Town Hall Meetings and Democracy

lippmannIt is difficult to watch the video of the various “town hall meetings” and constituent listening sessions that have taken place during the current congressional recess.  The overwhelming feeling engendered by these scenes of screaming faces is a feeling of despair for the future of democracy itself.  After all, town hall meetings hold an important place in our nation’s history as a symbol of the general public’s continuing participation in their own democratic government.

  We are very far removed from the time when the residents of a small New England town could gather together on an occasional basis and make communal decisions that governed their daily lives.  Today, members of congress are expected to use these forums to report back to their constituents, to answer questions and solicit concerns, and then to return to Washington, D.C. with a greater sense of the priorities of the voters.  This is not exactly direct democracy in action, along the classic New England model, but it is the closest that most of us can claim to actually participating in the machinery of our own government.

 At many of these town hall meetings, ostensibly intended to address the topic of health care reform, the proceedings have been anything but an exemplar of participatory democracy.  I am not referring to the “exaggerations and extrapolations” of the pending health care reform legislation that some attendees and some Republican opponents of the bill have espoused.  Trying to prove that something is a lie is like chasing your tail.  The task of separating truth from fiction is simply a never ending part of the human condition.  Nor am I particularly concerned over the shouting and the ill manners of many attendees.  I cannot think of any period in our nation’s history when politeness was the norm in political debate.

 Instead, my concern is with the future of democracy itself.  In 1922, in his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann presented a pessimistic view of the public’s ability to govern itself through our nation’s democratic process.  Three years later, he followed up his critique in the book The Phantom Public.  If anything, the sequel held out even less hope for the meaningful participation of the general public in the shaping of the government policies that have such a dramatic impact on their lives.

 Ideologically, Walter Lippmann was a difficult person to pigeonhole.  He began his journalistic career as an avowed liberal, and over his long life he supported and advised presidents of both political parties.  After his death, his books were reprinted by the “Library of Conservative Thought.”  He was Jewish, but he embraced the concept of natural law and wrote admiringly of the moral authority of Catholicism.  Ronald Steel, in his magisterial biography Walter Lippmann and the American Century, points out the “deep vein of conservatism running through [Lippmann’s] brand of liberalism.” (Steel, p. 233).

 Here is how Steel summarizes Lippmann’s central critique of the modern political process:

 Political science [had previously] focused on how decisions were made – by political parties, voting, the branches of government.  In Public Opinion, Lippmann went behind such mechanics to scrutinize the centerpiece of democratic theory: the ‘omnicompetent citizen.’  That theory assumed that the average citizen, being rational, could make intelligent judgments on public issues if presented with the facts. . . .

  Now, however, [Lippmann] had to abandon that faith. . . .  People see what they are looking for and what their education and experience have trained them to see. ‘We do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see,’ Lippmann wrote.  Since no man can see everything, each creates for himself a reality that fits his experience, in effect a ‘pseudo environment’ that helps impose order on an otherwise chaotic world.  . . . 

 Steel goes on to explain the connection that Lippmann made between his insights about human nature and the mechanical operation of the political process:

 . . . For most people, the world had become literally ‘out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.’  This posed no serious problem in a small community where the decisions each citizen had to make rarely went beyond what he could directly experience.  This was the world that the eighteenth-century fathers of democratic theory had written about.  But modern man did not live in that world.  He was being asked to make judgments about issues he could not possibly experience firsthand: the tariff, the military budget, questions of war and peace.  What was reasonable in a Greek city-state was impossible in a modern technological society.  The outside world had grown too big for the ‘self-centered man’ to grasp.  This posed a political dilemma, for classic democracy ‘never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside.’  They did not correspond for a number of reasons—stereotyping, prejudice, propaganda.  The result was to erode the whole foundation of popular government. . . .

 . . .  The Enlightenment conception of democracy—based on the assumption that every man had direct experience and understanding of the world around him—was totally inadequate to a mass society where men had contact with only a tiny part of the world on which they were being asked to make decisions.  What was possible in an eighteenth-century rural community was unworkable in great cities.  

Steel, pp. 180-182.

 Lippmann concluded, therefore, that the general public was incapable of directing the course of events on any rational basis and that it was folly to attempt this.  At best, the public had the ability to identify those persons or groups who were capable of making important decisions by either voting them in or out of power.  It is not so much that the members of the general public lack competence, it is that the general public lacks sufficient information with which to exercise any sort of rational thought process.

 Lippmann’s theories gave rise to the entire industry of public relations, they revolutionized the concept of advertising, and they greatly influenced every interest group who has since sought to influence the public’s desires and beliefs by “putting pictures in our heads.”  All of these forces in our society eschew rational argument in favor of molding opinion through the use of the symbols and the stereotypes that they believe the general public uses to understand reality.

By and large, the Republican Party has embraced Lippmann’s theories of political science more than the Democrats.  When Gary Wills wrote that Ronald Reagan asked the public to “reject historical record for historical fantasy” (Innocents at Home p. 387), or Henry Fairlie charged that Reagan offered voters an “escape from the present to the idyllic past” (Bite the Hand That Feeds You, p. 190), they were both marveling at Reagan’s ability to glide above the facts and connect with voters on a symbolic level.  One can interpret the political rise of Sarah Palin as a similar achievement.

 The Administration of George W. Bush unabashedly employed Lippmann’s theories of politics.  When reporter Ron Suskind quoted a senior advisor to President Bush speaking dismissively of the “reality-based community,” which embraced the illusion that solutions to problems arise from a study of discernible reality, the advisor was channeling Lippmann.  ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the advisor told Suskind. “[W]hen we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  The main political sin of George W. Bush was not his attempt to manipulate reality, but his failure to successfully hide what he was doing.  

 While Lippmann’s genius has been universally recognized, there has always been a large contingent of liberals and progressives who have rejected his pessimistic conclusions.  For decades, they chose to focus instead on the expansion of the coalition of democratic interest groups– through the addition of women, minorities and the gay and lesbian community– as the key to enacting liberal legislative reforms.  More recently, liberal elements within the Democratic Party have seized upon technology, and the internet, as the key to building broader support for their agenda.  The “Great Health Care Debate” may finally convince these doubters that Lippmann was right all along.

 The town hall meeting experience demonstrates that many liberals continue to cling to the idea of an objective reality.  The Obama Administration approached the issue of health care reform as a process of rational decision-making, where a variety of interest groups would reach an accommodation based upon mutual self-interest.  While President Obama did not initially plan on using town hall meetings in order to promote health care reform, no one in his Administration seemed overly concerned over the prospect of the general public weighing in during the congressional recess.  Lo and behold, when the views of many of the attendees at the town hall meetings were solicited, these views revolved around death panels and the fact that any form of government sponsored health care is inherently evil (unless it is offered by Medicare or the Veterans Administration, both of which are sacrosanct).

Health care reform is too complicated an issue for any lay person to understand.  As a result, the general public falls back on the pictures in our heads to make sense of it all.  This facet of human nature makes us all vulnerable to powerful groups who gain and hold on to their power precisely because they are exceedingly good at creating those pictures.  Lippmann also recognized that when government policy gets too complicated for the average person to understand, it risks letting loose “all the submerged antagonisms within the state.” (Steel, p. 227). 

Corporate America, in contrast to the general public, participates in the legislative process quite successfully via the lobbying process.  It can afford to hire specialists with the knowledge and experience to direct legislative priorities and to influence the votes of legislators.  Without any real competition from a general public seeking to advance its own interests, it is clear that the legislative process has been captured by corporate interests.  Reform measures intended to address this imbalance, either by decreasing corporate influence through limits on campaign contributions or by increasing lawmaker independence through redistricting efforts, are too complicated themselves for the general public to understand.  If the general public cannot think rationally on the question of health care reform, what hope is there that it can rationally address a reform of the political process itself?

The fundamental question is whether we still have the capability to govern ourselves or whether we the people are destined to have our fates determined by elite interest groups.  Lippmann thought that the modern world was too complex for the former alternative.  He placed his hope in the education and morality of the elite, confident that they would act for the common good and not selfishly.  If that is where our nation’s best hope lies, then I am truly depressed.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Charlie Perry

    Glad to see such a sunny outlook. I actually thought things were much worse – a return to Fascism’s brown shirts. Please let me know should there be replies or comments posted on this subject. Thanks.

  2. Jeremy Hager

    Wow, what a great post. While I had observed the outbursts in town hall meetings (well, the more ridiculous outbursts) and various health care reform misinformation forwarded into my inbox, I had always chalked it up to ignorance, while not really giving thought to the underlying source(s) or complexities of that ignorance. Is there any reasonable solution to such a problem, or has the inability of the laypeople to take the time to form, or even comprehend, their own opinions– after having been given the facts concerning any given topic– become too widespread and complex such that even solving it would require an elite interest group?

  3. Jonathan Leininger

    While the conclusion suggested by Lippmann (I’ve not read him, though from this post his work sounds quite interesting) seems pretty pessimistic, the analysis itself is impressive and, I think, illuminating. So much so, that I don’t even find the “results” all that depressing.

    We really have to understand how something is working first if we’re to deal with its particular problematic aspects. And regardless, if Lippmann is indeed right, what has really changed in the fundamental situation other than our perception of it (or realization of the facts, in this instance)? Government still works the same way it always has/does, whether we see the underlying mechanisms or not.

    Sure, we’d like to have confidence in the fact that each of us contributed to picking the best government around and that we’re directing it in line with our interests, but how many people actually bother to try to educate themselves, even if they think the exercise will have an effect on the process? And besides, even if what he says is accurate, that doesn’t mean we just give up, at least until we find some more attractive alternative.

    It seems to be assuming an awful lot to think that most of our decisions are based solely on reason anyways. If someone can figure out a way to harness all of that unreason (like interest groups apparently have) they’re certainly at an advantage.

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