Manufacturer Of Consent: Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) provided what might be called “The Owner’s Operating Manual” for mass democracy in the Twentieth Century. Whether his theories are relevant to the Twenty-First is increasingly doubtful - as the four Labour MPs who recently accepted Sky City Casinos' corporate hospitality are discovering - to their cost.
SEATED in Sky City Casinos’ lavish corporate box, Labour’s four errant MPs probably weren’t thinking about Walter Lippmann. Their minds were more likely filled with the thrill of watching the All Black’s defeat the French. Even so, seated there, high above the masses, Phil Goff, Annette King, Clayton Cosgrove and Kris Faafoi were offering living proof of Lippmann’s political theories.
With the enfranchisement of women in the 1920s, democracy – as a political system – assumed something close to its final form, and Lippmann, though barely in his thirties, was determined to shape its future development. In this regard, the formidably intelligent young American journalist was hugely successful. More than any other political writer of his generation, Walter Lippmann provided what might be called “The Owner’s Operating Manual” for mass democracy in the Twentieth Century.
At the heart of Lippmann’s critique of mass democracy lay his pessimistic view of the ordinary voter’s capacity for political decision-making. The average person’s grasp of politics, wrote Lippmann, was that of “a theater-goer walking into a play in the middle of the third act and leaving before the last curtain”.
Flesh-and-blood voters were simply not the “omnicompetent” citizens America’s founding fathers had declared them to be. The world had grown much too complex for the direct democracy of the New England “town meeting” – where equal citizens came together to decide what should be done in their little corner of the world. According to Lippmann, the modern citizen was just one small and largely inconsequential member of “the bewildered herd”.
Lippmann’s genius lay in understanding that although the management of a modern capitalist society was well beyond the capacity of the ordinary citizen, it nevertheless worked best when ordinary people genuinely believed that their opinions mattered, and that their government really was giving them what they wanted.
Democratic government, Lippmann claimed, had become a kind of vast confidence trick.
Reposing the “just powers” of government upon “the consent of the governed” was an arresting political principle, but, in practice, could only be made to work when the people best placed to run complex societies: experts, specialists, bureaucrats; “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality”; had, themselves, already “manufactured” the popular consent upon which the system rested. (In manufacturing this consent, Lippmann’s own profession, journalism, would obviously play a pivotal role!)
Under the modern democratic system which Lippmann envisaged (and which, through his weekly syndicated newspaper column and his many books, he largely defined and systematised) elected politicians, journalists and “specialists” of every kind constitute a permanent, self-sustaining matrix of governing “elites”, whose purpose is to justify the ways of the democratic capitalist system, both to itself and to the volatile and ill-informed citizens who keep it running.
Which brings us back to the four Labour MPs in Sky City Casinos’ corporate box.
The four undoubtedly believed that they were engaged in elite interactions that were as normal as they were unremarkable. By inviting leading figures of the Labour Right to their corporate box Sky City Casinos were reassuring them that they understood Labour’s need to make a large public fuss over the vexed issue of Auckland’s new convention centre. Public opinion on this matter was still in a raw state and much more needed to be done before voters could be reconciled to the convention centre. Both parties understood that the right-wing of Labour’s caucus would be crucial to that consensus-building process. The invitation was Sky City Casinos’ way of saying: “We’re all in this together.”
Back in Lippmann’s day, the news media would probably have left them to it. It is, after all, precisely at these sort of informal gatherings that specialists and professionals build the networks that keep the system running. Telling “the bewildered herd” that their supposed shepherds had been spotted drinking wine and nibbling hors d’oeuvres with the jackals and the wolves would only confuse and upset them.
But, Walter Lippmann never had to contend with Twitter or Facebook. Back in the 1920s and 30s the lucky snap of a sharp-eyed photographer still had to negotiate the labyrinthine hierarchies of a daily newspaper before it reached the public. The gossip columnist was still answerable to his or her editor.
Quite what Lippmann would make of today’s “citizen journalists” with their trusty cell-phone cameras, “Instagrams”, “tweets” and all-but-uncensorable blogs, is anybody’s guess. It is also very hard to see how his system of managed democracy can long withstand the insatiable appetites of the 24-hour news cycle. Thanks to the new communications technologies of the Twenty-First Century, the herd is not only becoming increasingly bewildered, anxious and restless, but it is also increasingly prone to dangerous explosions of social and political rage.
The days of four Opposition MPs enjoying a few quiet wines in the corporate boxes of their faux foes may be over.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 June 2013.