Monday, January 23, 2012

Phantom Never Dies

“...Yet these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes, by unnamed powers….He lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.” (The Phantom Public, 1925)

This description of a “disenchanted man” vividly embodies Lippmann’s sharp and awakening criticism of popular democracy. I was amazed while reading the The Disenchanted Man from The Phantom Public, that even today, about nine decades after these words were published, Lippmann’s skeptical view and argument are still demystifying and enlightening.

In the cold light of experiences he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction” (The Phantom Public, 1925).

To my understating, the “disenchanted man” represents a character of the general electorates/citizens of the country, and Lippmann ruthlessly pointed out that the citizens, as general public, are living under the phantom of the democracy of public opinions. The minority elites and the powerful few behind the stage are the ones who possess ”sovereignty. ” As a foreigner to this country, it is interesting for me to look back and see my path of learning about American politics and democracy. Before I came to the U.S.,I learned all about the greatness of democracy of this country, no matter from classroom, media, or the “anticipatory socialization” process I engaged before I came. I leaned about the electoral system that values everybody’s opinion, the First Amendment that protects freedom, people’s right to unlimited access to knowledge and information, etc. Although superficial, these were the impressions I had about America’s politics and democracy. Then after I lived and studied here for a long time, I gradually realized that the seemingly plausible democracy might not always exist, and the majority public opinions are not always taken into account. However, it was not until I read Lippmann did I find that deep skepticism like this was already spoken out loud eight decades ago.

The actual governing is made up of a multitude of arrangements on specific questions by particular individuals. These rarely become visible to the private citizen” (The Phantom Public, 1925).

Lippmann’s argument predicted what would happen today in terms of the power of public opinions. Power relations and insidious forms of discrimination resulted from power imbalance were the obstacle for the rule of public opinions before, and are still an impediment today, even with the transformation of the mass media landscape and development of new technologies.

I can’t help thinking about my own country while I was reading this. China, as a country with absolute no democracy (at least in my own opinion, and thank God I can say this in this blog without being sanctioned), we never even hold the extravagant hope to worry, or debate about how much weight should be given to public opinions, which is always an absolute “Phantom.”  


  1. Amber,

    I find this to be a fascinating point about the disenchanted man. I agree entirely that today there is power of public opinions.

    It seems that today fewer people are owning the major media outlets, creating a very one-tracked way of thinking.

    This is an interesting video about media conglomerates which I think is the phantom of America today

    Also, it is interesting to see images such as this

    Showing how we come to believe how we should be even due to appearance.

  2. I agree that this is a fantastic perspective of US society from another society (Chinese) which often deemed "opposite" of our own. The almighty dollar has ruled our society for years and progressive reform is no longer dominated by ethics, values or morals but rather by what is good for business. Call me biased (I was an journalism undergrad) but I don't think we can solely blame the media conglomerates. After all, they are just doing what our government has allowed them to do and thus have been able to exploit people (not just Americans) for their own financial gain. I think the degradation of gender identity in the mainstream media is due to the culmination of fragmenting audiences diluting the conceptions of gender and equality. Thus we are bound to an antiquated idea of social status because no single group has a majority voice in society. Thus we have the phantom of public opinion.

    Lippman quotes Robert Michaels, a socialist, in his book; "the majority is permanently incapable of self-government." (Lippman, pg. 38) Do you guys agree with this statement?

    Our "experiment in democracy" that is the US government has lasted for over 200 years. With all the political turmoil and government reforms over the past few years, do you think we have a chance of sustaining the current status quo? Or will our government change to those of older democracies like those in Europe?