A Pundit Who Social Scientists Aren’t Ashamed To Include In Their Literature Reviews

For my Public Opinion and Political Socialization class this week, I was assigned the first chapter in Walter Lippman’s classic Public Opinion. This isn’t the first time I’ve come across Lippmann in my time studying political science. Public Opinion is often cited as the genesis for research on media agenda setting.

Reading the chapter, a passage jumped out as tapping into a dimension of the truth about politics that is still relavent today. The context is Lippmann discussing the reaction in the Senate to a rumor that was reported as fact but that turned out to be false:

So far the Senators still recognize vaguely that they are discussing a rumor. Being lawyers they still remember some of the forms of evidence. But as red-blooded men they already experience all the indignation which is appropriate to the fact that American marines have been ordered into war by a foreign government and without the consent of Congress. Emotionally they want to believe it, because they are Republicans fighting the League of Nations. This arouses the Democratic leader, Mr. Hitchcock of Nebraska. He defends the Supreme Council: it was acting under the war powers. Peace has not yet been concluded because the Republicans are delaying it. Therefore the action was necessary and legal. Both sides now assume that the report is true, and the conclusions they draw are the conclusions of their partisanship. Yet this extraordinary assumption is in a debate over a resolution to investigate the truth of the assumption. It reveals how difficult it is, even for trained lawyers, to suspend response until the returns are in. The response is instantaneous. The fiction is taken for truth because the fiction is badly needed.

John Sides, who assigned me the Lippmann chapter, goes over some of the more recent research on how partisan biases shape beliefs about political facts here. Like I said, the passage still feels relevant.

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