Lippmann And Progressivism

by TNR Staff | September 27, 2006

by Casey N. Blake

Eric Rauchway makes a not altogether convincing distinction between the pragmatist, experimental progressivism of Walter Lippmann's Drift and Mastery (1914) and the "reality-based, center left technocracy" he identifies with liberal politics after the exhaustion of the New Deal's early reformism. Lippmann's book does contain long passages indebted to the pragmatist tradition of James and Dewey, but these coexist (often on the same page) with calls for an openly technocratic politics of expertise. Lippmann squared the circle by arguing that the new class of managers and professionals that had assumed positions of power in the modern corporation were in fact the bearers of the critical, scientific cast of mind Dewey recommended as the indispensable cultural ingredient for an expansive democracy. But unlike Dewey, Lippmann was content to give members of that new class the predominant role in advancing a progressive politics. The manipulative undercurrent of Lippmann's thinking was already evident in his lampoon of the Jeffersonian dogma of a rational, self-governing citizenry in his first book, A Preface to Politics (1913), and in his insistence on the power of myths and irrational symbols in mobilizing the populace. That tendency became even more evident in Public Opinion (1922), which articulated the anti-democratic realism that would mark much of Lippmann's subsequent career. Dewey's response to Lippmann in The Public and its Problems (1927) was hardly successful, but it had the great advantage of stating the need for holding experts accountable to a democratic public and for making specialized knowledge available to ordinary citizens. Perhaps Dewey's lifelong admiration for Henry George's neo-Jeffersonian radicalism inoculated him against the political program Lippmann sought to give a pragmatist pedigree. If a renewed progressivism means a return to Lippmann, then so much the worse for progressivism.

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