The Dewey-Lippmann Debate

Here are some references on an debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. Since it took place back in the 1920s, it’s an old debate, but it’s still important because it frames a basic issue for journalists and news media outlets – are we primarily here to write for experts or for ordinary citizens. Many social science majors are also familiar with this debate since it frames some basic issues about democracy – e.g. to what extent should the state be governed by experts and to what extent should we expect ordinary citizens to understand complex issues well enough to weigh in on important decisions. It’s also a debate that re-emerges as new technology (e.g. Facebook) and new political realities emerge (e.g. Trump’s win in 2016 and his continued influence over the Republican party despite his loss in 2020).

First, here’s how Wikipedia characterizes the debate:

The Lippmann-Dewey Debate: writing for experts or for ordinary citizens

In the 1920s in the United States, as newspapers dropped their blatant partisanship in search of new subscribers, political analyst Walter Lippmann and philosopher John Dewey debated the role of journalism in a democracy.[62] Their differing philosophies still characterize an ongoing debate about the role of journalism in society. Lippmann’s views prevailed for decades, helping to bolster the Progressives’ confidence in decision-making by experts, with the general public standing by. Lippmann argued that high-powered journalism was wasted on ordinary citizens, but was of genuine value to an elite class of administrators and experts.[63] Dewey, on the other hand, believed not only that the public was capable of understanding the issues created or responded to by the elite, but also that it was in the public forum that decisions should be made after discussion and debate. When issues were thoroughly vetted, then the best ideas would bubble to the surface. The danger of demagoguery and false news did not trouble Dewey. His faith in popular democracy has been implemented in various degrees, and is now known as “community journalism”.[64] The 1920s debate has been endlessly repeated across the globe, as journalists wrestle with their roles.

Walter Lippmann kicked off the debate with Dewey with two books written after WWI.

Public Opinion (1922)
by Walter Lippmann

Public Opinion is a book by Walter Lippmann, published in 1922. It is a critical assessment of functional democratic government, especially of the irrational and often self-serving social perceptions that influence individual behavior and prevent optimal societal cohesion.[1] The detailed descriptions of the cognitive limitations people face in comprehending their sociopolitical and cultural environments, leading them to apply an evolving catalogue of general stereotypes to a complex reality, rendered Public Opinion a seminal text in the fields of media studies, political science, and social psychology.


The introduction describes man’s inability to interpret the world: “The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance”[2] between people and their environment. People construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone’s pseudo-environment is a fiction. People “live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.”[3]

Human behavior is stimulated by the person’s pseudo-environment and then is acted upon in the real world.[4] Some of the general implications of the interactions among one’s psychology, environment, and the mass communications media are highlighted.

More recent research uses the term “social constructionism” or “constructed reality” to describe what Lippmann (1922) called “pseudo-environment”.

By definition, pertinent facts are never provided completely and accurately; by necessity they are arranged to portray a certain, subjective interpretation of an event. Those who are most familiar with the greatest amount of facts regarding a certain environment, construct a pseudo-environment that aligns with their own ‘stereotypes’ and convey this to the public, knowingly or not, to suit their own private needs. This is inescapable human nature. Propaganda is inherently impossible without a barrier of censorship between the event and the public. As a consequence, the mass communication media, by their very nature as vehicles for informational transmission, are essentially vulnerable to manipulation.

The blame for that perceptual parallax falls not upon the mass media technology (print, radio, cinema, or, inferentially, television) or logistical concerns but upon certain members of society who attend to life with little intellectual engagement. That causes the following:

News and truth

The buying public: the “bewildered herd” (a term here borrowed from The Phantom Public) must pay for understanding the unseen environment by the mass communications media. The irony is that although the public’s opinion is important, it must pay for its acceptance. People will be selective and will buy the most factual media at the lowest price: “For a dollar, you may not even get an armful of candy, but for a dollar or less people expect reality/representations of truth to fall into their laps.” The media have the social function of transmitting public affairs information and their business profit role of surviving in the market.

Nature of news: people publish already-confirmed news that are thus less disputable. Officially-available public matters will constitute “the news” and unofficial (private) matters are unavailable, are less available, or are used as “issues” for propaganda.

News truth and conclusion: the function of news is to signal an event, and that signalling, eventually, is a consequence of editorial selection and judgement; journalism creates and sows the seeds (news) that establish public opinion.

The Phantom Public (1925)
by Walter Lippmann

The Phantom Public was published in 1925 following Lippmann’s experiences observing the manipulation of public opinion during World War I and the rise of fascism in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. It followed his better-known work Public Opinion (1922) and moves further toward disillusionment with democratic politics. The book provoked a response from philosopher John Dewey, who argued in The Public and its Problems (1927) that the public was not a phantom but merely “in eclipse” and that robust democratic politics are possible. Today, the exchange between Lippmann and Dewey continues to be important for the critique of contemporary journalism, and press critics such as New York University’s Jay Rosen invoke it to support moves toward civic journalism.


Lippmann’s book is a forceful critique of what he takes to be mistaken conceptions of “the public” found in democratic theory like that it is made up of sovereign and omnicompetent citizens (21); “the people” are a sort of superindividual with one will and one mind (160) or an “organism with an organic unity of which the individual is a cell” (147); the public directs the course of events (77); it is a knowable body with fixed membership (110); it embodies cosmopolitan, universal, disinterested intuition (168-9); and it is a dispenser of law or morals (106). Lippmann counters that the public is none of those things but a “mere phantom,” an abstraction (77) embedded in a “false philosophy” (200) that depends on a “mystical notion of society” (147). Democratic theories, he argues, vaguely assert that the public can act competently to direct public affairs and that the functioning of government is the will of the people, but Lippmann dismisses such notions of the capacities of the public as a fiction.

Against the idealizations and obfuscations, Lippmann posits that society is made up of two types of people: agents and bystanders (also referred to as insiders and outsiders). The agent is someone who can act “executively” on the basis of his own opinions to address the substance of an issue, and the bystander is the public, merely a spectator of action. Only those familiar enough with the substance of a problem are able to then analyze it and propose solutions, to take “executive action.” No one is of executive capacity at all times, the myth of the omnicompetent sovereign democratic citizen. Instead, individuals move in and out of these capacities: “The actors in one affair are the spectators of another, and men are continually passing back and forth between the field where they are executives and the field where they are members of a public. The distinction between agents and bystanders… is not an absolute one” (110). Most of the time, however, the public is just a “deaf spectator in the back row”(13) because, for the most part, individuals are more interested in their private affairs and their individual relations than in those matters that govern society, the public questions about which they know very little.

According to Lippmann, however, the public has one specific role and one particular capacity, to intervene during a moment of social disturbance or “a crisis of maladjustment…. It is the function of public opinion to check the use of force” (74) by using its own force. Public opinion responds to failures in the administration of government by deciding, through voting, whether to throw one party out in favor or another. The public, however, moves to such action not by its own volition but by being led there by the insiders who can identify and assess the situation for them. The public is incapable of deciding rationally about whether there is a crisis: “Public opinion is not a rational force…. It does not reason, investigate, invent, persuade, bargain or settle” (69). It can exert force upon those capable of direct action only by making a judgment as to which group is better able to address the problem at hand: “When men take a position in respect to the purposes of others they are acting as a public” (198). That check on arbitrary force is the most that can be expected of the public. It is the highly circumscribed but “special purpose” of public opinion.


“The public must be put in its place […] so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”


“The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders. Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insiders can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land. – In short, like the democratic theorists, they miss the essence of the matter, which is, that competence exists only in relation to function; that men are not good, but good for something.; that men cannot be educated, but only educated for something”


In 1927, John Dewey responded to Lippmann’s view of democracy and journalism with his classic text on democracy: The Public and its Problems.

The Public and its Problems (1927)
by John Dewey

The Public and its Problems is a 1927 book by American philosopher John Dewey. In his first major work on political philosophy, Dewey explores the viability and creation of a genuinely democratic society in the face of the major technological and social changes of the 20th century, and seeks to better define what both the ‘public’ and the ‘state’ constitute, how they are created, and their major weaknesses in understanding and propagating their own interests and the public good. Dewey rejects a then-popular notion of political technocracy as an alternative system of governing an increasingly complex society, but rather sees democracy as the most viable and sustainable means to achieving the public interest, albeit a flawed and routinely subverted one. He contends that democracy is an ethos and an ongoing project that requires constant public vigilance and engagement to be effective, rather than merely a set of institutional arrangements, an argument he would later expand upon most influentially in his essay Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us. The Public and its Problems is a major contribution on pragmatism in political philosophy and continued to promote discussion and debate long after its publication.[1]


The Public and its Problems was Dewey’s first major work concerned exclusively with political philosophy, though he had both commented and written on politics frequently for much of his career, and made forays into the subject as it related to education in Democracy and Education in 1916, and would go on to publish numerous works on the subject, including Individualism: Old and New(1930) and Liberalism and Social Action (1935) and Freedom and Culture (1939). Dewey was an ardent democrat who while still at university in 1888 had contended “Democracy and the one, ultimate, ethical ideal of humanity are to my mind synonymous.”[2]

Dewey was moved to write in defence of democracy in the wake of two widely read and influential works written by journalist Walter Lippmann in the 1920s which echoed a rising intellectual trend both in the United States and Europe that was critical of the potential for self-governing democratic societies.[3] In the first, Public Opinion (1922), Lippman contends that public opinion suffers from two major problems – that regular citizens have insufficient access to or interest in the facts of their environment, and that what information they receive is heavily distorted by cognitive biases, manipulation by the media, inadequate expertise and cultural norms.[4] Lippmann contends that citizens construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased, and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone’s pseudo-environment is a fiction.[5] Subsequently, because of the near impossibility of developing an adequately informed public that a democracy requires to make effective public policy in world of increasingly complex policy problems, Lippmann contends that a technocratic elite is better placed to work for the public interest without necessarily undermining the notion of consent of the governed.[6] Lippmann expanded upon his critiques of democracy and the public as an illusory and often dangerous force in The Phantom Public (1925), contending famously that “the public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”[7] He dismisses the notion of the existence of “the public” as used in democratic theory, and advances again a notion that elites are the only force capable of effectively achieving something akin to the ‘public interest’ in practice.[8]

Dewey saw Lippmann’s work as “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned”[9] but felt compelled to come to the defence of democratic theory and to reject what he saw as argumentation on the part of Lippman that was particularly doctrinaire and absolutist in its judgements, and saw his own philosophical pragmatism as a means by which a more accurate and realistic conception of what the public and democracy was capable of it, and its limitations.

The spirit of Lippmann’s critique of democracy was not new to Dewey. One of his first essays, “The Ethics of Democracy,” was a response to the jurist and historian Sir Henry Maine, whose Popular Government anticipated many of Lippmann’s critique.[10] Written in 1888 at the age of twenty-nine, “The Ethics of Democracy” was Dewey’s first defense of democracy, one that can be read as a direct predecessor of The Public and Its Problems.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the rise of new forms of media (e.g. Facebook) have given new life to the Dewey-Lippmann debate. Here is one example of a fairly recent scholarly article on the debate by Lance E. Mason.

The “Dewey-Lippmann” Debate and the Role of Democratic Communication in the Trump Age
by Lance E. Mason
Spring 2017

This paper examines the “Dewey-Lippmann debate” and its enduring significance for contemporary democracy, which currently suffers from deep political polarization within a fractured media landscape. The examination begins with communication theorist James Carey’s original characterization of Lippmann as a positivist seeking a world of objective, accurate information in contrast to Dewey, who identifies the contingent, constructed nature of knowledge achieved through processes of communication. This analysis re-examines Lippmann’s and Dewey’s positions in light of subsequent arguments that challenge Carey’s conclusions. It will be argued that, while Carey’s critics are correct that Lippmann held a more nuanced position on democracy than Carey acknowledges, they also largely misunderstand his Dewey-inspired arguments about the meaning making functions of communication. By highlighting the role of the habits of communication in Dewey’s democratic analysis, this paper points toward suggestions for bolstering participatory democracy while simultaneously fostering a less polarized culture.


Bernays, Edward

Edward Bernays

Propaganda (book)
by Edward Bernays

Chomsky, Noam

Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media
by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
published in 1988

Gramsci, Antonio

Antonio Gramsci

Cultural hegemony

Lippmann, Walter

Walter Lippman


Marxist cultural analysis

3 thoughts on “The Dewey-Lippmann Debate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: