The Contested Politics of Public Value

AuthorLawrence R. Jacobs
Date01 July 2014
Published date01 July 2014
Lawrence R. Jacobs is Walter F. and
Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies
and director of the Center for the Study
of Politics and Governance in the Hubert
H. Humphrey School and Department
of Political Science at the University of
Minnesota. He has coauthored or coedited
14 books and numerous articles for
scholarly and popular outlets on health
policy, public opinion and elections, the
U.S. presidency, and American political
480 Public Administration Review • July | August 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 4, pp. 480–494. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12170.
Lawrence R. Jacobs
University of Minnesota
e emerging f‌i eld of public values helpfully focuses on
the norms and government policies that serve the public
interest, but its analysis neglects the barriers to actually
creating public value in contemporary America. Chief
among these barriers are contending strains of public
beliefs and opinions, the disproportionate inf‌l uence
of af‌f‌l uent individuals and business and professional
associations, as well as governing structures predisposed
toward inaction and drift.  is article contrasts the
expectations of the public values f‌i eld with research on
American politics to identify barriers to advancing the
public interest under current conditions. Although public
values scholars of‌f er an analysis of American public life
that is inadequate, they do raise challenging questions
about how a public-regarding agenda can be “designed
in” to politics and policy.  e article concludes by suggest-
ing feasible reforms to improve the conditions for pursu-
ing the public interest.
The onset of World War I and the failed ef‌f orts
to end it on terms that would head of‌f the
resumption of war in Europe fed skepti-
cism about the future of democracy and the making
of sensible policy that would advance the enduring
public interest. Walter Lippmann crystallized these
doubts in the United States in a stinging critique that
attributed democracy’s ills to distracted and poorly
informed citizens. Inclusive processes for making
policy and running a government, he argued, were
doomed because they relied on a “phantom public”:
the preoccupation of most individuals with their
private lives seduced them into becoming “deaf
spectator[s] in the back row [of public af‌f airs]” who
were “necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant, and
often meddlesome” (Lippmann 1925, 13, 52–53).
Instead, Lippmann pinned the hopes of ef‌f ective gov-
ernment on technocratic elites—the small number of
“individuals directly concerned” with the substance
of policy issues who are equipped to take “executive
action” to “initiate, … administer, [and] … settle”
remedies and who are “subject[ed] to the least pos-
sible interference from ignorant and meddlesome
outsiders” (198–99).
John Dewey, in e Public and Its Problems (1927),
rebutted Lippmann by shifting the onus for ef‌f ec-
tive democratic governance from citizens to elites
and to the circumstances and conditions of public
life. Dewey partly accepted Lippmann’s critique that
citizens, at times, displayed uneven knowledge and
awareness of public af‌f airs, but Dewey attributed these
limits in citizen performance to the systems of poli-
tics, communications, and information dissemination
created by elites. What citizens knew and did was, in
Dewey’s account, “a function of association and com-
munication” (158).  e problem facing democratic
governance lay with the “the triviality and ‘sensational
quality of so much of what passes as news [in the
form of] … crime, accident, family rows, personal
clashes and conf‌l icts … [that] supply the element of
shock” (180). Dewey also indicted antiquated political
institutions: American government and politics, he
argued, invite a “schizophrenia between actual practice
and [its] traditional machinery”; leave individuals
feeling “apathy, neglect, and contempt,” “even if they
cannot make their feeling articulate”; and expose
Americans to orchestrated publicity that ef‌f ectively
enlists the “emotional partisanship of the masses” (31,
111, 134–35, 169). While Lippmann sought salvation
in technocratic governing that diminished democratic
practices, Dewey promoted reforms of public life to
create “conditions” that would foster informed and
engaged citizens, including “associated or joint activ-
ity,” public education in which citizenship is “inter-
woven,” and newly responsive political institutions
(146, 149).
Dewey’s energetic challenge to Lippmann heralded
an inclusive notion of public value as encompassing
both an informed citizenry’s values and public policy
and government operations that engage citizens and
generate the conditions for vibrant communities.
Recent scholarship about the “public value” generated
by government and the “public values” of an inclu-
sive and participatory community revive Dewey’s
thinking but nonetheless lack Dewey’s sensitivities to
the conditions of public beliefs and opinion and the
e Contested Politics of Public Value

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