Lippmann’s elitism

Alison Kadlec and Will Friedman’s article is a response to a set of critical arguments against deliberation, distilled from works of Iris Young and Lynn Sanders. Young, Sanders (and other, activist-minded critics) claim that formally and procedurally correct deliberation will always be distorted in substance, adapting to hegemonic power relations and thus essentially unequal and non-inclusive. Kadlec and Friedmann suggest that the focus of inquiry should be shifted: instead of deriving how deliberation works from pure theory, we should focus on the actual, practical processes involved; and from those processes we can arrive at the conclusion that

under favorable conditions the broad citizenry can deliberate quite effectively and with meaningful results.

The authors distinguish between three practical challenges (that of control, design and “change” (which latter refers to how deliberation could be tied to actual, practical social change)), which should be taken up in order for society-wide deliberation to work.

Although the piece would have benefited, I believe, from a clearer distinction between micro- and macro-level deliberation, I liked it, not least because I think that it sums up Young and Sanders’ criticism succinctly. What I’d like to take up here is the article’s critical stance – and perhaps misreading – of Lippmann, of which a couple of sentences and footnotes testify.

The most important source of inspiration for the authors seems to be John Dewey, who is also the subject of Kadlec’s recent book. I was wondering if this, with the Dewey-Lippmann duel in mind, explains such attacks on Lippmann:

[Young and Sanders’ argument] is quite at odds with traditional critics of deliberation, such as […] Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter, who view participatory forms of democracy as either pointless or dangerous (Lippmann 1922, Schumpeter 1947).

and later:

[…] the elitism of Lippmann, who dismissed participatory democracy on the grounds that people are too selfish to discern common interests and too stupid to work together except as destructive mobs, is strangely legitimized because the rules governing appropriate deliberation are themselves inherently elitist.

It seems a tad unfair to read Lippmann focusing exclusively on his Public Opinion – in the Phantom Public, published 5 years later, he already modified his stance – towards an even more pessimistic one, on the one hand, but one that suggested that publics can, indeed, act in a constructive manner, even if their acts as publics are highly limited and always contingent upon individual action.

So far as I understand, Lippmann is elitist in the sense that he claims that a.) only individuals are capable of initiating meaningful public/political action, and b.) only a handful of individuals – whom we can refer to as an elite – are in the circumstances to actually do so.

But this arrangement is the necessary corollary of the human condition. So saying that we are “too selfish” to discern common interest and “too stupid” to work together is a bit like saying that fish are too ignorant to walk instead of swimming. Our physical, physiological and mental capacities are severely limited, and pretending that this is not so, by creating a democratic ideal of humans, is unproductive at best. Pragmatists such as Dewey must have understood this. We have to accept our limitations and work our way to democracy using them as a starting point.

…and, at the risk of sounding boooooring, this is where I have to mention Habermas again, and his idea of the two-track deliberative democracy. His model might be flawed in a number of ways, but it still manages to combine a Lippmannian view of humans with the idea of meaningful society-wide deliberation. Much as I admire Dewey, I believe this model is more relevant than models focusing on his (I mean Dewey’s) social intelligence, and civic culture nurtured at the local community.

Kadlec, Allison and Will Friedman (2007): Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Power, in Journal of Public Deliberation 3(1), Article 8.

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