The Phantom Public

The Phantom Public

"The Phantom Public" is a book published in 1925 by journalist Walter Lippmann, in which he expresses his lack of faith in the democratic system, arguing that the public exists merely as an illusion, myth, and inevitably a phantom. As Carl Bybee wrote, “For Lippmann the public was a theoretical fiction and government was primarily an administrative problem to be solved as efficiently as possible, so that people could get on with their own individualistic pursuits” (48).


"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 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 a robust democratic politics is possible. Today, this "debate" 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 Argument in "The Phantom Public"

Lippmann’s book is a forceful critique of the what he takes to be mistaken conceptions of “the public” found in democratic theory: that the public is made up of sovereign and omnicompetent citizens (21); that “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); that the public directs the course of events (77); that it is a knowable body with fixed membership (110); that it embodies cosmopolitan, universal, disinterested intuition (168-9); that is a dispenser of law or morals (106); and so forth. Lippmann counters that the public is none of these things; rather, it is 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 these notions of the capacities of the public as a fiction. Against these 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 the analyze it and propose solutions, to take “executive action.” And yet no one is of executive capacity at all times—this is 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 does have one specific role, one particular capacity, which is to intervene during a moment of social disturbance or “a crisis of maladjustment.” In such a crisis, “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 those 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 a rational force … It does not reason, investigate, invent, persuade, bargain or settle” (69). It can only exert force upon those who are capable of direct action 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). This 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.

Lippmann doesn’t apologize for his elitism. His theory of society is “a theory that puts its trust chiefly in the individuals directly concerned [i.e., the insiders, not the “public”] . They initiate, they administer, they settle. It would subject them to the least possible interference from ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” [i.e. the public] (198-9). Such a conception of society “economizes the attention of men as members of the public, and asks them to do as little as possible in matters where they can do nothing very well.” Finally, it “confines the effort of men, when they are a public, to … an intervention that may help to allay [social] disturbance, and thus allow them to return to their own affairs. For it is the pursuit of their special affairs that they are most interested in" (198-9).


Bybee, Carl. "Can Democracy Survive in the Post-Factual Age?" "Journalism and Communication Monographs" 1:1 (Spring 1999): 29-62 Lippmann, Walter. (1925). "The Phantom Public"

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