The phrase comes from Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion” (which also introduced the word “stereotype”). Mr Lippmann’s point is that a 20th-century democracy is not and cannot be a level playing field for ideas. The state uses its power to endorse a system of thought, which then becomes popular, leading the people to support the state. This feedback loop is extremely stable and, if employed properly, allows enlightened experts, such as Mr Lippmann, to run the world.
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But this doesn’t make the US a “totalitarian state.” It’s best to have one word for the US and another for the regimes of Stalin and Mao. For example, even the Khrushchev-Brezhnev-Chernenko period in Russia had more in common with the US today than with Stalinism. In a “real” totalitarian state, no one is safe. In a country of manufactured consent, people must want to cause trouble to get in trouble. The US is a “democracy,” but that word doesn’t mean what most people think it means.
If "democracy" is defined as a form of government in which sovereignty is legitimised by popularity, all the Western 20th-century regimes were democracies – their mutual loathing notwithstanding. Large-scale mind control is an inalienable element of democracy (this is why I always wear my tinfoil hat, even in the shower) and all these states have practised it.
The fact that the liberal democracies which won the wars, and which rule the world today, can allow free elections and do not (in general) use violence against heretics and apostates, is a measure both of the superiority of the (classical) liberal system of government and their mastery of public relations. Even Donald Trump can make it into the White House.
In general, Western governments manage public opinion not by sending the racists, libertarians, fascists and fundamentalists (dissidents) to treatment centres in Alaska, Arnhem Land or Fiordland, but by subsidising a large and comprehensive system of official and quasi-official education and publishing that inculcates correct thinking from cradle to grave.
The educational system is important and powerful in Western society, dictating an increasingly narrow range of "acceptable" policies which the largely symbolic political system must live within. In other words, a democracy is a society ruled by scholars, just as a monarchy is ruled by soldiers or a plutocracy by merchants. Of course, not much separates a scholar from a priest, so “vox populi” certainly is “vox dei.”
So how did this "Fourth Republic" version of democracy come about? Quick history: At the time of the American Revolution, there was a general political assumption that the mercantile upper classes would favour mercantilism along with a large, active state and inflationary monetary policy.
These were views generally associated with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, who were considered quasi-monarchists. The strongholds of this perspective were Boston and Philadelphia. Federalism generally corresponded to the “court party” of 18th-century England and the Federalists tended to sympathise with Britain in its conflicts against France.
There was also a general political assumption that the rural upper classes, the growing urban artisan class of “mechanics,” and the rural frontier class, would prefer free trade, a small, Lockean state, and a non-inflationary monetary policy. These views were generally associated with Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican party, which corresponded to the “country party” of 18th-century England and tended to sympathise with France against Britain.
However, if TJ was brought back to life, he would say the US was still ruled by the Federalists and had been for the last 155 years. He would point out the Federalists simply twisted around until they found policies which could attract mass support for a gigantic state. And the first name the Federalists took after it became no longer possible to call oneself a Federalist was “Whig,” which was originally a term for the English country party – the parallel of today’s Democrats.
Now calling themselves “progressives,” the Federalists took over the Democratic party itself. The last Democratic president who can be described as Jeffersonian in any way was Grover Cleveland. This strategy worked out well as voters in the South continued to support the Democrats as a party of limited government well into the 1970s. If you want a good laugh, read the 1932 Democratic presidential platform. A balanced budget? A 25% reduction in government size? A sound currency?
Like all the 20th-century “democratic” regimes, the Fourth Republic commands almost unanimous support, even from Mr Trump. It became the most successful and stable version of democracy by figuring out how to manufacture consent without outlawing its opponents. All it must do is subsidise its supporters, and it does this with a constant holy vengeance. This Fourth Republic continues to operate regardless of elections, because no rollback of the New Deal has ever been seriously contemplated by the US political system, nor can it.
On the other hand, any return of democracy (in the Tocquevillian sense) would be powerful enough to dismantle the “nonpartisan” civil service state with which Donald Trump now wrestles. But it is also powerful enough to replace the system with something much worse. One of the reasons progressives hate Mr Trump is they see him as a pure product of democracy. I don’t think they’re wrong about this at all. But that doesn’t mean US “democracy” works very well.
Mr Trump’s infrastructure plans – along with the immigration, tax, security, etc – are all sure to pass, but only if he aligns with the machinery of the Fourth Republic. A year into his job, he’s beginning to see the reality: It’s civil service all the way down. And Mr Trump has to use this machinery, no matter how much he would prefer not to.