Reflections on Dewey and the Pursuit of Democracy

Beyond the tiniest sliver of the American population who still manages political action via large sums of money, it is a commonly held belief that our system of democracy has become unable to function properly. Stating this platitude is about all we as citizens have been able to do; actionable responses are still pending.

This lack of movement is not a lack of ideas given the constant influx of articles being published by academics and journalists that offer critique and sometimes even solutions. We saw one large-scale attempt at reinvigorating a public movement to change democracy with the 2011-12 Occupy Wall Street movement, which – while still extant in small factions – mostly deteriorated as police cracked down on protests and media attention waned. Currently, one major living attempt to stimulate federal change is Lawrence Lessig’s MayDay PAC and his march across New Hampshire. It’s important to place these movements in our short-term memory before discussing the otherwise dearth of collective action happening in a nation with widespread discontent.

Having tipped my hat to these yeomen of civil dissidence, I see a need to address the ailments of the larger population to understand our national complacency in light of a seeming widespread desire for change. The fire underneath my words was kindled upon returning to read John Dewey whose prescience regarding the future course of democracy is both inspiring and depressing. Reading him gives us insight into the historical nature of our national problems, yet reminds us how little progress has been made improving the process of democracy.

Dewey tells us a common story with his pithy explanation of why certain members of our voting population-—many of whom may now be sympathizers with comedian Russell Brand’s current active voice—-see no reason to vote or work within the system to change such a large corrupted animal as, say, Congress:

”…the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy is not apt if it means that the evils may be remedied by introducing more machinery of the same kind as that which already exists, or by refining and perfecting that machinery.” [1]

The point here being that if contemporary democratic systems are not working, we cannot pile our resources into those same systems in their current form and expect a new result.

From a different angle, our citizenry who sit back and perform their perfunctory duties in hopes of a magical change often are guilty of making a particular assumption that was clear to Dewey in 1946 already seeing a population forgetting democracy is something in which we participate:

”…we have more or less unconsciously assumed that the work of establishing a democracy was completed by the founding fathers or when the Civil War abolished slavery. We tend to think of it as something that has been established and that it remains for us simply to enjoy.” [2]

He goes on to diagnose a problem in education: teaching democracy without it taking its usual course within the experience of the learner. The Civil War and The Declaration of Independence are inculcated as static symbols we count on for renewing our faith that we do, indeed, live in a democracy; even when we are encountered by paralyzing trends such as a coporate-controlled legislative system compliments of lobbying and revolving-door politics.

The contrasting view would be that democracy can only be taught as a process you must take an active role in to keep it afloat, and thus learning its concepts would require participatory activities. Not only would this experiential approach to learning democracy fit with Dewey’s educational philosophy, but it is also compatible with his view that democracy itself must be reestablished anew by each generation of citizens.

It’s easy to explain why these two diametrically opposed groups cannot find the change they seek: one lacks a positive heuristic to do anything and the other counts on an historical romance to justify complicity with what manifests as dysfunction. What takes a more nuanced explanation is, “why aren’t people, whose view of things falls between these poles, strategizing and acting on the problems in front of them?” Again, Dewey offers insight into the range of reasons in a passage as apt in 2014 as it was in the 1920’s:

“There is a social pathology which works powerfully against effective inquiry into social institutions and conditions. It manifests itself in a thousand ways; in querulousness, in impotent drifting, in uneasy snatching at distractions, in idealization of the long established, in a facile optimism assumed as a cloak, in riotous glorification of things ‘as they are,’ in intimidation of all dissenters—ways which depress and dissipate thought all the more effectually because they operate with subtle and unconscious pervasiveness.” [1]

Dewey gives us some common imagery of a citizenry who has established habits of life dissonant with the needs of a living democracy. This is the viral epidemic of a population taught how to take part in a society before having the chance to think about why to take part in one. Someone with a strong belief in the power of ideas may rebut these pathological descriptions by pointing out the multitude of writers who are apt to inquire against our social institutions.

The appropriate Dewian response is to point out that this is not effective inquiry. Building knowledge is a crucial function of research and study, but merely collecting information tied to no action is another symptom of having learned about society’s problems without this knowledge being conjoined with personal experience. Critical minds are just as easily coerced into the habits of the time, and it should come as no surprise that “thinking deprived of its normal course takes refuge in academic specialism,” [2]. In academia we are taught that the modus operandi of a progressive thinker is to respond to jargon-ridden articles, and thus we get an enclave of bright minds fighting conceptual battles in lieu of collective participation.

Now it should be asked whether there is any central thesis here beyond taking stabs at our collective apathy. The purpose of contextualizing Dewey within the current democratic scene is to appeal to the same worry he had many years prior: that we will turn up fruitless in the search for “The Great Community.” His play on the idea of “The Great Society” seems to shine light on the fact that no matter how powerful and advanced we become, if we do not learn to cooperate as a community of actors against the challenges of the time, we risk being swept up by the current – stripped of any agency to change humanity.

Today our social schematic demands we pursue our dreams in the narrow realm of a career; chased after alone or in pairs while other pursuits take a backseat. Most often those who choose to break any such cultural habit is named a ‘radical’ or is taken to be delusional. Without a univocal ‘we’ to voice our demands, each of us drifts as an ‘I.’ Isolated, our fear of losing the game of success precludes us from the patience it takes to produce new meanings in our labor and life. Community is watered down by convenience. Change is something you wait for rather than create. Choosing to live in a way that deviates from our deepest cultural habits places you on the margins.

I dive into Dewey one last time in hopes of emerging with a better sense of what it takes to be a community, a way out of these traps. For we as a people to begin the process of winning back a democracy, and thus a public, recognizable as our own—-whether that is in the case of schools, elections, labor unions, welfare, or community businesses—-it is mandatory we learn the ability to work in a communal manner.

“Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequence are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community.” [1]

Within this definition, we may see ourselves as a part of many communities, but must be careful to ask yourself to what extent these communities are born out of convenience or comfort. Further, would we be choosing to express ourselves in this manner without the draw of money. The harder challenge comes out of the second half of Dewey’s definition of community: finding and participating in a group activity that you energetically want sustained, rather than something that produces a malaise or is brazenly critiqued when your honest opinion is disclosed.

If we want to begin taking part in the process of changing anything, we must first learn how to act in unison toward worthy goals. The problem of democracy is as much a problem of a fractured public as it is one of corruption. Relating our context to the one Dewey was writing within, it’s worth mentioning that the quotes regarding community were written about 2 years before the start of The Great Depression. Now it appears that our challenge as citizens is to not become too distracted, delusional, or entrenched in the status quo to seek more effectual modes of cooperation. Enacting change is and always will be something done rather than thought or spoken, and, in order to budge a system as large as ours, we must learn to act in waves instead of droplets.


  1. Dewey, J. The Public and its Problems. Ohio: Swallow Press, pp 143-84 1927.
  2. Dewey, J. Problems of Men. New York: Philosophical Library, pp 34-45. 1946

Written on: Tue Sep 23, 2014