150 Years of The Atlantic October 2006

Politics

This is the ninth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic.
The Decline of Western Democracy
February 1955
By Walter Lippmann

In the wake of two devastating world wars, and with the specter of communism looming, Walter Lippmann fretted that Western democracies were becoming too beholden to an ill-informed and frequently “destructively wrong” mass of public opinion.

There has developed in this century a functional derangement of the relationship between the mass of the people and the government. The people have acquired power which they are incapable of exercising, and the governments they elect have lost powers which they must recover if they are to govern …

The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials. They have compelled the governments, which usually knew what would have been wiser … Mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this century. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master …

There have been men worth listening to who warned the people against their mistakes. Always, too, there have been men inside the governments who judged correctly because they were permitted to know in time the uncensored and unvarnished truth. But the climate of modern democracy does not usually inspire them to speak out …

With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular—not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active, talking constituents like it immediately. Politicians rationalize this servitude by saying that in a democracy public men are the servants of the people.

Volume 195, No. 2, pp. 29–36

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