Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Walter Lippmann and John Dewey debate the role of citizens in democracy

In 1922, Walter Lippmann published an influential book entitled Public Opinion. In this book, Lippmann was very suspicious and critical of any model of democracy that placed excessive faith and power in the hands of the public. For instance, he argued that participatory democracy was unworkable and that the democratic public was a myth, and hence concluded that governance should be delegated exclusively to political representatives and their expert advisors. Based on empirical evidence about the efficacy of political propaganda and mass advertisement to shape people's ways of thinking, Lippmann contended that public opinion was highly shaped by leaders. Lippmann called this process of manipulation of consciousness 'the manufacture of consent', a concept that Noam Chomsky would popularize many years later in his writings. Lippmann argued, first in 'Public Opinion' and later in 'The Phantom Public', that since ordinary citizens had no sense of objective reality, and since their ideas are merely stereotypes manipulated at will by people at the top, deliberative democracy was an unworkable dogma or impossible dream. In his view, the most feasible alternative to such democracy consisted of a technocracy in which government leaders are guided by experts whose objectives and disinterested knowledge go beyond the narrow views and the parochial self-interests of the average citizens organized in local communities. Lippmann saw advocates of participatory democracy as romantic and nostalgic individuals who idealized the role of the ignorant masses to address public affairs and proposed an unrealistic model for the emerging mass society. He opposed such a model with his own model of 'democratic realism' based on political representation and technical expertise.

John Dewey, in his response to Lippmann, first in a review published in The New Republic (1922), and later in his book The Public and its Problems (1927), contended that democracy should not be confined to the enlightenment of administrators or to insiders like industrial leaders, and highlighted the importance of public deliberation in political decision-making. However, he was not an advocate of any type of deliberation. He contended that just letting discussion go, without eliciting facts of any kind, and without appealing to common meanings, was fruitless (Hart 1993). While Dewey did not dispute Lippmann's claim that social inquiry and policy design can be done by experts, he claimed that all the relevant facts and potential implications of such inquiry and proposed policies should remain a public trust which must not be manipulable by private interests. In The Public and its Problems (p. 365), he admitted that "it is not necessary that the many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge of the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns." For Dewey, once the relevant facts are made public (and in this regards he placed great emphasis on the need of a truly free press), the role of discussion is to determine the exact nature of the common good in that particular situation. Dewey recognized that intervention by the public is not possible without a better organized and educated public, but argued that lack of education, stupidity, and intolerance lead to bad governance not only in democracies, but in monarchies and oligarchies as well. Thus, argues Dewey, the democratic system is not responsible for the poor decisions of the public in local policy-making, such as the prohibition of the teaching of evolution in schools (which Lippmann cited as evidence of the inability of the public to govern). For Dewey, the weaknesses of democracy are symptoms, rather than causes, of the problems of modern society.

Dewey suggested that Lippmann gave up on participatory democracy mainly due to a lack of political imagination and to a lack of faith in the role of progressive education to forge a democratic public. Dewey argued that his position was not about idealizing people's knowledge, skills and attitudes, or their capacity for self-government, but about nurturing democratic institutions in which people would gradually educate themselves into the processes of deliberation and decision-making. He rejected Lippmann's contention that it was an impossible task, but admitted that it was indeed a very difficult enterprise. Dewey maintained that democracy is more than a technical system of governance defined by devices such as elections, universal suffrage, or checks and balances, although these are important manifestations. These devices are not even essentially democratic, but evolved from a sequence of historically contingent events. To Dewey, democracy encompasses how humans are to live, work, and learn together. An essential democracy, for Dewey, is rule by the people, and therefore a democratic government must serve the interests of the people, and the population must participate in the political process. However, Dewey did not address sufficiently the changes that would make the government more responsive to the interests of the public, and had little to say concerning which methods of political self-government were best.

In closing, whereas Dewey had a great faith in the public's capacity to learn how to govern itself, Lippmann was skeptical of the public's policy-making ability. Many current debates on the virtues and limitations of participatory democracy vis-a-vis representative democracy constitute, to a large extent, variations or reformulations of that debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey that took place in the early 1920s. Dewey's deep faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and Lippmann's understanding of this faith as idealistic and unrealistic, reflect the split in twentieth century liberal democratic thought into participative and elitist factions, and this has important implications for the role and aims of citizenship education in modern democracies. Should citizenship education consists of education for leadership or of education for followership? The Lippmann-Dewey debate on the role of citizens in modern democracies continues to exist today, and it can be found both in philosophical arguments raised by contemporary authors like Richard Rorty, Cornel West, Jurgen Habermas and Benjamin Barber, and in the discussions around current experiments of participatory democracy such as participatory budgeting, communal councils, or citizens assemblies on electoral reform.


Dewey, J. (1922). Review of Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann. In John Dewey: The middle works 1899-1924, Volume 13, 1921-1922, 337-344. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. First published in (1925). New Republic, 30, 286-88.

Dewey, J. (1925). Practical democracy. Review of Walter Lippmann's book The Phantom Public. In John Dewey, Philosophy and Democracy: The later works 1925-1953, Volume 2, 1925-1927, 213-220. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. First published in (2 December 1925). New Republic, 45, 52-54.

Dewey, John. (1927). The Public and its Problems. New York: Holt.

Hart, Carroll Guen (1993). Grounding without foundations. A conversation between Richard Rorty and John Dewey to ascertain their kinship. Toronto: The Patmost Press.

Lippmann, Walter. (1922/1934). Public Opinion. New York: Macmillan.

Lippmann, Walter (1925). The Phantom Public. New York: Harcourt, Braace and Co.

Rorty, Richard. (1998). Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Unger, Roberto & West, Cornel. (1998). The Future of American Progressivism. Beacon Press: Boston.

Prepared by DS & John P. Myers (OISE/UT), 2001

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