“The Western liberal democracies are a declining power in human affairs.”
“The disorder which has been incapacitating the democracies in this century is, if anything, becoming more virulent as time goes on.”
Europe and America in 2019? Actually, this was the diagnosis of Western democracies in the 1950s from the renowned political commentator Walter Lippmann. Originally penned in 1938, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, and completed in 1955, Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy outlined his diagnosis and remedy for the maladies of Western liberal democracies. The disorder he described and sought to rectify did not emanate “from the machinations of our enemies and from the adversaries of the human condition but from within ourselves.” In other words, liberty and democracy were at risk of destroying each other; worst of all, we were the cause.
For Lippman, the rise of modernity had unleashed forces that now threatened the very system that had helped foster them. Like a virus, the democratic body politic was becoming infected. He saw that democratic executives in the West had become enfeebled, too dependent on the vagaries of public opinion. Most critical was the need “to stop the electoral process from encroaching upon and invading the government” and simultaneously “invest the government not only with all material power but also with the imponderable force of majesty.” The greatest threat, in his view, was Jacobinism, a philosophy that claimed popular sovereignty could often only be achieved through a radical overthrow of the government. He called the Jacobin doctrine an “obvious reaction, as de Tocqueville’s observation explains, to government by caste. When there is no opening for the gradualness of reform and for enfranchisement by assimilation, a revolutionary collision is most likely.” Fortunately, Lippman had a salve to remedy this democratic illness.
Lippman’s response to this challenge was based on a return to civility and the renewal of what he called the public philosophy. His salve was rooted in the power of ideas. Ideas, for Lippmann, had “the power to organize human behavior, [therefore] their efficacy can be radical.” A public philosophy postulated that “there was a universal order on which all reasonable men were agreed: within that public agreement on the fundamentals and on the ultimates.” In Lippmann’s view, democracies were “ceasing to receive the traditions of civility in which the good society, the liberal democratic way of life at its best, originated and developed.” He noted that “with the disappearance of the public philosophy . . . there was opened up a great vacuum in the public mind, yawning to be filled,” and that “[t]he ancient world . . . was not destroyed because the traditions were false. They were submerged, neglected, lost.” A similar phenomenon was occurring again. Democratic institutions were still standing, but people were no longer educated in or adhering to the public philosophy that undergirded those institutions. What was needed, then, was a renewal of public philosophy grounded in the tradition of natural law. Lippmann charged that democratic societies had lost their ability not just to lead but also to command respect. In part, he offered this failure was due to the failure to produce a mandate of heaven—a realm outside the private spheres. It was the re-establishment of and agreement on the universal public realm that Lippmann saw as the potential remedy to liberal democratic malaise. So do Lippmann’s prescriptions still allow us to chart a path forward today?
Lippmann’s call to renew public philosophy continues to resonate now, over a half century later. But before accepting his prescriptions, we should note two challenges with his diagnosis.
First, the idea of achieving consensus through developing and seeking agreement on a public philosophy appears out of step with the complex reality of modern, liberal, democratic societies. Lippmann’s vision of a “great vacuum in the public mind, yawning to be filled” continues to remain one of the key bugs—perhaps a permanent fixture at this point—of liberal democratic life. Even when there is a consensus about the “rules of the game,” there remains a lack of common purpose about what should be achieved through those rules. That vacuum has only become more acute in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this context, it’s unclear whether a return to public philosophy is possible, at least in the manner envisioned by Lippman.
Second, Lippmann’s proposed solution was rooted in a view of the superiority of rational thought, defining the public interest as what people “would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.” But, as Lippman himself points out, “political ideas acquire operative force in human affairs when, as we have seen, they acquire legitimacy, when they have the title of being right which binds men’s consciences.” And legitimacy is not purely rational. As sociologist Ulrich Beck remarked, “politics must not be merely rational in a democratic society, it must also be emotional.” The need to fill the vacuum is undiminished, but it requires an iterative and ongoing legitimation, focused not just on rational principles but also on emotional appeals that articulate a positive, constructive vision of our future.
Our collective feeling of distemper, then, will likely continue for some time. And if we remain committed to supporting democratic institutions, we should take to heart much of Lippman’s diagnosis while also noting its deficiencies. The prognosis, as always, remains in our collective hands.