Democratic Theory and the History of Communications
To argue about the media today is almost inevitably to argue about politics.
Similarly, at a deeper level, conflicting views of the history of communications often
reflect disagreements about democracy and its possibilities. Much of the foundational
thought about communications—from the writings of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey
in the 1920s and „30s to the work of Jürgen Habermas and others in recent decades—has
held wide intellectual interest because of its implications for democratic theory and
politics. Has the media‟s development advanced or devastated democratic hopes? Is the
public a mere “phantom,” in Lippmann‟s phrase, or can it be an active force in popular
self-government if the media furnish the necessary information and means of criticism
Many of us who study the history of communications do so because of its
relevance to the bigger, unfinished political story about the origins of democracy, the
struggles over its extension, and the continuing efforts to realize aspirations for a more
vital democratic politics. Like journalists, however, historians are often loath to address
questions of political theory, and some may believe that just as it is better to travel light,
so it is better to do history without any theoretical baggage. But whether or not historians
and other analysts of the media make any use of theory, their understanding of
democracy influences what they make of the past.
Democratic theory comes in many varieties, but here I want only to distinguish
three general perspectives, each of which represents not a single position, but a composite
of related ideas. None of these perspectives rejects the framework of representative
government and rights of free speech and a free press that are embodied in the
Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In that sense, all belong to the tradition of liberal,
constitutional democracy, though they interpret the tradition differently.
Forthcoming in Barbie Zelizer, ed.,
Explorations in Communications and History
Originally presented at a conference at the Annenberg School of Communications, University of
Pennsylvania, December 2006.