The Two Communities And The Future Of Democracy

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems is a rich statement of much of Dewey’s thinking on knowledge, science, and psychology, all brought to bear on the question of what is needed to bring us closer to an ideal community and an ideal democracy. I’ve discussed some of these points in the last two posts. Here I look at two more points, and conclude the discussion of this chapter on a sour note.

1. In the previous post, I quoted this:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. P. 180.

This idea is central to Dewey’s concept of the nature of a community. We think of ourselves as separate individuals. Certainly in private settings we are. But we are much more than that. In public settings, such as work, team sports, Church, and in government service, we become more. Our understanding of ourselves is completely different when we act as part of a group or a family. In the work setting and in government service we have responsibilities and powers we don’t have as individuals. In our Churches, we are affected by worship and service, in self-examination and openness to forces beyond ourselves.  When we play basketball with others, we have different roles, and our success or failure comes from the actions of all of us.

One of the main things that links us in our different roles is a common understanding of the situation in front of us. That includes both the context of the norms of our society, “its beliefs, desires and methods”, and the nature of the contending forces. Norms set limits on our behavior, especially our interactions with others. They channel our actions in ways deemed socially useful. Deviations can cause us problems. Negotiating changes is a long-term project.

2. Dewey thinks that habits of thought frequently blind us to the need for change. He says that for most of us habits of thought are so deeply engrained that we cannot truly question them. When these habits are activated, we respond to abstract concepts instead of to the merits of the proposition. Here’s Dewey’s example:

One of its commonest [bad habits of thought] is a truly religious idealization of, and reverence for, established institutions; for example in our own politics, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, private property, free contract and so on. The words “sacred” and “sanctity” come readily to our lips when such things come under discussion. P. 192-3.

This must have been shocking to Dewey’s audience (recall that this book is a series of lectures). I picture gun fetishists braying about their sacred Second Amendment rights which have existed from all eternity, or at least 1791. Hilarious bewilderment follows when they’re confronted with Dewey’s statement that their sacred rights are subject to change.

Change might come from a new group of Justices who see fit to reject the mummery drooled by the intellectually dishonest hacks who signed on to the Heller opinion. Change can come because we as a nation are entitled to move on from the dictates of the long-dead Founders which merely resolved the political problems they faced. We can make our own rules fit for our purposes. For example, we are even free to adjust the absurd idea that a democracy can function under the dead weight of unaccountable life-tenured ancients acting as a bevy of Platonic Guardians. [H/T Learned Hand]

That last is a good example of throwing off bad habits of thought. I was a lawyer for many years and defended the role of SCOTUS. Now I just see it as one of many obstacles to democracy, an institution in desperate need of rethinking. In a similar way, the prison abolition people and the defund the police people are demanding close inquiry into the roles of major institutions. Dewey would be pleased, I think.

Conclusion on Chapter 5

It’s helpful to think of democracy as the natural form of government for a healthy community. As a nation we need knowledge of the situation, reasonable means for discourse on those problems, conceptual tools that enable us to do a good analysis, and the willingness to proceed even when we are uncertain of the best path, with the idea that we will change direction if our first solutions don’t work, and with a commitment to facing the problems our solutions create.  Only then can we forge a community and a democracy.

In other works, Dewey emphasizes the importance of a good education for all citizens as a key to a functioning democracy. Dewey doesn’t say it, but we also need to conduct ourselves in good faith.

Dewey doesn’t try to apply these ideas to his time, and disclaims the ability to suggest practical steps towards a healthy community. I think our problem is that there are forces at work that are aggressively trying to create a massive divide in our nation, as if we are two competing communities. The Republicans are hell-bent on creating an alternate reality, one that has few points of contact with the world as I see it. Theirs is the world of the Big Lie, Qanon, Trump as an anointed savior sent by the Almighty, a vaccine that causes people to shed something something that upsets menstrual cycles and causes sterility, science denial, patriarchy, and unthinking acceptance of gibberish readings of ancient texts. It’s also a world in which only unfettered capitalism can save us.

One of their tactics is attacking the conceeptual tools we use to understand our selves and our society. A recent example is the redefinition of Critical Race Theory. This tool begins with the idea that what and who we are is largely shaped by our institutions and power structures, just as Dewey suggests. Critical Race Theory looks at the way our legal system and the power structures it supports interact with race. The Right Wing media translates this into “being white is bad”, or “all white people are racists” or some similar stupid lie. This is a deliberate attack on a conceptual tool that may be of great value.

This has been running side-by-side with the effort of Christian Fundamentalism to create a separate world for its adherents, perhaps with a long-term goal of turning the government into a Christian Theocracy. That includes Seg Schools, havens for White Christian Children safe from the unChristians and other rabble, Christian Rock music, creationism and other forms of fake science, home schooling, and colleges in which the devils of secular humanism can be expelled along with anything that threatens their world view.

These trends now include adherence to a limited range of self-sorted media and social media platforms where the two groups intermingle to some extent, or perhaps where the dominant class teaches the subordinate class what to believe and how to think.

To see these trends, see this by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, and this by Eric Levits in New York Magazine.

I do not see anything in Chapter 5 that helps me even begin to think about this problem. I’ll just say again following Pierre Bourdieu that the the right wing part of the dominant class is using this division to maintain its own position and serve its own desires. The sane part of the dominant class can’t seem to do anything about this division, assuming it opposes the division.

17 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “It’s also a world in which only unfettered capitalism can save us.”

    Forget St, George, the fool Ross Douthat whispers into the ear of his king. Only a bigger, unconstrained capitalist dragon can save us from the fire and destruction of the capitalist dragon. The NYT has a stable of such fools, to which it feeds hay of gold. Thank goodness for sites like this one. Thanks, Ed.

  2. sw_marks says:

    “Dewey thinks that habits of thought frequently blind us to the need for change.”

    Yes, and I think of Wm. Blake’s “London”:

    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    • Ed Walker says:

      That’s a marvelous line from an excellent poem I had never read. I wonder what the word “ban” means here. Maybe neighborhood?

      • Rayne says:

        Given the author and time period in which “London” was written, Blake likely meant the shortened version of bannan from Old English, meaning “to summon, command, proclaim”; see the verb ban at Etymonline.

        Having read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and other fiction of the late 18th and early 19th century, you’re probably more familiar with a noun form, bann.

        • Ed Walker says:

          Well, it seems like it ought to be a noun, to parallel voice, so that would give “proclamation” or “decree” according to your link. That suggests that both the people on the street and those in charge are subject to the “mind-forged manacles”. What do you think?

        • sw_marks says:

          Yes, ban as a proclamation, but also as the proclamation of a marriage with connections to the phrase “the Marriage hearse” in the last stanza. Ban also reverberates with the mentions of “charter’d” in the first stanza. Charter’d comes from a charter issued by the government for land, property, etc. And yes, Ed, how does one escape a manacle forg’d by your own mind which is forg’d by the culture and rule you live in which, of course, is forg’d by the minds of the people in that world, and so on, and so on? Even the “charter’d Thames” can’t follow its natural course. I think it is an extraordinary poem which, unfortunately, may always have relevance.

  3. Joseph Andrews says:

    From the piece:

    “…with the effort of Christian Fundamentalism to create a separate world for its adherents, perhaps with a long-term goal of turning the government into a Christian Theocracy. That includes Seg Schools, havens for White Christian Children safe from the unChristians and other rabble, Christian Rock music, creationism and other forms of fake science, home schooling, and colleges in which the devils of secular humanism can be expelled along with anything that threatens their world view.”

    Great writing here and what comes to my mind when reading this passage is what I believe most animates a conservative Christian dad or three in my own community: their very real fear that one of their daughters will bring home a mixed-race baby some day.

    No snark intended…and I’m not joking. Sad but true.

  4. Joseph Andrews says:

    Another thought about this piece—it seems to me that its title (THE TWO COMMUNITIES AND THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY) goes nicely with the subhead ‘…and What Should Be Done With the Deplorables?’

    In this thought experiment, I am making the assumption that the sane part of the dominant class does not reside in Hillary’s basket.

    Wishful thinking on my part?

  5. Stephen Calhoun says:

    Thank you Ed for your ongoing series.

    How does Dewey read when contemporary individual and social psychological understandings are taken into account? There are many currents on offer, such as Lakoff/Johnson, Haidt, Kahneman/Tversky, Hewer/Lyons, on and on. From this we have psychological reasoning about crowds, electing sociopaths, system justification, voting behavior, political marketing, on and on. Topic areas are innumerable. What is the ripest ‘unit of analysis?’

    Psychology combines with anthropology and sociology. From my perspective, I wonder what would be the survey collection which could result from knocking on the door of every American household and simply asking the adults in the household: what are the ten most important aspects of your life? (There are any number of pointed questions!) This kind of survey would uncover a lot of what Gregory Bateson termed ‘epistemological lunacy.’ The challenge of course is that what is believed to be true is true for the believer.

    There is widespread fear of ‘social engineering,’ unless it is the kind we ourself believes in and supports.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I think the problem is that even the most recent thinking on this stuff doesn’t offer a way to combat the determined efforts of a few rich people, and the entire apparatus they’ve funded to divide us by any means possible. That’s why I have read so many older books, looking at the ideas of people who foresaw some of what is happening now.

      Liberals don’t think they should manipulate people, which might be an answer. A bigger problem is that the flood of lies is overwhelming, to the point that it’s impossible to deal with all of it. Anti-vax lies are a perfect example. Even the former guy touted his Operation Warp Speed. The CDC, the FDA, HHS and the medical establishment seem to have thought that the value of the vaccine was obvious, and none of them was proactive in explaining how it works, how it was manufactured, why it works, or why everyone should get it. That left the field to the liars and demagogues. There is simply no way to break through.

      I don’t hqve any answers.

  6. Epicurus says:

    There are many themes going on in this post, so perhaps it might be helpful to have some basic definitions to help clarify concepts. From the US Embassy in Argentina’s website: “While often categorized as a democracy, the United States is more accurately defined as a constitutional federal republic. What does this mean? “Constitutional” refers to the fact that government in the United States is based on a Constitution which is the supreme law of the United States. The Constitution not only provides the framework for how the federal and state governments are structured, but also places significant limits on their powers. “Federal” means that there is both a national government and governments of the 50 states. A “republic” is a form of government in which the people hold power, but elect representatives to exercise that power.” Why did we choose a Republic form? Two thoughts jump to mind. First, best expressed at, ““…[the difference] is that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person: in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.” Becoming a Republic was a pragmatic choice, to tweak Dewey’s democratic nose. Second, the always present problem in any democracy is the potential for the tyranny of the majority over what might/would be considered minority but universal rights. Federalist Papers Nine and Ten specifically addressed the problem under the heading of majority faction, although in perfect expression of the “dominant” class issue above and hypocrisy Hamilton and Madison immediately turned to (opposing) political parties and majority faction as a way to force their theories of governance and behavior on the new American world.

    Dewey hints at but didn’t have access to the future understanding and real power of conditioning and its social reinforcement as in Lorentz, Pavlov, Thorndike, Skinner. The divides in our country are the battles of our conditioning and the need to impose that conditioning on other people. It isn’t limited to just one group. Social media is the great reinforcer simply because of the ease with which anyone can find others of the same conditioning which in turn serves as legitimation of their own beliefs. Additionally in a shout out to Bourdieu there is a life cycle of institutions. They are originally created to serve a purpose, usually beneficial communally or societally in purpose, and people in the institutions are oriented toward serving that purpose. As time moves on the people in the institution come to see the institution as a way to protect, serve, and export their individual agendas (conditioning) so the institution changes from a means of social/commmunal beneficial change to a lever of personal power. Why would popes protect pedophiles? Why would a President urge a mob to to move against the legislative branch of government? Why would civil servants have greater pensions and benefits than the the people who are paying their way? They are all expressions of the life cycle change in the respective institutions.

    Dewey’s ideas about education and good faith may work well in small, local area situations and may create democratic models there. It won’t work at large levels because we elect representatives who are conditioned to serving only a certain segment of society and appoint administrators in their image (such as SCOTUS appointments, Tom DeJoy, and Rahm Emmanuel). As representatives get further away from the local level their institutional conditioning kicks in and replaces democratic priorities.

    Rather focusing on than Dewey’s ideas about democracy, I would focus more on the conditioning processes of modern life and what avenues we have that can change those that limit our ability to govern in the best way possible. (What greater example of positive conditioning for society is there than Trump getting kicked off social media platforms?)

    • Ed Walker says:

      I certainly agree that we should bring our scholarship to bear on this problem. So does Dewey. In one passage in Chapter 5 that I didn’t discuss, Dewey argues that all the social sciences are too slow, and out of date. He urges stronger and faster data collection not based on the profits of the media as one tool for understanding where we are. I’ve read a bit about Bourdieu (and tried to read the original works without success) and I have a layman’s familiarity with some of the writers you mention.

      In general, I think we need a lot more cross-discipline thinking about our current situation. I think that manipulation of habits of thought is as good a way of talking about what you call conditioning, because it’s more basic. The fact that we rely on habits of thought is a central insight that makes it possible for some to manipulate those habits. Have I missed something?

      If you know of writing about the problem I outline in my conclusion, the problem of how to fight deliberate efforts to create two communities, please share.

  7. Epicurus says:

    You haven’t missed anything. We rely on habits and conditioning in the way we think and how we manipulate and are manipulated. There are three excellent starter books that discuss that conditioning. They are Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann, Words and Rules by Stephen Pinker, and Demagogue for President by Jennifer Merceica.

    There is much writing about how to fight the deliberate efforts to create two (or more) communities but one should try to see what is deliberate in a different way than that phrasing/description. A good start is simply recognizing a situation as the middle point of a circle. Not all people are gathered at the same point on the circumference of the circle and as a consequence people see the same situation from a different vantage point, along a different radius. How they see and evaluate that situation are usually conditioned responses. Abortion is a great example. People that see it differently many times have also been conditioned through their families, religious communities, and their political affiliations to take action in such a way as to impose their conditioned beliefs, deliberately, on those that don’t share them. The result of having two mutually exclusive communities in the abortion context is the result of deliberate steps to condition thought, belief, and response in the respective communities. I don’t have an answer for how to prevent that. I think the phrase in the Preamble to the Constitution is instructive and in the right direction – “to create a more perfect union”. The writers recognized there were two or more highly divided communities and part of the job of the Constitution was to provide a political process where those communities could talk with one another., i.e. create a much better union or team of rivals. We have obviously failed that desire and intent in great part. We had a Civil War after all. We fail today. Deliberate efforts to create two communities is a social condition that is a (an allowable) reality of our country mostly because we ignore that Constitutional phrase (and I would say warning).

    • Ed Walker says:

      A great example. And the effort to create two communities, English and foreign, is policy of the Tories under Boris Johnson.

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