Specifically, Lippmann urged, Americans must abandon "the intolerable and unworkable fiction that each of us must acquire a competent opinion about all public affairs." Most people made political judgments on a whim, without real information or consideration. Better to cede complex issues to a "specialized class" of experts, Lippmann argued.
Of course, this solution spawned questions of its own. Who would select and certify these experts? Wouldn't the experts possess their own biases and blinders? And what would happen when they disagreed with one another?
Most important of all, wasn't his proposal deeply antidemocratic? How could Lippmann's "specialized class" govern without proper checks and controls from an informed, engaged citizenry?
It was impossible, as even the hardboiled Lippmann was forced to admit.
That's why he concluded his magnum opus, "Public Opinion," with a paean to the same common man that the book had disparaged.
"It is necessary to live as if good will would work," Lippmann wrote.
It was a lukewarm endorsement of average citizens, to be sure. But Lippmann could not live without them.
Neither can I. Like Blaise Pascal, who believed in God because the dangers of disbelief were greater, I place my faith in the wisdom of the American people. And I try to do my own small part in enhancing that wisdom, by writing op-eds that challenge readers to look anew at what they see.
Does it work? Now and again, I do receive messages from readers who tell me that my piece changed the way they think.
The majority of respondents remain squarely in the "Right On" or (more commonly) the "Wrong Again" zone, writing to confirm what they believed all along. But maybe they, too, are doing more thinking – and more changing – than their e-mails let on.
After all, our history is replete with examples of collective moral progress. And pamphleteers – the op-ed writers of their day – helped speed it along, with the logic and power of their prose.
Start with Thomas Paine, who helped persuade Americans that their problem lay not just with the particulars of British rule; it lay in monarchy itself, which was inimical to human decency and dignity.