The most fundamental question to any democracy has been and will always be, “What did you know and when did you know it?” At the heart of democracy is an informed citizenry. The prospect of self-government, the definition of democracy itself, does not rest on fixed institutions but ultimately on human choices. One hopes our choices are based upon facts and not fictions. A strong democracy obliges a robust truth business. A bull market in knowledge acquisition is not only for the top 1%.
There is no shortage of bull in today’s democratic marketplace. Our public square appears to be dominated by all sorts of viral videos. Characters have trumped character. Demagoguery is now seen as prerequisite for public office. The modern information age ironically finds its citizens misinformed. A close examination of our democracy reveals that we have an epistemology problem. The lack of what we know and when we know it would seem to endanger our polity.
Yet this is not new. Walter Lippmann in his seminal book Public Opinion, published in 1922, stated: “The world…politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.” We live in a “jungle of obscurities,” Lippmann said.
Credentialed political scientists write books all of the time looking for a simple biopsy of our democracy and instead publish its autopsy. Lippmann might be an exception. Lippmann held out hope.
For this reason, Lippmann’s Public Opinion can still inform us. There is cause to be optimistic but first we must take an honest look at the symptoms of the problem. Lippmann assured his reader that today’s world is not much different than the one described in Plato’s Cave metaphor two thousand years earlier. Public opinion then as well as now is made up of “pictures in our head.” Lippmann wrote:
What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him…Great men are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality.
This is not to say that public opinion is based upon lies. Rather as a coping mechanism “we the people” create “pseudo environments” that make sense to us. In epistemological study this is called creating a simulacrum. In politics this is called image making, branding and “sticking to the talking points.” Of course this means that pubic opinion, according to Lippmann, is vulnerable to propaganda. Consent can be manufactured.
Representative government in a pluralist society can guard against the ills of building a democracy on these pseudo environments. Lippmann wrote, “[Democratic] government…cannot be worked successfully…unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions.” Or in other words, a free and independent press is essential. If an elite media is no longer an option then perhaps the responsibility is ours. Each and every citizen must collaborate together, as best as they can, to create pictures and images that simplify the great issues facing our society.
Whaddya know? That selfie stick of yours may be the most important tool of modern democracy. If our political knowledge depends upon us prioritizing the pictures and images in our head we best make sure our photo album has the right aperture. Epistemology off? Look over here and say “cheese.”