CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 2nd -- Roger B. Blumberg

Lippmann III: Public Opinion, Expertise, Lippmann's America and Ours

Introduction: Foreign Policy and Public Opinion

In the same year of Lippmann's Public Opinion, Elihu Root wrote, in the first issue of Foreign Affairs,:

When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion
(from "A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy." Foreign Affairs 1:1-10, (1922))

Root had been a US Secretary of War and Secretary of State, and he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. By 1922 he was a well respected (Republican) foreign policy expert.

Root's view clearly differs from Lippmann's and today, Election Day 2004, as the US finds itself at war in Iraq, it might be useful to: discuss and debate the merits of Root's and Lippmann's views on the role that public opinion can/should play in US foreign policy; question how and to what extent propaganda can be said to shape US public opinion today compared to the US of the 1920s; and ask, in the spirit of Root's remark, what sorts of errors of political judgement we think worst and whether/how they can be avoided.

I should repeat here that Lippmann came to question his views about public opinion and foreign policy in light of the Vietnam War. It turned out that public opinion isn't the only "dangerous master of decision when the stakes are life and death" (a quotation from Lippmann's 1955 book, Essays in the Public Philosophy).

Public Opinion, Parts 5-8

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

We'll begin with a discussion of the phrase "consent of the governed". What does it mean in the passage from The Declaration of Independence and what does it mean to you now? How do Lippmann's chapters "The Making of a Common Will"? Does Lippmann's view alter or confirm your sense of the role and/or significance of newspapers (or other forms of media) in a democracy?

You may have noticed Lippmann's stylistic tick of concluding each chapter with a rather discouraging final paragraph. In this light, what did you make of "The Image of Democracy" and specifically the chapter "A New Image"?

We'll do our best to finish Lippmann's book today. A framework that might inform all the presentations and discussions is the one created in the last part of the book by the juxtaposition of chapters titled "The Appeal to the Public" and "The Appeal to Reason."

Last Words and New Questions about Public Opinion

As we finish Lippmann's book it is useful to return to Cherny's The Next Deal and ask:

On Thursday we'll begin discussing Cass Sunstein's republic.com, which was published in 2001. One of the wonderful epigraphs in Sunstein's book comes from John Dewey's The Public and Its Problems (1927), a book written partly as a response to Lippmann's Public Opinion. The concern of the Dewey quotation, and of Sunstein's book generally, is the substance (and not just the surface) of a bona fide democracy.

For Next Time:: Read the first half of Cass Sunstein's republic.com.

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