Dewey’s Functional Description Of Democracy

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In this post I described Dewey’s theoretical description of democracy:

Democracy is a word of many meanings. … But one of the meanings is distinctly political, for it denotes a mode of government, a specified practice in selecting officials and regulating their conduct as officials. P. 121.

It’s a functional definition, not a poetic one; it doesn’t conjure up images of purple mountain majesties. It’s not even exactly a definition, though I’ll use the word. In the same way Dewey’s descriptions of the public and the state aren’t exactly definitions. I have high hopes for Dewey’s conception of government, this bare theory, this skeleton on which we can build. As we consider these descriptions we can see the limits of theory, and particularly the limits of philosophy. [1]

The Problem of the Public

Dewey says that the Public is a group of people who face problems arising from the conjoint actions of others. That makes a lot of sense in a small community. People might be worried about speeding in their neighborhood. That’s a specific group of people, a public, facing a specific problem with a relatively small set of solutions, and a hierarchy of officials who are charged with handling problems like this.

The problem is that this description doesn’t translate well to a larger society. Our huge society contains an enormous number of publics, and we’re all members of more than one. What does this mean for actual practice? In Chapter 4, Dewey says that publics are confused by their own multiplicity and find it hard to identify themselves as publics. This problem is hard to unravel. For now, I’ll just point out that this creates problem when others in a public have different priorities, and even bigger problems as more people are drawn into a single public.

Selecting Officials

The two legacy parties each select one person to run in the general election in what is most often a two-person contest. Some people assert allegiance to one of the parties, and others pick and choose candidates from both. One wins. The elected group meets and carries out its duties, representing the public interests. The idea is that the group representing one public will work with the group representing the opposing public to come to a decision that somehow reflects the interests of both. That presents many problems, not least of which is the plain fact that some of those winners refuse to compromise.

1. The schematic story hides the influence of the rich and powerful, who come to dominate the system, a point Dewey discusses. If there is a large group of single-issue voters, they can have similar power on that issue, even if their demand on that issue is rejected by a substantial majority. A politician might work to create large group of single-issue voters as a springboard to election.

2. Is there a common ground between two opposing publics? We might think there is common ground in the center, with the two wings complaining about losing. How does that work with racism? Consider abortion. If there were a middle ground, why isn’t it Roe v. Wade?

3. It’s one thing for officials to make decisions about how to proceed with legislation or administration of law when there is general agreement. But it’s extremely hard when the public is genuinely divided. Consider systemic racism. Apart from a significant number of outright racists and white supremacists, a huge number of us refuse even to examine the question seriously, as was demonstrated in the Merrick Garland hearings by Louisiana Sen. Kennedy:

Later, Kennedy pushed Garland on the “concept” of implicit bias, asking, “Does that mean I am a racist no matter what I do or what I think?”

Garland said everyone has biases and stereotypes. The department would investigate when an institution has a pattern of biased behavior that could be identified and remedied.

“You shouldn’t take it as pejorative,” Garland said. “It’s an element of the human condition.”

4. What kind of problem is amenable to solution by the state? People can claim that many of the actions of others are a problem for them, and demand state action. Dewey’s descriptions don’t give us any help deciding which problems we should hand over to the state for solution.

What can we learn from Dewey?

A. The definitions and concepts Dewey uses to deal with government don’t lead to normative conclusions. The idea of democracy is that the best solutions for specific problems arise from open-ended informed discussion. There are no foundational concepts [3] that we can use to reason our way to answers. Put another way, politics is the realm of persuasion, not of deterministic rationality. Dewey’s approach establishes a framework for persuasion.

B. I think it’s helpful in stressful times to remember that the goal of a public is to deal with a certain kind of problem.

Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences. P. 157.

Consider prayer in public school. What is the conjoint action that has extensive, enduring and serious consequences of barring prayer in public schools?

I think we should be very careful about forcing public officials to deal with abstract harms; and I think, or hope, Dewey would agree. If an issue doesn’t involve a tangible harm caused by the conjoint action of other people, it should be avoided. Most culture war issues only raise abstract harm, if they bother claiming any kind of harm. Marriage is the perfect example. Not a single person is harmed when people are allowed to marry the people they love. But denying that right harms real people. There are real problems causing tremendous damage to all of us: the pandemic, racism, climate destruction and more. We need to focus on problems we can actually fix.

[1] As we will see, the rest of the book is about how things work in the real world.

[2] Oddly, these are the same people waving Don’t Tread On Me flags.

[3] I’ve been trying to learn about conservative political philosophy as in Oakeshott and Strauss. Maybe I’ll have more to say about it later. Here I’ll just note that systems that claim to be able to identify the foundations of political philosophy seem likely to lead to bad outcomes. If you are certain of the truth, why shouldn’t you use force to bring it about?

24 replies
  1. sand says:

    Thanks for this great series, Ed. This post raises so many things that I want to talk about and for which I find a hard time finding others that are interested. I’ll start by saying that I had a text in college called Theories of Political Economy from which I’ll always remember the introduction. It was a simple presentation of an assertion that politics and economics are two linked systems for getting what we want from each other. Economics may operate on a macro scale, but it is built on discrete transactions whereby people *buy* what they want. Politics may operate on a micro scale, but it is built on the idea that people can *convince* others to trade with them for what they want. So someone that wants safe streets can buy a house on a safe street or try to convince their current neighbors to trade their right to speed for shared safety or for some other tangible or intangible thing.

    One way I might characterize our current politics is that there are large groups of people that think that their past representatives have made bad trades on their behalf or that their future representatives will do so. The far-right contacts that I have are frequently arguing that the government will trade away their right to bear arms for a false sense of security or their right to free speech for a false sense of civility. They believe their jobs have been traded away for cheap goods and their fossil fuels have been traded away based on an incorrect understanding of the way that the climate works. Their beliefs may belie most available evidence, but they may be too bitter about their perceived raw deal to look at any of it anyway.

    The proposed solution is often less regulation, in other words, the state making fewer of these perceived bad deals on behalf of the public. Of course, the less the state regulates, the more that frees up private actors to make whatever deals they want. Those deals are designed to emphasize the benefit of the parties to the deal and to externalize as much of the collateral cost as possible. So this is likely to put the public in worse shape in many cases, but many of them believe that their vague concept of the market will create the most optimal outcome for everyone in just about every situation.

    I’m all for focusing the state on real harms as opposed to abstract ones. How do we convince enough of the public that the government is not the worst decision-maker possible but that it will actually legislate in a manner designed to improve the country instead of destroy it. It seems obvious to me that a government would not be served by destroying the country in which its constituents and their representatives reside, but a significant portion of the public has become convinced that is the goal. Many that don’t believe the government is trying to do it intentionally just think that the government is stupid and inefficient enough to do it by accident. How do we help to convince them otherwise?

      • sand says:

        My college text was Theories of Political Economy by James Caporaso. As far as why people have such little faith in government, I’d say it’s not based on reading books. I think it’s more of a broad belief that market pressure creates efficiency. Government is not subject to the same market pressures, and so it can’t be as efficient as the private sector.

        I don’t see any reason why political pressure can’t create as much efficiency as economic pressure. In fact, I think a lot of infrastructure (for example) is managed more efficiently to minimize life-cycle costs. Variable economic pressures tend to frustrate long-term planning, and we build much of our infrastructure for a 75-100-year life cycle. Government is more suited for that type of undertaking than the private sector. Many people find that hard to believe and think privatizing is a good idea. We’re selling many of our potable water systems to the private sector, for example. They’ll take the roads and sewers too if we let them, then capture the regulatory agencies and start cutting costs. In general, they’ll put more emphasis on annual profits than life-cycle cost. I don’t think it’s a win for the public, but the public is (i think) biased to think the private sector is more efficient. This is just one example of bias against the state. A better example might be the basement-level approval rating for Congress. Why is it so low? Why do people think that asking 535 people to compromise should be efficient? If we wanted legislating to be efficient, we would have instituted a different system. Right?

        I think I forgot what my point was here, but thanks for the chance to try to make one.

  2. Ironic Chef says:

    First, let me state that I learned that “Politics is a Good Thing” from Larry Sabato at UVA. Governments aren’t so easily endorsed. Our Constitutional republic has multiple layers of governments that often have overlapping responsibilities and jurisdictions. City, County, State and Federal. Even explaining this much is enough to make the average U.S. citizen reach for the remote control to change the channel. If the roads get plowed in the Winter, the potholes patched in the Spring, the trash is collected and the police keep some semblance of public order without causing civil unrest, then things are manageable.

    For a concrete example of neighbors coming together to deal with an unsafe street, I’ve been there and done that. Our street is one of the original farm truck roads for my city. I live in the original farm house, built around 1850. The city has grown up and engulfed the farm area. A major road that leads down the hill to a major four lane bridge that crosses the Mon where the Homestead steel mill used to be runs parallel and one block over from our street. When the bridge underwent major rebuilding of the deck a number of years (maybe 10-15) ago a lot of traffic would bypass the main road and come down or up our narrow little residential street. Car mirrors, cars and any peace of mind for having our children play in the neighborhood suffered.

    How do you solve this sort of problem? First calls were made to our city council representative. He got the traffic engineers to set up traffic counters to see what the volume of traffic we had in the immediate area. Then a neighborhood meeting was called so that all stakeholders could attend and discuss the data and the problems. I think we needed to gather a significant number of signatures from the neighbors for this to be an official meeting.

    First step, the last block of our street at one end was made one way going North, to cut down on the cars getting around the afternoon rush hour jam. To help with the other end of the street left turns onto it were made illegal from 6-9 am and 3-6pm. Clever local drivers were able work around these obstacles and we still had too much traffic going too fast down a narrow street. So the final step that the city could implement was the installation of speed humps across the street. There are seven in all, and things are much better now. But just the other day I saw a semi-tractor without a trailer making it’s way South towards the river. But he wasn’t going very fast and nobody could even try to squeeze past him going North.

    All politics is local? Maybe, but the Federal governments intrusion into state and municipal matters via the Interstate Commerce clause can cause resentments among the local populations. Used to be a problem enforcing the protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments in some jurisdictions. As my Constitutional Law professor used to say, it’s often a matter of whose ox is getting gored. Nobody likes paying more taxes than they think they have to, but how else can we buy civilization? When our democracy works it tends to find solutions that fairly solve the problems of the citizens. When it doesn’t work, you can get disasters like the power grid failure in Texas. Between the pressures of climate change and the neoliberal economic philosophy favored by the powers that be, there are plenty of problems of infrastructure that will have to be dealt with through politics. It is the only way to address these issues peacefully. Any other alternative will not be peaceful. 1/6/21 was a glimpse into what that world would look like.


  3. Godfree Roberts says:

    Dewey was, of course, discussing democracy in the Athenian-Roman tradition, our peculiar blend of monarchism and republicanism.
    It never worked well, even in Athens, and is failing utterly right now.
    China’s democracy is Confucian-familial, which looks very different but delivers much better results for more people.

  4. d4v1d says:

    I was reading a piece on JSTOR Daily which noted that constitutional slavery and the civil war were the result of accumulated compromises, beginning with the three-fifths.

        • sand says:

          Fair point. Maybe technology is a separate thing. Or maybe it is a result of accumulated compromise, since we were all probably hunter/gatherers until we accumulated enough compromise to start farming and inventing wheelbarrows. Once we started farming, we probably invented the first sense of property rights. I’m no anthropologist, but maybe?

  5. Peter Ben Fido says:

    I have greatly, greatly appreciated these explorations of democracy from Ed Walker that arise from an examination of and reflection upon John Dewey’s writings. I’m a moderately well educated person, but I’d always assumed that the same dude who did the library book classification system was the Dewey who was a political philosopher. I mean, both seem extraordinarily rational approaches to sort out complex topics, right. Wikipedia has set me straight this morning.

    My request: Could the URLs for these series be listed (?here in the comments) so that I may give them (like a bouquet) to my children and family?

    Jonesing for more, please.

  6. skua says:

    “What is the conjoint action that has extensive, enduring and serious consequences of barring prayer in public schools? ”
    A government ruling that a local community cannot decide on the education that their children receive?
    This would seem to be an example of the government being directly involved in addressing abstract harms putatively being caused by school prayers*.

    “Abstract harms aren’t validly dealt with by government” would provide cover for destroying many of the values and practices of identity communities (religious, ethnic, geographic, demographic).
    If disputes about so-called “abstract harms” aren’t to be resolved by a democratic process then just where is a minority community going to take their dispute?
    How handy for a majority community to be able to sideline any concerns of minorities that can be framed as “abstract harms”. At the same time it seems predictable that the majority community will find a way to minimise any “abstract harms” that are being done to them.

    Looks to be great similarities between a “abstract harms are not properly the realm of government intervention” ideal and the neoliberal project of removing cultural barriers to society being tailored so as to raise children as economic units who become efficient producers and consumers. Financial outcomes are easy to measure and “provide clear non-abstract-values based metrics allowing rational decisions to be made” – whereas “perceived quality of life” measures are intrinsically abstract.

    * This being the internet, the examples of prayers I put forward are services to the trinity of Harris, Dawkins and PZM or to the sun.

    • Eureka says:

      Not for nothing, this is exactly why you have circumstances like when the Hopi argued that Harvard’s Peabody Museum keeping their katsina (kachina) dolls was akin to trapping souls, causing eternal, community-wide suffering.

    • Ed Walker says:

      The example is public schools, that is, schools open to all members of the community. That means kids from different religions or no religion. Prayer isn’t an element of public education under the First Amendment. So I don’t get your example.

      See footnote [2].

      • skua says:

        AIUI US history, many communities have repeatedly refused to give children quality educations, and even those that did would too often discriminate against some/many children.
        Responding to this failure by having the government take control of childhood education is reasonable. However the cultural destruction wrought when a community does not have control of the education of its children needs to be acknowledged.
        Dismissing that destruction as an “abstract harm” is to deny the essential social nature of humans. This goes to that Latour material you presented which seemed to be a method of taking an anthropological approach to ourselves. Dewy appears to be saying that only objective matters are properly dealt with by a democratic government. Whereas human valuing of things like, “time with family”, “sense of belonging”, “a sense of connection and continuity in a community”, “a sense of control of my life”, is not objective but will necessarily, because that is what humans care about very deeply, give rise to disputes between groups of people. If not resolved in government then where? In the streets? No thanks.

        “See footnote [2].”
        There seems to be no [2] in the body of the text refering to footnote [2].

        • P J Evans says:

          The town I grew up in had at that time one RC church with a very small school. Most of the RC kids went to public school, and got release time for catechism class. This is one kind of solution.

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