The Politics of Imagined Opinion

This article originally appeared on March 10, 2012 as the inaugural post on (formerly memorygap). -JT

Where do you locate yourself on the political spectrum? Are you liberal or conservative? On “the left”, “the right”, or perhaps you’re a bit of both (“moderate”). It is no secret that American mass culture often blunts the capacity for civic engagement and political awareness. Yet those who pursue an identity in acceptable political dialogue are less aware of how the parameters of American politics have been carefully crafted to elicit vicarious and seemingly meaningful participation for the politically inclined.

This is at least partially because political elites have for close to a century carefully crafted and presided over a political universe of smoke and mirrors for their subjects; one where citizens think and act as if they have political choices and agency, thereby perpetuating the myth of democratic participation and enfranchisement. Thinking along these lines is apparent in the almost century-old writings of the well-known American political commentator Walter Lippmann.

Lippmann’s many observations on media and public opinion are significant not just because he was a distinctly influential and gifted commentator, but also because of his many close working relationships and affinities with the most powerful financial and political elites of his day. In fact, historian Carroll Quigley recognizes Lippmann as “the authentic spokesman in American journalism for the [Anglo-American] Establishments on both sides of the Atlantic in international affairs.”

As World War One concluded, Lippmann played a central role in recruiting intellectual talent for “the Inquiry,” a group of several dozen analysts set up by the Wilson administration and powerful Wall Street bankers and oil barons to ostensibly establish plans for a peace settlement, what eventually crystallized as Wilson’s Fourteen Points and a transnational system of governance called the League of Nations most Americans rejected. In reality, the Inquiry was a philosophical and functional precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, gathering, analyzing, and producing recommendations on how the bankers and oil men should proceed with maintenance of their overseas assets in a vastly rearranged geopolitical environment.

In the years following the Inquiry’s dissolution Lippmann wrote his most well-known work, Public Opinion, where he lamented the US public’s rejection of an international government and expounded on how the thinking and behavior of modern individuals are largely determined through prejudice, or “stereotypes”, thus rendering citizens unfit for meaningful participation in public affairs. “For the most part we do not first see, and then define,” he famously wrote, “we define first and then see.” And, acknowledging the growing power and political implications of electronic mass media, Lippmann marveled at how “on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you.”

Along these lines Lippmann envisioned how political persuasions may be ready-made to develop a seeming relationship with political iconography and sloganeering where positions, sensibilities, and identification with an imagined community all take place through televisual displacement and atomization. With the media’s major control over representation and imagination comes the power to exclude undesirable political objects and ideas, thereby rendering them for all practical purposes out-of-mind.

The stereotypical dynamic and ideal endures in the binary oppositions governing much of what passes for American political discourse today: liberal/conservative, Democratic/Republican, Red/Blue, pro-choice/pro-life, Tea Party/Occupy, and so on. Far removed from the union hall, tavern, or country club where political opinions derived from lived interaction and experience, defining subjective opinion through imagined political adversaries with malevolent ulterior motives is now typically carried out in mass mediated form that provides one with their own sense of purpose and moral rectitude. It is also a perfectly suitable technique for a mechanized and streamlined journalism that has little time or resources for fathoming and assessing the nuanced complexity and broader possibilities inherent in all genuine political thinking. As political theorist Sheldon Wolin remarks, “The responsibility of the responsible media include maintaining an ideological ‘balance’ that treats the “Left” and the “Right” as polar opposites as well as moral and political equivalents.” Manufactured political opinion also become deeply ingrained in the public mind through shared cultural figures and artifacts.

In one of the most well-known situation comedies in American television history, All in the Family, Archie Bunker was an archetype that forever unified bigotry and pettiness with conservatism in the popular mind. Archie’s childish persona acted synergistically alongside the enlightened and educated liberalism of Michael Stivic. The Bunker/Stivic binary, echoed to the present in the jousting punditry of cable news, remains a template for locating ones imagined place on the political spectrum.

Stereotypes and imagined positions are the exact opposite of what perceptive minds capable of discerning controversies and problems would expect and desire from political exchange. Above the din of clashing ideologies the very same forces Walter Lippmann moved with and spoke for remain, apart from and unimaginable in the prisonhouse of political opinion they helped design and construct.


Gonzales, Servando. 2010. Psychological Warfare and the New World Order: The Secret War Against the American People. Spook Books.

Lippmann, Walter. 1997 (1922). Public Opinion, New York: Free Press.

Quigley, Carroll. 1975 (1966). Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time, Angriff Press.

Steel, Ronald. 1980 (1970). Walter Lippmann and the American Century, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, and Company.

Wolin, Sheldon. 2008. Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton University Press.

© James F. Tracy 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Republished by on March 12, 2013.

18 thoughts on “The Politics of Imagined Opinion”

  1. If bankers pay for the campaign of both Obama and Romney and both support the same policies and passed a bailout package designed by Bush and passed by Obama which was anti capitalist and American in nature, what is the left right thing, except a sucker play to keep Americans in one of the 2 mental prison camps.

  2. Orwell appeared to underestimate the vitality of the Lippmann liberal tradition and Free Enterprise. He assumed that desptoism would triumph after ww 2 under a guise of socialism, and oriented his dystopia that way. But it is conceivable instead that an Orwellian police state may be emerging under the bi-partisan Democratic ideological and institutional facade, the leaders of the two major parties, and the media, united under a plutocrcacy that Sheldon Wolin calls ‘inverted totalitarianism.

    But the opposition to this bipartisan despotism of Progressives and Conservatives is also coming from the left and right. There was a conference in Santa Cruz a few years ago, a year or two after Peter Phillips conference of a Truth Emergency, which drew speakers from both the left and right, the right being centered around the Texas populism of Alex Jones.

    So what appears to be happening is an historic ideological transformation where the left and right mainstream appears to be uniting in a bi-partisan oppression who maintain there are no conspiracies, and the left and right anti-despotism uniting saying, yes there are. The traditional left and right then are being transformed historically into anti-conspiriacist ideologues of power against the conspiracist ideologues of the people.

    ‘Ideologue’ is not the best word since America has been notoriously unpolitical in its cultural truth consensus,, but the reality is that the historical confrontation of the American people against American power may be taking this ideological form of conspiraicst vs anti-conspiracists.

  3. When I go to vote my decision is ,Do I vote for the “heap of garbage” on the left or the “pile of rubbish” on the right,either way I lose.

  4. I prefer this academically helpful and interesting blog theme than the conspiracy insistence that made you the focus of such scorn. US politicians like Lyndon Larouche demonstrate the dangers of conspiracy assumptions. My cable provider “Charter” has cut out some of the best and most thoughtful channels. Conspiracy? Or just a race to the bottom of mediocrity and crass materialism, the original whore of Babylon?

  5. The thing that scares me about the propaganda machine we call the media is this: It seems it its years ahead of the public in their mission to deceive. One begins to wonder if the crises we are seeing today were engineered to create the conspiracy theorists and truthers in the first place. Thus moving “we the people” into a new paradigm unknown to us at present. If we “win” in our search for truth; how will we know we weren’t allowed to prevail to further some other goal also unknown to us. I shut my satellite tv off 4 years ago and stll the mainstream media bleeds through everywhere I go, and every time I turn on my internet. Is the conspiracy really so monstrous?

    1. Depends on who you ask. Richard Nixon, for example, believed that the conspiracy was confined to Ivy Leaguers, Jews, and intellectuals, designations that would seem to frequently overlap. What I suggest in part above is that people can be governed much more easily if they believe they have some role in governance. Prompting them to viscerally identify with ideological factions and bicker about frequently petty (or non-existent) concerns is also helpful. A lot of resources go in to this.

      1. people can be governed much more easily if they believe they have some role in governance

        Which is to say that mass democracy is a mechanism for managing the masses: a soft tyranny, where propaganda persuades a majority, or at least a voting plurality, to support whatever the elite has already decided.

        This has many evil consequences. Since the appearance of legitimacy requires only a voting plurality, the propaganda is chiefly directed at the young and innocent and the incorrigibly unteachable, i.e., the stupids, which leaves those with experience and a capacity for analysis and rational judgment essentially side-lined in the political process.

        Such contempt for the thoughtful citizen promotes “conspiracy theory.” In turn, conspiracy theories drives much elite paranoia, which in turn generates a determination by the elite to achieve more direct control of thought and speech through domestic spying, promotion of political correctness and, in extreme cases, the designation of opponents as terrorists liable to extermination without due process.

        Mass democracy has thus clearly been been a mistake. A better system would grant influence to those who now exercise invisible power without responsibility by financing elections, providing after-office payoffs to politicians who have served their real masters, and by other means.

        To that end, the US Senate might be replaced by a House of Plutocrats, comprising 100 individuals making the largest personal tax payments.

        Reform of the House of Representatives would be more of a challenge, but a restriction of the voting franchise would be a prerequisite, which might reasonably be based on a tax payment threshold.

        To safeguard the interests of the masses, the Presidency could remain a popular contest, but with strict control of campaign finance.

      2. Therefore we have the useful idiots at their local watering hole, cheering as the election results come in. Ten weeks later their candidate is sworn in, but it doesn’t matter because the euphoria has worn off, and now he can vote any way he wants on legislation because no one is watching anymore, and it may be weeks or even months before the first campaign promise is broken. Truth is none of us will know, including the newly elected. He never read the bill anyway.

      3. The left – right paradigm is an illusion to give participants a sense of involvement in our Governmental process. It hit home with the election of Obama. Campaign promises of change, transparency and citizen participation were just that. Foreign policy and military doctrine introduced by Bush 2 continued and have accelerated under Obama.

        Yet, old beliefs die hard.

        An overwhelming majority believe still hold onto the illusion. The press, complicit in maintaining this control, fosters what is news, relevant and even what is reality.

        News that turns out to be false is conveniently forgotten. WMD’s, the cruelest hoax that led to a brutal decade long war, throwing babies out of incubators (pretext for Gulf War 1) Col Khadafy giving Viagra to his troops to rape women.

        The misinformation campaign continues with twisted one sided reporting about “liberating” Syria, nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapons, and the need to mobilize troops to perform humanitarian efforts in mineral rich countries. The list goes on.
        Sadly, a population that is devoid of critical thinking swallows whatever they are told to believe.

        The price is heavy for those that dare to ask the obvious questions, demand facts and point out inconsistencies of the official narrative.

        Dr. Tracy can attest to that.

      4. A good example of this is the gays in the military and marriage equality agendas which have sucked up a lot of energy. The one thing us gays had going for us was our disenfranchisement which denied us a role in society and governance and put us in a position to observe and critique. See Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society. We are no longer a threat to the establishment and the establishment needs to be made to feel intimidated – otherwise there is nothing to deter them from abusing their power.

  6. These “binary oppositions” seem inherently divisive and thus would be a useful tool for an “establishment” as well as providing drama for an otherwise lazy and compliant media. Most thinking people would never allow themselves to be categorized and compartmentalized so neatly, regardless of their ideology.
    The terms are also frequently muddled. We have G.W. Bush labeled a “conservative”, but what does this mean? Classical conservatism means to “conserve” the Constituition and yet his policies couldn’t have been more antithetical to it or the Bill of Rights. Liberalism also doesn’t seem to be the opposition to conservatism as the Libertarian values are at the core of our Constitution. Bush would be more accurately labeled as “neo-conservative” which is again, not an opposition to “neoliberalism”. Where President Obama fits on this spectrum seems open for debate, although I don’t see much call for it among our “Red State, Blue State” media complex.
    It’s encouraging that people are willing to challenge these simplistic “binary oppositions”. Thanks for the thoughtfully written and SOURCED blog.

  7. James comment has clarified a point that has puzzled me for years. That is: what is the political point of two parties if they are both financed and media’d by the plutocracy.

    Well, it gets people involved in partisan debate and electoral combat, for those who need some political outlet, and they can help defeat the opposition which is obviously a menace to the Republic. So it gives them an emotional stake in the power process, however meaningless the partisan battle for deciding policies. After all they won the Election! or if they lost, they can retrieve their political self esteem next election.

    And if their candidate won, they will support his policies, since after all, it is one’s own candidaate who is now in power. Therefore, the policies must be one’ss ow, even if objectively they support the pluts.. To paraphrase Mencken, the people have spoken and, in the fullness of time, the Elected will tell us what they have said.

  8. The viability of this becomes greater each day. I think the “created” conflicts about insignificant or nonexistent issues is also paramount. While we argue about gun control, the real control of the country is being slowly moved offshore.

  9. My apologies for the double post. It did not post originally. And my re write provides more context. If it can be deleted. Pls do so.

    The left – right paradigm is an illusion to give participants a sense of involvement in our Governmental process. It hit home with the election of Obama. Campaign promises of change, transparency and citizen participation were just that campaign rhetoric. Foreign policy and military doctrine introduced by Bush 2 continued and have accelerated under Obama. Whistle blowers are dealt with more harshly and with more frequency. A de facto Federal police state has continued grow via DHS and the peculiar and unconstitutional Fusion Centers, which merge local, State, Federal, military and corporations.

    Yet, old beliefs die hard. An overwhelming majority still hold onto the illusion that what they are told is true. The press, complicit in maintaining this control, dictates what is newsworthy, what is relevant and even what reality is.

    News that turns out to be false is conveniently forgotten. WMD’s, throwing babies out of incubators, Col Khadafy giving Viagra to his troops to rape women were relentlessly presented to the public as fact.
    Each was disproven with little fanfare.

    The misinformation campaign continues with twisted one sided reporting about “liberating” Syria, nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapons, and the need to mobilize troops to perform humanitarian efforts in mineral rich countries. The list goes on.

    Sadly, a population that is devoid of critical thinking swallows whatever they are told to believe. The price is heavy for those that dare to ask the questions, demand facts and point out inconsistencies of the official narrative. Doing so is not an act of conspiracy. It is in fact the role of the journalist, student and an informed citizenry.

  10. Actually, I’d like to see where Prof Tracy comes out on the Rand Paul filibuster of Brennan’s confirmation to the cabinet. “Progressives” were caught flat-footed and “Conservatives” were forced to give lip service support. Isn’t Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster a game-changer for the third-party, middle-way track of American politics?

    1. Sen. Paul’s act is commendable. The fact that it is such a political aberration attests to almost complete lack of courage and purpose among our elected leadership. As far as a third party, Gerald Celente remarked over a year ago, the US public desires more than anything else a foreign policy of Ron Paul and a domestic policy of Ralph Nader–drawing down imperialism abroad and the corporatization of our governing process and everyday life at home.

  11. Prof. Tracy: Just caught a piece on Fox News claiming that Michael Moore is calling for the release of crime scene photos at Sandy Hook, claiming that to do so would put the nails in the coffin of the NRA. Any thoughts on this?

    1. The story is here. Perhaps they should be released, accompanied by autopsies and related forensics for public scrutiny. Regardless of the NRA’s fate (it’s not what everyone thinks) I doubt Moore’s body guards will have to be equipped with muskets, as their client has proposed for everyone else.

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