Walter Lippmann's Drift and Mastery Essay

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Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery

Walter Lippmann wrote Drift and Mastery in 1914, at a time when party politics in the United States were in a distinct state of flux. The 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson was the first time since the Civil War that a Democrat was elected President -- if we recall that Grover Cleveland (the only other Democrat elected in this half-century) was only elected by the support of the renegade "Mugwump" Republicans, who were dissatisfied with corruption within their own party. The split between traditionalism and reform among the Republicans, however, that permitted Cleveland's election had widened into an actual party split -- Theodore Roosevelt ran as a "Bull Moose" Progressive against Taft, while Eugene V. Debs ran to Wilson's left as a Socialist. In some sense, Lippmann's Drift and Mastery is a response to the strange condition of partisan politics at this moment in American history -- and we can anticipate from his text Lippmann's likely reaction to the further turbulence in American society throughout the twentieth century, by gauging his own reaction to the shift in priorities within the two-party system.

It is clear that Lippmann's general approach -- which is progressive, but also to a degree technocratic -- finds Wilson and the Democratic Party largely sympathetic. Lippmann is by no means uncritical of the Democrats, though. It is worth noting that, despite Wilson's pedigree as an academic and intellectual, Lippmann finds him insufficiently sympathetic to the technocratic elements of Lippmann's recommendations in Drift and Mastery. Lippmann blames this on the historical origins of the Democratic Party:

Wilson is against the trusts for many reasons: the political economy of his generation was based on competition and free trade; the Democratic Party is by tradition opposed to a strong central government, and that opposition applies equally well to strong national business, -- it is a party attached to local rights, to village patriotism, to humble but ambitious enterprise; its temper has always been hostile to specialization and expert knowledge, because it admires a very primitive man-to-man democracy. Wilson's thought is inspired by that outlook. It has been tempered somewhat by contact with men who have outgrown the village culture, so that Wilson is less hostile to experts, less oblivious to administrative problems, than is Bryan. But at the same time his speeches are marked with contempt for the specialist: they play up quite obviously to the old democratic notion that any man can do almost any job. You always have to except the negro, of course, about whom the Democrats have a totally different tradition. But among white men, special training and expert knowledge are somewhat under suspicion in Democratic circles.[footnoteRef:0] [0: Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery. (New York: Kennerley 1914.) 142-3.]

Here we can anticipate Lippmann's own views about future developments in the twentieth century, based on his reading of the Democrats in 1914. For a start, he seems to recognize Wilson's Democratic Party as insufficiently statist -- and indeed we might see an approval of the more centralized managerial techniques of the New Deal in this critique of the more local and decentralized aspects of the Democrats under their three-time failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. But to some degree, Lippmann endorses the Wilsonian Democratic Party's attitude toward business, because both Democrat and Republican were agreed in seeing the stranglehold of the trusts upon American economic life as being a distinct problem. The "competition and free trade" that Wilson admired was equally admired by Theodore Roosevelt. But at the same time, Lippmann recognizes the curious paradox -- due to the legacy of the Civil War, the Democratic Party in 1914 represented a strange amalgam of Southern white-supremacists and those who, like Lippmann, recognize the emergence of a more inclusive politics of race. Elsewhere in Drift and Mastery, Lippmann openly recognizes the difficulties posed by racism, and includes with them the difficulties posed by immigration: "There is no mention of the fearful obstacles of race prejudice in the South, not to mention of the threat that recent immigration brings with it, the threat of an alien and defenseless class of servile labor. And there is, of course, always the distracting possibility of a foreign war, of vast responsibilities in the other Americas."[footnoteRef:1] In this sense Lippmann proved prescient: it is worth recalling that the rise of the Ku Klux Klan later in the Wilson presidency represented not only organized racism but organized nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment. (Indeed the biggest mass-lynching in U.S. history, in 1891, was not of blacks but of Italian immigrants in New Orleans). Unfortunately Wilson's fragile electoral coalition -- and to a certain degree, Wilson's own identity as a Southerner -- led Wilson to give tacit approval to the Klan, with official endorsement given to D.W. Griffith's Klan movie-epic "Birth of a Nation." [1: Ibid. 170.]

Lippmann himself seems tentatively in favor of the politics of inclusiveness, although his support is couched in terms of recognizing that continued disenfranchisement of blacks and women might provoke a potentially revolutionary situation: "There are people who think that rebellion is an inevitable accompaniment of progress. I don't see why it should be…There is no more reason why everyone should go through the rebellions of our time than that everyone should have to start a suffrage movement to secure his vote."[footnoteRef:2] In this sense, Lippmann would have deplored the more revolutionary aspects of black and feminist politics as they emerged in the 1960s -- it is hard to think of him endorsing the Black Panthers or cheering Diana Oughton's work with the Weathermen as a sign of real progress. But Lippmann's assessment of the opportunity posed by Wilson's election recognizes the limitations of the approach: [2: Ibid. 333.]

There is no doubt, I think, that President Wilson and his party represent primarily small business in a war against the great interests. Socialists speak of his administration as a revolution within the bounds of capitalism. Wilson doesn't really fight the oppressions of poverty. He fights the evil done by large property-holders to small ones. The temper of his administration was revealed very clearly when the proposal was made to establish a Federal Trade Commission. It was suggested at once by leading spokesmen of the Democratic Party that corporations with a capital of less than a million dollars should be exempted from supervision. Is that because little corporations exploit labor or the consumer less? Not a bit of it. It is because the little corporations are in control of the political situation.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Ibid. 137-8.]

As Lippmann notes here, "Wilson doesn't really fight the oppressions of poverty." To this extent, we may predict Lippmann's likely response to the more aggressive technocratic approaches in the New Deal. Lippmann is overall interested in government used for purposes of social meliorism, and might very well have approved the rise of unionized labor as a necessary hedge against the poverty which government was not sufficiently providing. But it is worth noting that, when Lippmann was writing in 1914, income tax in America was only one-year-old: it would take time before the U.S. government could even raise the necessary revues to undertake the sort of centralized techniques of "mastery" that Lippmann recommends.

In some sense, we could see the later Democratic Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt as being a fulfillment of most of Lippmann's central policy recommendations in Drift and Mastery. The opposition to strong central government that Lippmann identified as a potential problem with Wilson would be utterly absent during Roosevelt's New Deal -- and to a large extent, the economic problems that had caused the strange four-way split in the election of 1912 were what permitted the New Deal, as the hypertrophied economic clout of large corporations would, under the Republican Presidents who followed Wilson, push the economic life of the…[continue]

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