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Final Thoughts On The Public And Its Problems

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I hoped John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems would help me understand our currant political morass. In a way, it did, as I noted in this post. I am disappointed that there aren’t any usable solutions, but that too is a lesson. In this conclusion I’ll discuss three things I got out of it.

1. Social Contract theory is wrong-headed

Before I read this book, I understood politics through the lens of social contract theory, the idea that a large group of isolated individuals enter into agreements on the organization of society in order to provide themselves a reasonable amount of security and protection from others. Dewey rejects social contract theory because it’s based on the idea of isolated individuals as the basic unit of society. In Dewey’s view we are all linked together from birth in social units, first families, then as we grow, into larger units, clans, tribes, schools, friendship circles, churches, sports teams, and then throughout our lives in larger and larger groups.

I’ve read several books explaining modern physics. I wish I were able to write about the idea of the universe as an energy field, with matter defined as clumps of energy of varying degrees of complexity, and with humans described as very complex clumps of energy. In this picture, everything is connected to everything else; it’s all part of the same energy field.

Even without that lovely image, I agree with Dewey. I can see the influences other people have on me and my thinking. I realize that my ability to cope with the world is the direct outcome of the way I was raised, the information I have been taught, and the ways of thinking I have learned from others.

We are not isolated individuals.

2. The Role Of Theory

A. Thinking

A number of the books I’ve read have a theory embedded in them. This seems especially true of the book about the Frankfurt School, where the grounding is in Marx and Freud, and the foreground is the dialectical method. Other books are grounded in a deeply historical approach. This includes Arendt and Polanyi; and Foucault, who talks about his genealogical approach. Pierre Bourdieu’s work is heavily grounded on data he gathered from observations and surveys of large numbers of people.

Dewey takes a somewhat different approach, free inquiry. I understand this to mean we should start by identifying the problem to be solved. Then look at the facts, including social facts, as carefully as we can. We generate possible solutions through discourse with others. Then we regard the chosen solution as tentative, which requires monitoring the situation continuously to see what needs fixing. It’s free in the sense that it is not affected by the demands of people trying to advance their own ends, or by religious adherence to some universal theory.

Another method of thought is explication and extension. Much of what we inherited from our ancestors is couched in old language and is expressed by discussion of older concepts. So, in philosophy much of the earlier work discusses the nature of being, and abstract ideas like whether we actually know the real world of objects or whether we only know what we receive from our senses. A lot of our new learning ins couched in academic language, which makes it hard to understand. Careful reading and explanation of these texts requires putting ourselves in the position of the writer and restating it in contemporary terms. We are then in a position to examine some of the possible extensions of that thinking, while being careful not to get too far ahead of the actual ideas of the original text. We might call it the student method.

B. The Goal of Theory For Liberals and Progressives

For Dewey, and for Arendt, Polanyi and the Frankfurt School, the goal of theory is to help us come to grips with specific problems and situations. Where are we? How did we get here? What were we thinking when we made the choices we made in the past? What facts did we get right and wrong? What were our goals? How close did we come to meeting them? And so on.

This kind of understanding does not tell us what we should do. It might suggest goals or solutions. But we still have the responsibility to identify our problems. Once we have done so we can use the social facts provided by theory to generate solutions. Then we are in a decent position to examine the question What Should We Do? For Dewey, that is the central question of politics.

C. The Goal of “Theory” for conservatives.

Conservatives use theory differently. They have a theory, a universal world view, valid at all times and places and for all people. Their only goal is to prove their theory is perfect and that the left and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their theory is evil and responsible for the sins of the world.

At the root of conservative theory is the idea of the isolated individual as the fundamental element of society. This leads them to the social contract theory, where voluntary agreements are the only binding force of society.

It’s easy to see this in action. It explains the secessionist movement in the Antebellum South. It explains the refusal to accept the 2020 election results, which were met with violence among a number of conservatives and with pouts and denial among a broad swath of them. It’s visible in the anti-mask and anti-tax movements, and the allegedly religion-based refusal to live with their fellow citizens under majority rule. They are alone and they are all that matters.

D. Conservative Pundits

Here’s a discussion of Michel Foucault by the pseudo-intellectual Ross Douthat. One of his premises is that leftists used to tout Foucault because he offered a radical critique of government power under the heading of biopolitics. Leftists loved this when conservatives were in control. Now they ignore Foucault because Democrats are in power. As evidence, he cites leftist acceptance of the governmental response to Covid-19.

That’s just wrong at every level. Here’s my discussion of Foucault’s biopolitics. It’s clear that Douthat hasn’t tried to read Foucault, or understand the details of his views of biopolitics. He doesn’t know that Foucault is describing what he sees, not prescribing anything.

Douthat isn’t doing any of the things I describe in Part A. He has a universalist world view: he’s a Catholic Conservative. He only reads books and papers to pick out shiny bits to attach to that world view, or to use as springboards for blaming progressives, liberals and Democrats for the sins of the world. This is a common problem among conservative pundits. They are not actively engaged in trying to understand the objective and social facts in front of them. The only problem they see is that the world doesn’t match their theory. Their only solution is to co-opt government into imposing their world view on the majority who don’t care about their world view.

3. Politics Is About Solving Problems

One central premise of The Public And Its Problems is that the point of politics is solving the problems common to a group of people. Dewey thinks of this in these terms:

One reason for the comparative sterility of discussion of social matters is because so much intellectual energy has gone into the supposititious problem of the relations of individualism and collectivism at large, wholesale, and because the image of the antithesis infects so many specific questions. Thereby thought is diverted from the only fruitful questions, those of investigation into factual subject-matter, and becomes a discussion of concepts.

The “problem” of the relation of the concept of authority to that of freedom, of personal rights to social obligations, with only a subsumptive illustrative reference to empirical facts, has been substituted for inquiry into the consequences of some particular distribution, under given conditions, of specific freedoms and authorities, and for inquiry into what altered distribution would yield more desirable consequences. P. 212-213. Paragraphing changed for clarity.

Conservatives like Douthat are much happier arguing abstractions than real problems. They don’t want to change the current distribution of freedoms and powers unless it imposes their pre-determined solutions. Neoliberal Democrats are happy talk about abstractions rather than problems, because it means they don’t have to act. That’s why we hear about budget deficits and filibuster rules instead of legislation. It explains the refusal of elites of both parties to confront actual problems. And it explains why Republicans get away with propaganda about Foucault and Critical Race Theory. It’s easy to lie about abstractuibs and conceptual tools. It’s hard to lie about specific facts.

Dewey is quite clear that he doesn’t have a solution to the questions about the self-identification of a Public or any of the other problems he raises. He hopes that education and theory will help. But in the end, it’s up to all of us, not the theorists.

Conclusion

Dewey’s idealism about the possibilities of democracy is inspiring. Even if we can’t use his book to find our way closer to that ideal, we still aspire to it.

The Public’s Problems In Finding Itself

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The sixth and last chapter of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses some of the obstacles to formation of a community capable of recognizing itself as a public. He doesn’t have any practical solutions. But he offers two theoretical ideas and a couple of practical steps. And he argues that community is the most human form of relationship in an almost poetic section.

1. Get rid of excessive individualism

This idea brings us back to an earlier post, in which I discussed Dewey’s rejection of social contract theory. The basic reason for this rejection is Dewey’s view that we are not human apart from the culture and society in which we find ourselves. That culture and that society formed us, gave us our language, our morals, our behavioral structure, and our self-definition. He takes this up again in Chapter 6.

We think of ourselves as individuals in a naive way. We are separate physically, and we move under our own steam. But so do animals. Every part of our psyches that is truly human comes from other humans, who tend us as babies, teach us as children, and interact with us in as adults. Certainly as separate entities we have different capacities, mental, physical, and emotional. But these only come into play when we interact with others. They only develop through our interactions with others.

Dewey uses an analogy to explain this. We know what a tree is, a plant with a trunk, branches, leaves or needles, and roots. We know that there are cells in the plant that perform certain functions, such as converting sunlight, carbon and other elements into itself. We can use this descriptive definition for some purposes.

But to say anything interesting about trees, we need to consider the earth on which they stand: the atmosphere, water, and sunlight they need for life; and the plants and insects that surround them and live in and inside them. It’s the same with humans. We cna use the common sense idea of the isolated individual human for some purposes, but to say anything interesting we need to consider the entire environment of the human, which includes other human beings.

The idea that humans exist at their fullest through their associations with other human beings is related to Dewey’s view that all that we think of as true comes from truths handed down to us from our ancestors. See, e.g. William James, Pragmatism, Lecture II.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to … apply [this lesson] to the most ancient parts of truth. They also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations.

This vision of humanity links us in a web of relations with our ancestors, our contemporaries and future generations. I once sat on a hill in the Dordogne Valley outside a cave decorated with prehistoric art. The art was the product of people like me, and some kid had stuck a hand in the pigment and made a handprint under a ledge designed to hold a pool of oil and a wick. Looking across the valley, I saw wild asparagus, edible berries and grains, walnut trees, and imagined small game. Beyond them lies the great river full of fish. I’d seen the tools of my ancestors at a nearby museum. I knew a little of how they lived. I could almost feel the connection across 25,000 years. And I know that some of what I know they knew, just as some of what they knew I know.

Treating our perceived selves as isolated individuals leaves us with no real way to become the humans we actually are.

2. Philosophical theory is absolutist

Even professedly empirical philosophies have assumed a certain finality and foreverness in their theories which may be expressed by saying that they have been non-historical in character. They have isolated their subject-matter from its connections, and any isolated subject-matter becomes unqualified in the degree of its disconnection. P. 214.

Other philosophers are even worse than empiricists. I listen to The Partially Examined Life, “a podcast by some guys who set out to do philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.” They discuss the original works of a number of philosophers I will never read, like Kant and Averroes. Their descriptions of these works suggest that the writers thought their ideas were valid for all times and all places.

I suppose this was natural when people thought the universe must have a purpose laid out by its Creator. But Dewey was one of the first philosophers to take evolution seriously. He understood that the key insight of evolution theory is that there is no point to the universe. Evolution doesn’t move toward some predetermined goal. There is no direction in evolution other than survival. All evolution is the sum of the reactions of organisms to a changing environment.

Dewey thinks philosophical and ideological absolutism is dangerous.

The disciples of Lenin and Mussolini vie with the captains of capitalistic society in endeavoring to bring about a formation of dispositions and ideas which will conduce to a preconceived goal. If there is a difference, it is that the former proceed more consciously. P. 218-9.

3. Dewey’s Suggestions

From here Dewey goes into a detailed discussion of two things a properly functioning Public requires. First, the social sciences must become better and faster at free inquiry, a technical term best thought of as inquiry free of a pre-determined theory. Second, we need to educate people to the highest degree possible. These two steps will move us in the right direction.

One critical point stands out in the lengthy discussion that follows. There is no fixed set of rules. People change, societies change, technology changes, and our understanding of change changes. Our analytical tools, including our philosophy, must be formed and used for inquiry. We judge our tools by whether they do the work we want done. That’s just as true of social theory as it is of hammers. But we have to understand that any answer we come with is provisional.

… [P]olicies and proposals for social action [must] be treated as working hypotheses, not as programs to be rigidly adhered to and executed. They will be experimental in the sense that they will be entertained subject to constant and well-equipped observation of the consequences they entail when acted upon, and subject to ready and flexible revision in the light of observed consequences. P. 220.

Discussion

In the last post in this series I discussed what seems to me like the emergence of two communities in the US. One, the one I think I live in, tries to grow knowledge and understanding both of ourselves and our society, and to share that knowledge and understanding as widely as possible. The other doesn’t like that. It can’t distinguish a plausible view of the world from the world conjured up by Qhucksters and right-wing liars. The second community despises the first. Mine is utterly unable to understand the second, moving between horror, disgust and laughter at the madness it sees.

Dewey believes that education and better social science can deal with this. He wrote this book in the early days of totalitarian movements, and must have seen the potential for danger. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t have an answer. I haven’t seen anything that suggests a way to have a real dialog with a true believing follower of Trump/Cruz/Gaetz/Hawley/Greene, or with the rich and their claque.

In the next post, I’ll conclude this very long series with some final thoughts.

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.

Bad Habits Of Thinking Make It Hard To Form Community

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses the role of community in moving from the theory of democracy (the subject of the first 3 chapters) to a working form of democracy. Dewey says that democracy only exists in communities. Just as there has never been and will never be an ideal democracy, there has never been and will never be a perfect community.

Human beings have always worked together on joint projects as a matter of course. Dewey says community arises when people begin to share signs and symbols that enable communication. They talk about their conjoint efforts, to remember and record them, to discuss them, to take pleasure in the accomplishment, to work out how to share in the accomplishment, to talk about ways to do the project better, and to talk about other possible conjoint activity. [1]

1. He starts with this simple proposition, which we’ve seen before in other discussions of his work:

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native, even though it could not be learned without native structures which mark man off from other animals. To learn in a human way and to human effect is not just to acquire added skill through refinement of original capacities.

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.

The communication Dewey describes lies in sharing the meanings attached to our words and symbols. It only works if there is shared understanding of those meanings and accurate recounting and recording of beliefs, desires, and methods. This enables the group to come to a reasonably clear view of the situation facing the community, to resolve problems, and to make decisions about the future course of conjoint activity.

2. Knowledge can be kept private, or held close by a few. In the latter case, it can be used to further the interests of the few instead of the community at large. That is the usual case in societies controlled by economic interests. When knowledge is widely and freely held, the community can give careful consideration to the potential outcomes of different uses and results, and it is more likely that those usages will be broader in scope and that the outcomes will benefit the community as a whole.

3. The formation of habits of behavior and thinking makes it possible for us to cope with a complex and changing environment by freeing us to focus on significant changes in the environment. When we experience something that calls our habits into question, we move out of the realm of habit into the realm of actual thinking, which Dewey calls inquiry. Rational directed linear thought is itself a specialized habit, learned with great effort by a few, scientists, philosophers, writers, and only infrequently practiced by them. This is Dewey’s flat dismissal of neoliberalism’s rational man perspective.

4. Dewey says that people expected that with new democratic forms of government the industrial revolution would change things and lead to greater community control. But the habit of kowtowing to the social hierarchy intervened, and nothing really changed. Most of the same people stayed in power, with some new people added from the industrialist class and some of the aristos dropped.

Discussion

Dewey’s thoughts on habit are close to those of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus, discussed in this series. Bourdieu made it his life’s work to study how the dominant class reproduces itself in ways that hide the continuity of domination from itself as well as from the submissive class, so that it seems natural and just and the submissive class doesn’t revolt. That’s what Dewey is talking about when he says that habits of thought were so strong that even the tumultuous changes of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy were unable to shake up long-standing power structures,

Bourdieu offers a modified explanation: he says habitus comes from experience and from class structures. See this post for a discussion of habitus.

ONe obvious bad habit is trusting authorities blindly. We think “Tucker Carlson said it” or “I saw it in the New York Times”; and then we just accept it as true, even if a bit of thought would cause us to question it.

Our habits of thought can also be obstacles to learning new things, especially things that seem radically new. Think about what it would be like to be a farmer in Copernicus’ time, and to be told that the earth revolves around the sun. Or think about what it would be like to be a devout Christian when Darwin explained the origins of the species homo sapiens. If you didn’t understand the methods used by Copernicus and Darwin, and didn’t understand the chains of thought that led to their theories, it would be very hard to accept them. Then add to that the threat to your religious beliefs, and the possibility that accepting these new views would lead to eternal damnation.

Your original ideas were engrained from infancy. One you learned from direct experience. The other was taught by your whole society and was reinforced regularly throughout your life. Changing one’s mind about these things requires a tremendous commitment, intellectual daring, and at least some community support.

Now think about the Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. The mechanism is new for most of us. The technology seems exotic, and even scary. There are links to fetal stem cells. Management of the pandemic was politicized by Republican politicians. Some Democrats publicly worried about the possible politicization of the FDA, which was sadly realistic, but added to the idea that politics was involved.

Black and Brown people had reason to worry that the testing was inadequate, and that they were being made test subjects as their forebears were, repeatedly. Anti-vaxxers made all sorts of maddening claims about the dangers. The new technology scared people who had previously driven themselves into conniptions over earlier vaccines. Very few of us understand the science behind the creation, manufacture and testing of mRNA vaccines.

The government did nothing to teach the facts. People wallowed in ignorance. And now we may never achieve herd immunity, meaning we are condemned to a future of regular and unpleasant vaccinations.

Far too many of us have lost the ability to reconsider our habits of thought even when they produce absurd or dangerous outcomes. Prominent Democrats drink the blood of children? Bill Gates puts microchips in vaccines? But I’m not sure how open our society is to new ideas at any level, particularly ideas around status, dominance and power.

As Dewey says,

Thinking itself becomes habitual along certain lines; a specialized occupation. Scientific men, philosophers, literary persons, are not men and women who have so broken the bonds of habits that pure reason and emotion undefiled by use and wont speak through them. They are persons of a specialized infrequent habit. P 185.

This is an ugly picture of almost all politicians, and almost all of the pundits and media personalities who cover them, and far too many of us. It’s hard to see how the nascent US Public can identify itself when so many of us have such bad habits of thought. It makes you wonder if the dominant class uses this failure to cement itself in power.
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[1] Here’s the text summarizing several pages from which I gathered this idea:

A community thus presents an order of energies transmuted into one of meanings which are appreciated and mutually referred by each to every other on the part of those engaged in combined action. “Force” is not eliminated but is transformed in use and direction by ideas and sentiments made possible by means of symbols. P. 179-80.

Democratic Values In Practice

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In earlier chapters of The Public And Its Problems John Dewey described the social ideal of democracy as distinguished from the form democracy takes in an actual government. Chapter 5 begins his answer to the question how can we move from our current politics to forms closer to an ideal democracy. That could mean minor fixes to the current form, or adding similar institutions. But if the problems we need to solve exceed the capabilities of our institutions, then we may have to examine the entire structure and make major changes to produce new institutions, laws and regulations that can solve our problems.

The controlling factor must be the interest of the Public, using the term as Dewey does. Steps that bring more of a Public into the decision-making processes are improvements. That could just mean making it easier for everyone to vote, so they can participate at the level of selecting officials. It can also mean taking those interested enough into the decision-making process. That could be as simple as listening to their concerns. It could mean listening to their ideas about who should speak for them, who they trust, and to their solutions. And this isn’t just about government. For Dewey, democracy is valuable in all aspects of our social lives, work, Church, voluntary associations, and involuntary associations like Homeowners Associations.

Dewey offers the following working descriptions of democratic life:

From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. P. 174-5.

Among the characteristics of democracy are liberty, fraternity and equality. These words make no sense apart from communal life. If society is just a large group of isolated individuals, equality comes to mean merely average, leaving no room for the brilliant, the incompetent, and the uninterested. Liberty means freedom from the bonds of community, ending in anarchy. Fraternity, brotherhood, is meaningless absent community. From this Dewey concludes that democracy is meaningful only in the context of community.

In the context of a community, fraternity becomes the conscious appreciation of the common goods created by our joint efforts and which give direction to our lives. Liberty frees us to flourish, to live our best lives in the company of others, and with their assistance and encouragement. Equality becomes the share of the jointly created goods accruing to each according to need and capacity to use, unhampered by other concerns.

Dewey uses babies as a way of understanding equality. We give babies what they need, not because they’ve earned it, but because they need it or because it makes them happy. When we do this across society, we are our best selves.

Group behavior arises naturally. People work together, live together, and interact. Community arises naturally as we begin to appreciate the contributions of our neighbors and see that they appreciate our contributions. To Dewey, the key point is not the physical actions or the emotions that might attach to them, but the moral implication. By “moral” Dewey means that community life “… is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.” We pay attention to each other and to ourselves in our relations with others; and our community supports our drive to become our best selves.

In an early work, The Ethics of Democracy, Dewey discusses this moral or ethical vision of democracy.

There is an individualism in democracy … it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. It admits that the full significance of personality can be learned by the individual only as it is already presented to him in objective form in society; it admits that the chief stimuli and encouragements to the realization of personality come from society; …. It holds that the spirit of personality indwells in every individual .… From this central position of personality result the other notes of democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity – words which are not mere words to catch the mob, but symbols of the highest ethical idea which humanity has yet reached – the idea that personality is the one thing of permanent and abiding worth, and that in every human individual there lies personality.

This idea, that each individual personality flourishes only in the context of society, under its guidance and inspiration, is a brilliant justification for democracy.

Discussion

1. The Republican Party is whole-heartedly committed to the view that society is a mass of isolated individuals. It’s an idea which has deep roots in the American psyche, the lonely settler, the Lone Ranger, the rugged individual, John Galt and Howard Roark, Homo Economicus, all are examples of this theory of human nature. In The Ethics Of Democracy, Dewey dismisses this theory.

Just as Dewey predicted, the consequences of treating humans as isolated grains in a huge sand pile are dire. The bulk of the Republican Party detests people who disagree with them, particularly what they call the Left, meaning anyone who sees systemic racism, gun violence, unfair taxation, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, abuse of workers, and Covid-19 as serious problems that must be solved, and can only be solved if we act as a community.

The idea of fraternity among all Americans is meaningless to the Republican Party. Equality is a sour joke, a tool to help the weak and the moochers. Liberty means freedom from laws they don’t like, and from social restraints. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in Dewey’s sense have no place in Republican politics or discourse. For the entire party, there are no problems that require joint action, only pseudo-problems defined in right-wing spaces: attacks on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head; unfounded and inexplicable fears of immigration, violent crime, and budget deficits. Take a look at this chart.

Dewey says that our individuality is formed by the society around us. This too is reflected in the Republican Party. Adherents are taught, and teach their children, to ignore science unless it produces results acceptable to the hall monitors at Fox News. Fighting Covid-19 restrictions, gun fetishization, attacking legislatures, these are regarded as manly and appropriate behaviors. Police attacks on random Brown and Black people, and protestors of all colors are righteous. Exactly as Dewey said, the result of hyper-individualism is anarchy.

2. Only a few politicians, mostly local, do a decent job of involving the public in matters of public policy. Think about policing. What exactly do we as a community want to accomplish with policing? I bet the answer is different on the North Side of Chicago than the South and Southwest sides. But no one ever asks, and no one cares. We just keep doing the same things and throwing money at the problems.

3. I’m imagining a series of meetings in Churches and Schools around the city where people can talk about what they want in small groups, maybe with non-ideological facilitators, maybe live-streamed; taking in reactions from the public; more meetings. Then select from among themselves two or three people to meet with other similarly selected; talking and taking the new ideas back to their groups; meeting and discussing, trying to come to grips with this complex social problem. Maybe add some professional polling or non-ideological focus groups. Surely someone has better ideas than mine.

Democracy is possible. We just have to make it happen.

The Social Critique Of The Port Huron Statement

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The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden and adjusted and accepted by the SDS, asserts that the left needs both a program and a vision. The value section gives the vision. Those values are reflected in the critique of society. Hayden says that social structures of the early 60s were stultifying. Young people go from formative experiences in college to positions in the adult world for which they were prepared.

The fraternity president is seen at the junior manager levels; the sorority queen has gone to Grosse Pointe: the serious poet burns for a place, any place, or work; the once-serious and never serious poets work at the advertising agencies.

No one questions the system. The elites explain this passivity as evidence that people are satisfied with the status quo. But how can that be if people haven’t learned about alternatives, or how to change things, or about the actual power that have? Or, the elites claim that actual issues are disappearing. But they control the media and the education system, so how would we know otherwise? Other elites claim that “democracy never worked anywhere in the past”. But “… how can a social order work well if its best thinkers are skeptics, and is man really doomed forever to the domination of today?”

Universal apathy is reinforced by the existing power structure, which separates the public from full knowledge of the facts, and protects decision-makers from the public. Socially isolated citizens have no way to grasp how their world works. Hayden uses Dewey’s language around “publics”.

The very isolation of the individual — from power and community and ability to aspire — means the rise of a democracy without publics.

The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

Hayden identifies several reasons for this. First, the policy differences within both of the main parties are greater than the differences between the parties. Mostly this means that the Dixiecrats are more like the Republicans than they are either mainstream Democrats or liberal Republicans. The rigidity is increased by the seniority system in the Democratic Party, where most committees are chaired by Dixiecrats, and the system gives these chairs enormous power to enforce their wills.

Second, there is a bias towards local concerns. Legislators are more interested in trying to stay on the good side of their voters, even when the interests of those voters runs contrary to the national interest. Therefore politics fails to confront national and international issues in a smart way.

Third, whole communities are unrepresented: Black people, particularly in the South, migrant workers, poor people, and urban and suburban people gerrymandered into districts where they do not count

Fourth, all of this is made much worse by corporate power, expressed through lobbying and special access.

These forces work together to calcify politics, and weaken government, especially the legislature. Image and charisma replace thoughtfulness and insight. Voters are confronted with “pseudo-problems”, but actual problems are not addressed, let alone solved, by a weakened government. The confusion and lack of results lead to worse apathy. Politicians do nothing about this state of affairs; in fact, they support it.

The dominant feature of politics in 1962 was anti-communism. Public apathy and ignorance open the way for highly nationalistic, conservative anti-communists. These people took over the Republican party under the leadership of Barry Goldwater.

Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements.

The economy has a few elements of social support, but for the most part it contributes to the malaise. Hayden says we live in a “national celebration of economic prosperity”, but millions live in poverty and deprivation. Work is “unfulfilling and victimizing”, but it’s the only means to achieve financial security. We think we are free because we live in a free enterprise world.

People are excluded from control over their work lives. The rich and their corporations run the country. They dominate the fabric of social life. Government is not a countervailing force protecting citizens.

The military industrial complex is another dominant force. The cooperation between corporations and the military is crystalized by the statement of Charles Wilson, CEO of GM, who lauded the creation of the “permanent war economy.”

There’s more, but that gives a good flavor of the critique.

Discussion

1. The Port Huron Statement was written nearly 60 years ago, and 35 years after the publication of The Public And Its problems. I think it still serves both as a statement of values and as a social critique. True, it doesn’t mention women or the LGBTQ community, and its discussion of racism and the labor movements is weak. Some of the issues are no longer relevant, like the Dixiecrats. But these criticisms can be addressed within its framework.

2. Dewey says that corporations and the rich control political discussion. Their interests are not the same as the interests of the vast majority. Most people can’t even articulate their own interests because of the confusion and dissembling of the wealthy and their minions. Dewey thinks that a good society is one in which individuals have agency in all aspects of their lives.

The Port Huron Statement puts those concerns in the center of the discussion. Hayden adds discussion of the role of the military and the special role played by corporations that support it. That shows the influence of C. Wright Mills, especially his book The Power Elite.

3. The critiques of Dewey, Mills, and Hayden of the way democracy is actually working in America could all have been written today, with only minor changes. Mill’s power elites still run things. Issues of social inclusion are still a huge problem. National discourse is still confused by lies and distortions that serve the rich at the expense of everyone else. It is still difficult for citizens to recognize themselves as publics, capable of pursuing their own interests. The average person has little agency. Americans are divided by manipulation of pseudo-issues.

As an example, the rich make demands on government and get most of what they want from all three branches of government: tax cuts, IP protection for critical vaccines, de-regulation, weakened agencies, hand-outs. At the same time, a huge number of Americans are suffering under a catastrophic pandemic and the effects of deteriorating infrastructure, chemical pollution, and climate change.

A significant majority of us want the government to act. Courts offer years of delay to any objection from almost anyone. Most legislators are locked into their ancient games. Legislators who have internalized the values of the rich, or who are corrupt, or just stupid and indifferent, use senate procedure to block necessary changes. The dissemblers and liars raise absurd questions like “do they deserve it?” and “how do we pay for it?”, questions never asked about the demands of the rich. Anything that works for the common good is labeled Communist. Those arguments and tactics have been used at least 120 years.

This history is evidence of another of Dewey’s basic principles: democracy is a project of a community, never a finished product.

Finding The Public In A Complex Society

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In the last two posts we looked at Dewey’s idealized form of democracy. In Chapter 4 of The Public And Its Problems, Dewey desribes some of the obstacles citizens face in identifying themselves as a public, as a group capable of organizing to solve its problems. The obstacles he describes never went away.

He begins by pointing out that our form of democracy originated in small communities, based on town meetings and elections of neighbors to carry out the solutions reached through those meetings. Waves of industrialization and immigration created giant urban communities. Absorbing and socializing those groups into urban American life went quite well considering the enormous difficulties. But:

In spite of attained integration, or rather perhaps because of its nature, the Public seems to be lost; it is certainly bewildered. The government, officials and their activities are plainly with us. … But where is the public which these officials are supposed to represent? How much more is it than geographical names and official titles? P. 149-50; fn omitted.

The effort to adapt the politics of the small town to densely packed urban areas worked well enough to prevent the nation from falling into civil strife, but was not robust enough to deal with urban problems let alone national issues. Dewey describes the drop in the percentage of the population who voted and the cynicism that many show to the process.

Those still more inclined to generalization assert that the whole apparatus of political activities is a kind of protective coloration to conceal the fact that big business rules the governmental roost in any case. Business is the order of the day, and the attempt to stop or deflect its course is as futile as Mrs. Partington essaying to sweep back the tides with a broom. P. 151; fn omitted]

This accords with what he wrote in Chapter 3. We are not so much a nation of self-motivated individuals as a interchangeable group of “standardized units”, a phrase with echoes of neoliberal Homo Economics. These units are driven into corporations or other huge organizations for economic purposes not voluntarily but by the need to make a living.

[Corporations] are so massive and extensive that they determine the most significant constituents of the public and the residence of power. Inevitably they reach out to grasp the agencies of government; they are controlling factors in legislation and administration. Not chiefly because of deliberate and planned self-interest, large as may be its rôle, but because they are the most potent and best organized of social forces. P. 142.

This obstacle is exacerbated by the existence of political machines and other groups who insert themselves between individuals and the state; and use this position for their own ends.

Dewey identifies other things standing in the way of a public trying to recognize itself.

1. Political parties don’t do policy, and policy is never the issue in elections. He points to the fact that child labor laws are supported by a large public majority, but neither party makes them an election issue, or pushes the necessary Constitutional Amendment. This reminds us that SCOTUS struck down Child Labor Laws in a typical anti-democratic action by a 5-4 majority of conservatives.

2. Elected officials are rarely held to account by the electorate for specific votes or positions. Instead, the primary determinant seems to be a general consensus about the overall state of things.

3. Public relations experts manipulate the attention and energy of the public to focus on non-political matters. This leaves the experts and their sponsors to manage political activity for their own ends. Even non-corrupt leaders use theories developed for altogether different purposes and developed in different circumstances.

4. Mass societies lead to the disintegration of small communities where people develop the habit of participation in politics.

5. Mass societies create complex problems beyond the ability of a non-specialist to grasp. Of course, the consequences of the decisions made by specialists are clear. But see point 2.

6. It is difficult to apply even a simple political principle in a large society. Dewey gives two examples. Southerners claim to favor small government. They also claim to want to prevent drinking alcohol. But Prohibition requires a larger government. Farmers want small government, but also want fair railroad freight rates. That requires a large government bureaucracy.

7. Apathy sets in when it becomes difficult to identify issues, as is the case in a complex society, especially when traditional political slogans lose their meaning. People vote against one or the other party based on adherence to worn-out ideas when they bother to vote.

8.

The increase in the number, variety and cheapness of amusements represents a powerful diversion from political concern. The members of an inchoate public have too many ways of enjoyment, as well as of work, to give much thought to organization into an effective public. Man is a consuming and sportive animal as well as a political one. P. 167.

9. Earlier American communities were stable. But technological forces create instability, mobility and constant change. “Steam and electricity have done more to alter the conditions under which men associate together than all the agencies which affected human relationships before our time.” P. 169. This makes if difficult to formulate a sense of solidarity that is necessary to create a public.

These factors have confused citizens and made it difficult for them to recognize themselves as a public with problems that require organization to create a solution. Dewey offers his thoughts on solutions in chapter 5.

Discussion

The problems Dewey identifies are worse today that they were 100 years ago. Occasionally catastrophes have forced us to demolish those obstacles, and face up to life and death situations that can only be solved as a group. After WWII, there was a brief time, the time of my childhood, when the problems had not completely overwhelmed a sense of national community, when we slowly began to see real changes. It was short-lived, partly destroyed by endemic racism and an immoral war, and partly by a group of right-wing rich people and their economic theorist enablers. It was finished off by yet another economic nightmare. Catastrophic stagflation in the mid- to late 70s was met with neoliberal solutions, and the same for the following economic crashes, through the Great Crash and the Great Recession. We were distracted, unable to protect ourselves while our nation slowly fell apart.

Then came the pandemic. While we were locked down we saw the horrifying killing of George Floyd, which came on the heels of so many other police killings of unarmed Black people. We saw massive protests often met with state and right-wing violence. We saw the horror of the second and third waves of the pandemic, and the disgusting behavior of the former guy and the antics of his incompetent administration. We watched his absurd lawyers hack at our election. Then we saw the Capitol Insurrection. There weren’t any distractions, no manipulations that could hide it. [1] We were able to see ourselves as a public.

I hope this is a permanent change.
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[1] I first saw this observation in a tweet from Jemele Hill (@jemelehill). Added on edit.

Dewey’s Aspirational View of Democracy

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In the last post we looked at John Dewey’s view of democracy based on The Public And Its Problems, which I called a functional view. He explains the minimum requirements for maintaining a democratic form of government. The text for this post is The Ethics of Democracy, published in 1888, when Dewey was 29 and a professor at the University of Michigan. It offers the uplifting vision of democracy that was missing in the prior post. [1]

This is a philosophy paper. I take it to be a statement of the ideal, grounded in the reality Dewey sees, but laying out his hopes for the future if we pursue this ideal. It’s aspirational, not descriptive.

Dewey doesn’t assert that there a foundational principle from which he can reason his way to his views. His argument responds to the ideas of other writers, using them as a way of demonstrating his own thinking. Dewey takes up the ideas of Sir Henry Maines in his book Popular Government, and Plato’s Republic. Plato and other ancient Greek thinkers took as the highest virtue is excellence, arete, in action and contemplation. I think it helps to keep this in mind as we examine this work.

Maine was a British jurist. Dewey reads his book to say that democracy is fragile, accidental, and bound to failure. Dewey quotes Maine saying democracy will end “… in producing monstrous and morbid forms of monarchy and aristocracy.” In short Maine writes a defense of rule by an aristocracy of the best people, which I assume he derives from Plato’s Republic. Maine says democracy is the rule of the many, by which he means a quantitative, numerical form of government derived from the votes of a horde of isolated atomized individuals, all acting solely in their own interest. Dewey says that for Maine, “Democracy is othing but a numerical aggregate, a conglomeration of units.”

Dewey compares society to an organism whose existence emerges from the actions of the people who make it up. Society exists only through the actions of its members, and we only know society by looking at the actions of the members. The success of the society depends on the success of the individuals and vice versa. Dewey claims that this view arises from the Republic.

Dewey thinks that our actions are mediated by our socialization (my word), so that in acting we are not isolated atoms. Instead, each of us is different way of expressing that socialization, and thus part of the group. Dewey thinks that the will of society is expressed in this way, through the combined acts of members. The will of society gains some expression through the functional definition of democracy as selecting and overseeing our officials.

The key point of the paper for me is Dewey’s explanation of the value of democracy, the ethical justification for it. [2] In the first part of the paper, Dewey compares and contrasts aristocracy and democracy, as if they were merely two possible forms of government.

Democracy, like any other polity, has been finely termed the memory of a historic past, the consciousness of a living present, the ideal of the coming future. Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental. Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.

Dewey says that aristocracy can make the same claims. But appointing the best and wisest doesn’t work. They become corrupt, or lose sight of the needs and desires of the majority. Every movement to greater democracy increases the number and diversity of the people who operate as the government and who oversee that operation.

Every forward democratic movement is followed by the broadening of the circle of the state, and by more effective oversight that every citizen may be insured the rights belonging to him. P. 21.

The aristocratic ideal is that the wisest force people into the spheres in which they can best serve the state. Dewey is appalled by the idea that the individuals in a society can be pushed around by anyone, let alone a group identifying itself as the best and wisest. He doesn’t say it, but the idea that the wisest know the needs of society is absurdly hubristic. In a democracy, people find their own way into what Dewey calls “their proper positions in the social organism.” P. 21. They take up roles in which they can best carry out the goals of society. They do this as individual persons, each with their own set of attributes.

There is an individualism in democracy which there is not in aristocracy; but it is an ethical, not a numerical individualism; it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. P. 23.

I think we would use personhood instead of personality. I think this means that the full flowering of the individual, with all the influence of society, is the driving force of democracy. It is from this personhood, this ethical individual, that other aspects of democracy emerge: including liberty, equality and fraternity. Dewey gives illustrations of the first two.

Liberty in the dominant view means the freedom to do as one chooses, without regard to any other concern. In this view, the law is meant to punish actions that society deems unacceptable.

Dewey rejects this view. Society creates law, using that term in a broad way to cover statutes and formal rules of the state, moral and cultural demands and taboos, and informal rules of behavior. The law of a society represents its will at any time. The personhood of each individual is formed under the influence of this law. Today we would say that each individual internalizes the law. Thus the exercise of liberty by an individual is controlled by the law as instantiated in that individual. [3]

In this way, liberty is self-restricted, but at the same time, the individual is free to explore the limits imposed by the law, and to seek changes. The individual is required to follow the formal laws and rules, but is free to flout the moral and cultural demands and taboos, and the informal rules, subject, of course, to social sanctions, like shunning and shaming. At bottom, in a democracy, the law is not imposed by an external force. It is shaped by individuals as one of their social roles, and internalized. It’s function is to channel the exercise of liberty.

Turning to equality, the vulgar meaning is numerical equality, equal portions of each desirable good. Dewey says that in a democracy equality has an ethical meaning. It begins with the view that each individual person is equivalent in moral worth to every other individual.

Wherever you have a man, there you have personality, and there is no trace by which one personality may be distinguished from another so as to be set above or below. It means that in every individual there lives an infinite and universal possibility; … . P. 25.

This is the beauty of democracy: every person has the opportunity to become all that they can be, and those possibilities are unlimited. [4]

Discussion

This is a strikingly contemporary vision of democracy. Dewey lays out a set of values associated with democracy that resonate with my own. I wonder how many Republican legislators would support Dewey’s understanding of democracy.
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[1]The views in this paper did not change throughout his life.

At the core of his political thinking are the beliefs that science and democracy are mutually supportive and interdependent enterprises, that they are egalitarian, progressive and rest on habits of open social communication, and that powerful interpretations of liberal individualism and democracy have become ossified and self-defeating.

[2] See pages 19-24. I’m skipping a large part of this paper, There is a lot of it that is obscure. Some of the reasoning feels dated to me. I’m not familiar with the writings of some of the people he quotes. None of that detracts from my admiration for his overall conclusions.

[3] See page 23. I think I have summarized it correctly, but the language is obscure. Comments are welcome.

[4] This conception comports with the views of Elizabeth Anderson, which I discuss in this series. Anderson identifies as a follower of Dewey and a Pragmatist.

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.

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[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?

Failing At Democracy

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One of the reasons I read old books is that they help me understand the chaotic events of our current times. In The Public And Its Problems, John Dewey lays out a theory of the democratic state, and as we shall see, we are doing badly at it.

Recall that the public is a group of people who have common interests that need to be addressed, usually arising from the actions of other people. The public empowers certain of its members with the task of representing and protecting those interests. We call the aggregate of those people the state. [1]

The origins of the state.

This description implicitly separates “the state” from specific forms of government. Any reasonably large group of people has some form of government, and the bigger the group the more complex the government. In order for there to be a state, there must be a public.

It may be said that not until recently have publics been conscious that they were publics, so that it is absurd to speak of their organizing themselves to protect and secure their interests. Hence states are a recent development. Chapter 3, The Democratic State, p. 116.

One way to think about this is that the modern self-aware public evolved from prior traditional societies. The serfs in a feudal society generally do not see themselves as participants in government, but as fulfilling pre-ordained social roles.

What is a Democratic State?

Dewey likes this definition:

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 not a soaring aspiration. It’s a functional description of what has to be done. The democratic state needs two things: 1) a system for the public to select its officials; and 2) a system for regulating the conduct of officials.

Selection of officials.

In the US, we elect a small group of officials, and they in turn select others for subsidiary roles. The public, all of us, are responsible for selecting officials who will represent our interests in conflicts with individuals or groups of people, as corporations and militias. The public may fail at its task by selecting people who use their position to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of the public or otherwise. Dewey says the crucial step is the selection of the right people. [2]

Regulating the Conduct of Officials.

The US Constitution provides two methods for regulating officials. These are impeachment, in the case of the executive and judicial branches, and expulsion, for the legislative branch. These are supplemented by rules that allow for sanctions short of removal, such as censure, and formal means for investigation through committees. There are statutes and formal regulations that constrain conduct of other officials, and many informal rules, now called norms. These laws and rules provide for sanctions.

The evolution of political democracy.

Political democratic states in Western Europe and North America evolved from older forms of government as the result of many small non-political developments. Dewey emphatically denies that these changes were driven by some overarching cause, such as an innate desire for democracy, or by dramatic changes in philosophical theories.

But theories of the nature of the individual and his rights, of freedom and authority, progress and order, liberty and law, of the common good and a general will, of democracy itself, did not produce the movement. They reflected it in thought; after they emerged, they entered into subsequent strivings and had practical effect. P. 123.

As an example, the ideas of John Locke were one of the theoretical sources for the Founding Fathers. His ideas are grounded in the rising economics of mercantilism, the attenuation of religious hegemony, and rising scientific understanding. He seems to be arguing against earlier thinkers grounded in earlier social, cultural, and intellectual structures. [3] Democracy was not the driving force of any of these changes. It emerged as a solution to the societal problems these non-political changes created.

Dewey doesn’t try to explain the entire evolution. He points to just two factors. First, the changes that led to democracy were driven by a fear of government and a desire to keep it to a minimum. This seems like a plausible reaction to an all-powerful monarchy, as existed in England and France, for example. Earlier governments were tied into other institutions, like the Church, and these too were feared or loathed. These institutions came to be seen as oppressive, not to groups of people but to individuals. There was already a growing tendency to think of the individual as the atomic unit. [4[ For Dewey, individualism was the result. [5]

The second important factor is the rise of science and technology. Over time it created changes in the nature of productive work and increased the range of consumer goods. People of all classes wanted more. The old rules became obstacles, and people began to question these rules and the system that produced them.

The old conception of Natural Law as the source of morality merged with the new idea that laissez-faire economics was a natural law in a synthesis that opposed artificial political laws. This led to the conclusion that government interference in property was bad, if not a moral evil, and the role of government should be little more than to protect property rights and personal integrity.

This is an overly simplified history, even more simplified by me, but it gives an idea of the genesis democracy as Dewey defines it. It leads to the conclusion that government officials are likely to be bad, so we should have short terms and serious control.

Problems arising from large organizations.

In earlier times, people’s primary relationships were face-to-face, family, friends, co-workers, church members, local people. The government was hardly relevant in day-to-day life. Its primary impact was taxes, the occasional war, and a few laws. By the time Dewey is writing, the primary relationships were impersonal, the individual was facing large corporate organizations in many aspects of life, including productive work. The state acted directly acted on individuals, touching their lives in many ways.

Group, or conjoint, action through business entities rivals the government in impact on individuals. Businesses “reach out to grasp the agencies of government;” not out of evil intent necessarily, but because they are the best organized groups of people. Even so, the power of these organizations has been controlled and directed by the state to some extent, and more is possible.

Discussion.

The second impeachment of Trump shows us that as a nation we have done badly at democracy. We elected unfit officials, people who are stupid, venal, conspiracy-ridden, power-maddened or a combination. Unfit legislators have for decades let the executive branch do monstrous things and refused to hold any of them accountable. The unfit people who staff our courts at all levels, but especially the unconstrained ideologues of SCOTUS have stymied legislative power, and have limited accountability of government and business elites with their pronouncements. Prosecutors are at fault as well, because they refuse even to investigate powerful private entities and their executives.

We fail democracy if we do not carry out our responsibility to regulate the conduct of our officials, and continue to select unfit people as our officials.

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[1] I discuss these matter in detail in earlier posts, especially … and ….

[2] Dewey discusses different ways in which leaders were selected in earlier times, which I skip. It’s worth noting that we still elect people who met those irrelevant criteria: military and religious leaders, children of officials, charismatic people, and old white men. Pp. 117-9.

[3] I agree with Dewey about this, but it’s very far afield.

[4] Think of Descartes, sunk in self-contemplation. We also see it in Locke.

[5] Individualism lies at the heart of social contract theory and neoliberalism. Dewey rejects social contract theory.