May 12, 2012 § Leave a comment


Walter Lippmann’s book, “The Public Philosophy”, advocates governing according to policies beneficial to all, regardless of the demands and preferences of the particular constituency that elected the policy-makers.  He argues that populist style democracy produces ill-conceived policies and often results in disorder and eventual takeover by leaders who ignore individual rights in the name of safety.  He favors a strong executive assisted by experienced and knowledgeable advisers.  I agree with some of his ideas and question others.


In an earlier post I referred to Walter lippmann and posted an excerpt from his book, “The Public Philosophy”.  I first read the book when I was twenty-five or six years old, a newly minted lawyer.  From 1952 through 1956 I had clerked for the Supreme Court of Texas, worked full time in two statewide governor’s races,  and  waded through a series of raucous political conventions.   Despite that experience, I was what old lawyers say about young lawyers:  “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

Still, although Lippmann challenged some of the things I thought I knew, I could not ignore his fact-based arguments.  I had just seen what rough-and-tumble democracy looked like up close  and personal.


Lippmann was a journalist who wrote a column in the New York Herald Tribune called “Today and Tomorrow”.  Woodrow Wilson regarded him and his opinions with respect and sought his advice on various matters.  Lippmann participated in the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Versailles, a treaty negotiated entirely by the war’s victors, Britain, France and the United States   It placed all guilt for the war on Germany and required payment of large reparations.

Lippmann was deeply influenced by this experience.  He regarded the treaty as a serious error that did not represent the thoughtful ideas of the victorious  leaders.  He felt those experienced and knowledgeable men allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the demands  of the ill-informed citizens of their countries, who reacted emotionally to their hatred of the Hun and the horrific carnage of the war by demanding revenge, not a reasoned peace.

When the Nazis used the treaty to mobilize the rage of the German people against the countries that had defeated and then humiliated them, Lippmann felt his doubts about the treaty were confirmed.  It is probably too much to claim that the treaty “caused” World War II, but it is certainly true that it furnished an powerful weapon for Hitler and his Nazi cohorts to use in their grab for power and drive for war

Despite those events, Lippmann watched as the same sequence of events occurred during World War II and the “unconditional surrender” that ended it.  Once again, the vanquished were demonized and the peace terms were not negotiated but imposed.  This time, however, the results were somewhat different.  Guided first by  FDR and then by Harry Truman, Douglas Macarthur was able to oversee the rebuilding of Japan and, in Europe, the Marshall Plan assisted Germany and France in resurrecting their war-ravaged economies. These strategic steps were influenced, in large part, by the post-war threat of an expansionist USSR and the beginning of the Cold War.

Lippmann’s conclusions, based on this recent history as well as several earlier examples he cites, are that popular will, expressed in the electoral procedures of a democracy are almost always wrong in matters of foreign policy and war.  The people invariably vote “no” about going to war and, once war has started, they vote “no” to any hint of compromise or moderation concerning their enemies.  In both cases, Lippmann argues that their decisions are made without essential information and without sufficient experience and knowledge to make intelligent choices.


His assault on populism is interesting.  For example, he decries the recurrent exaltation of “the people” as the final authority in a democracy.  He asks, “What do you mean by ‘the people’?  All those living in the country or those eligible to vote, or those who, in fact, vote?”  Here is an interesting set of statistics cited by him in a discussion of the Constitution’s commencement with “We the people ….”:   According to the 1790 census, there were 3,929,782 people citizens of the US.  Of these, 3,200,000 were free persons.  Of those, less than 500,000 were entitled to vote.  A statistical estimate of the people who actually voted for the delegates to all of the ratifying conventions that adopted the Constitution was less than 160,000.  So, Lippmann suggests that “The People” has two meanings:  those who reside in the country and those who participate in its governance.

But even this is not the end of Lippmann’s reasoning.  He points out that the decisions made by a democracy affect, not only those living in the country, but those not yet born and those who die before or after reaching voting age.  In other words, “The people” is like a corporation composed of a constantly shifting number of shareholders.  “Government of the people, by the people, for the people . . . .” is not so simple a phrase when read in light of Lippmann’s reasoning.

Lippman argues that those who govern a democracy owe a duty to all of “the people” and should not be intimidated or feel bound to respond to those who vote.  He believed that elected officials should be guided by a “public philosophy” requiring  measures that benefit the common good, even if they do not conform to the wishes of the current constituency or of the constituency that voted into office those who enact them.   His discussion closely follows the philosophy of Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol to which I have referred in previous posts.


Lippmann was convinced that populist democracy would likely lead to a degree of disorder that the population would finally regard as intolerable.  Then, after a revolution, the people would choose a dictator who would restore safety and order at the expense of freedom.  He cites several examples, including the Russian revolution that led to the Stalinist era, the Spanish revolution that produced Franco and the Falangists,  the Peronist takeover of Argentina among others.  The outcomes of Mao’s revolution in China and Fidel’s revolution in Cuba are other examples.


He contrasts the American Revolution and the French Revolution as representative of two different attitudes toward government.  The American Revolution was a response to perceived trampling of rights that were guaranteed by government.  Hence, the Revolutionary leaders were not hostile to government.   They were protesting a failure of government to accord Americans the protection of rights.

The French Revolution, based on popular hostility toward a corrupt and arrogant monarchy  unwilling to recognize any fundamental rights of citizens.  That revolution was led by a succession of leaders whose rhetoric was inimical to the idea of government itself.  He labels that leadership “Jacobin”,  a reference to a radical group  who converted the “Jacobin Club”, originated in Paris, into a powerful influence sparking the Revolution.  Like the examples cited above, after successfully destroying the monarchy, the resulting disorder morphed into the government of Napoleon,First Consul of the French Republic and then Emperor and King of Italy.

Reading Lipppmann’s fears of democracy, published in 1955, resonates with the current struggles in Egypt, where the military and the leaders of the deposition of Mubarak are struggling to strike a balance between disorder and human rights, in an atmosphere redolent with the ambitions and fears of Muslim religious leaders.  It seems likely that the “Arab Spring” will result in  new examples of the kind of tension Lippmann  finds threatening.  Our hope is that the outcome will resemble the American experience, not that of the French, Spanish, Russian Cuban and Argentinian revolutions.


Lippmann’s description of the “Public Philosophy” is a hopeful description of well-intentioned and intelligent policies, generally based on respect for law, limits on the rights of property ownership based on the needs of society, and protection of free speech based on a recognition of its purpose:  to enable civil discourse and debate.  To read his ideas in the context of today’s Tea Party v.  Occupy, Fox News v. CNN and MSNBC and this week’s GOP primary defeat of Dick Lugar, is a reminder of how relatively simple Lippmann’s 1950’s world was.  His main problem about protecting free speech was that movies did not permit the kind of dialogue that he thought essential to useful discourse.  He had no way to conceive of cable news and talk radio.

He also states little about the way that political reality impacts the way elected officials behave.  Edmund Burke, after delivering his speech to the Electors of Bristol, was promptly removed from Parliament at the next election.  Lippmann’s ideal elected officials would have to share a degree of political courage that, in these post-Citizens-United times, are not typical of today’s office-holders.

He argues that speech is entitled to protection only if it is true, not fraudulent and expressed in a forum where it can be challenged.  In a recent post I grappled with this issue and finally acknowledged that such an ideal is beyond the capacity of our laws and the system for their enfrocement.

He does make a good argument in support of imposing reasonable limits of the rights of property ownership.  His idea tracks fairly closely the doctrine I was taught in law school:  Sic utere tua ut alienum non laedas (“Use what is yours in a way that you don’t harm what is another’s”).  If this venerable maxim of common law were enforced, it would solve many of our problems.  Unfortunately, like Lippmann’s notions of free speech, trillions of dollars worth of political influence will see that no such thing happens.


When I re-read this book as an 80-year old, it still satisfied my minimum requirements:  It did not insult my intellilgence.  It did not bore me.  I learned some new (or long forgotten) information (I did not know they took a census in 1790, much less what it contained.)  And it required me to re-examine and re-frame some ideas in ways I had not done before. .Also, his description of the French Revolution leaders, the Jacobins, reads exactly like the Tea Party.  They don’t want to improve government.  They teach hatred for government.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn how to encourage people to become aware of their power, how to organize and use that power, and admiring others who spent their lives doing that far more effectively than I ever did.  Lippmann suggests that my prescription for others should have come with a list of “side-effects”, like the label on a drug:  “Caution:  Overuse may cause chaos and eventual loss of freedom and civil rights.”   “Caution:  Power gained as a result of use of this product should be applied within the limits of orderly government.”

I understand his fears, but my experience is that, in the neighborhood where I lived, my problem was not causing chaos.  My problem was that, try as hard as I could, I had little if any effect on anything.  So, as long as my team seemed to lose most of the time, all I knew to do was swing for the fences.

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