? Obviously, it is neither the knowledge of the experts which is phrased in a language that is not accessible to the masses, nor the stereotypes or erroneous opinions that all too often guide people, as the Scopes trial evidenced. Dewey needs to confess that “the prime condition of a democratically organized public is a kind of knowledge and insight that does not yet exist” (Dewey, 1927, 166). Indeed, the conclusion of the key chapter of The Public and Its Problems sounds inconclusive enough: “democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication” (The Public and Its Problems, 184). Considering Dewey’s inability to articulate his theory of democracy with his theory of truth – “truth as something public” – it becomes clear why, in 1934, he opted for an entirely different strategy and made democracy something in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy (Di Mascio, 2011).

6However, there is another strand in Dewey’s attempt to transcend the individual versus society dualism which does not require a theory of truth: Individualism, Old and New constitutes such an attempt. The book, really a series of articles published in The New Republic between 1928 and 1930, offers a hopeful view of our ability to “participate in a shared culture” (LW 5, 57), a view that Lippmann felt more than sceptical about. But from a Deweyan perspective, to participate in a shared culture has more to do with doing things than with knowing things. “Truth as something public” will become fact when a process of education will have accomplished for politics what science accomplished for nature, that is, to make experiment the paradigm of all thinking.

7Both Lippmann and Dewey were sincere democrats and both were self-professed liberals. Their dialog does not so much echo “the liberty of the ancients vs the liberty of the moderns” theme as it is an invitation to be equally wary of our inclination to let experts insidiously dictate their vision of the good life, and of our collective susceptibility to the appeal of populism. Both were concerned with the foundation of citizenship, that is with the nature of the bond between the citizen and the polis. Neither was content with a Lockean, contractualist approach. Lippmann, who adopted for the occasion John Stuart Mill’s emphasis on the link between education and the vote, believed that the average citizen simply did not have the necessary knowledge to pass informed judgments on issues of public policy. Dewey retorted arguing that taking part in the democratic process was not a matter of knowing things, but of sharing in a common culture, united in a common faith in democracy. Who could claim that such questions are relics of a foregone era? Neither would endorse the slogan of the end of ideology or that of the end of history. Both were convinced that democracy is a series of new beginnings and an endless quest for the good society. They call on us, from two distinct vantage points, to adopt a critical stance concerning our own ability to measure up to democracy’s highest ideals.

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References to Dewey’s Works are to the collected works of John Dewey, 1882-1953:

John Dewey: The Early Works - 1882-1898 [abbreviated as EW followed by the volume number], Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

John Dewey : The Middle Works - 1899-1924 [abbreviated as MW followed by the volume number], Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1983.

John Dewey : The Middle Works - 1925-1953 [abbreviated LW followed by the volume number]. Ed.Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1983.

Dewey, John, The Public and Its Problems [1927], Ohio University Press, Athens, 1954.

Di Mascio, Patrick. « Dewey et le pari démocratique », Introduction to John Dewey, Une foi commune. Paris : La Découverte, 2011.

Lippmann, Walter, The Phantom Public [1925], Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 2009.

Regalzi, Francesco, Walter Lippmann – una biografia intelletuale, Nino Aragno Editore, Torino, 2010.

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Patrick DI MASCIO, « Afterword —Lippmann and Dewey: The Varieties of Liberal Experience », E-rea [En ligne], 9.2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2012, consulté le 16 avril 2014. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.2572

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