The coming election, amid the awful combination of a resurgent pandemic, a troubled democracy, and rapidly evolving social issues, have me turning to John Dewey for a refresher course on what democracy really means and what we need to do to save ours. Dewey is perhaps best-known today for his advocacy of the instrumentalist philosophy as it applies to education. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, he published several books that dealt with the nature of democracy and the role of individuals and groups in a democratic society.
There is a continuing tension in American life between the ideal of the individual free from social restrictions, on one hand, and the idea that individuals carry a responsibility to the community, on the other. The ongoing resentment about having to wear safety masks in the midst of the pandemic is one very good example. Not wanting to pay taxes to support the health care of other people is another. In The Public and its Problems (1927), Dewey attempted to better define the distinctions between the “individual” and the “public” in a democracy. We celebrate our individuality, but, in the end, our lives as individuals cannot be totally separated from our lives as members of a community. As Dewey says, “There is no sense in asking how individuals come to be associated. They exist and operate in association” (p. 23). He notes that “The state. . . has no concern of its own; its purpose is formal, like that of the leader of the orchestra who plays no instrument and makes no music, but who serves to keep other players who do produce music in unison with one another” (p. 4).
What about the public, then? The public, says Dewey,
“. . . arrives at decisions, makes terms and executes resolves only through the medium of individuals. They are officers; they represent a Public, but the Public acts only through them. We say in a country like our own that legislators and executives are elected by the public. The phrase might appear to indicate that the Public acts. But, after all, individual men and women exercise the franchise; the Public here is a collective name for a multitude of persons each voting as an anonymous unit. As a citizen-voter, each one of these persons is, however, an officer of the public. He expresses his will as a representative of the public interest as much so as does a senator or sheriff” (p. 75).
In 1939, as several European countries were turning their backs on democracy and in favor of totalitarian regimes, Dewey wrote a short book called Freedom and Culture. He noted that, “A totalitarian regime is committed to control of the whole life of all of its subjects by its hold over feelings, desires, emotions, as well as opinions. . . Thus it is that the very things that seem to us in democratic countries the most obnoxious features of the totalitarian state are the very things for which its advocates recommend it. They are the things for whose absence they denounce democratic countries” (p.16). He noted that, while some see this as the result of a “collective hallucination,” it is essential that citizens recognize this in order to escape the “collective delusion—that totalitarianism rests upon external coercion alone” (p. 17).
In Dewey’s vision, this represents the “moral factor” in social organization. While total allegiance is the bind that holds people together in a totalitarian society, Dewey notes that all societies have a moral factor; “. . . for a number of persons to form anything that can be called a community in its pregnant sense there must be values prized in common” (p. 17).
Dewey quotes Thomas Jefferson as saying, “Nothing is unchangeable but inherent and inalienable rights of man” (Freedom and Culture, p. 119) and goes on to discuss three points that flow from that statement:
· First, he emphasizes that, to Jefferson, “. . . it was the ends of democracy, the rights of man –not of men in the plural—which are unchangeable” (p. 120).
· Second, Dewey believed that the essence of Jefferson’s statement lies in the issue of states rights versus federal power, “. . . for while he stood for state action as a barrier against excessive power at Washington, and while on the practical side his concern with it was most direct, in his theoretical writings chief importance is attached to local self-governing units on something like the New England town-meeting plan” (p. 121). “There is,” Dewey wrote, “a difference between a society, in the sense of an association, and a community. . . Natural associations are conditions for the existence of a community, but a community leads the function of communication in which emotions and ideas are shared as well as joint undertakings engaged in” (p. 122). In a modern industrial society, “economic forces have immensely widened the scope of associational activities. But it has done so largely at the expense of the intimacy and directness of communal troupe interests and activities. . . The power of the rabble rouser, especially in the totalitarian direction, is mainly due to his power to create a factitious sense of direct union and communal solidarity—if only by arousing the emotion of common intolerance and hate” (p. 122). This breakdown of the community into radically opposed factions signals a move toward totalitarianism.
· Finally, Dewey noted, Jefferson held that property rights are created by the “social pact” rather than through inherent moral claims by individuals that government is morally obligated to maintain. “The right to pursue happiness stood with Jefferson for nothing less than the claim of every human being to choose his own career and to act upon his own choice and judgment free from restraints and constraints imposed by the arbitrary will of other human beings—whether these others are officials of government, of whom Jefferson was especially afraid, or are persons whose command of capital and control of the opportunities for engagement in useful work limits the ability of others to ‘pursue happiness’” (p. 123).
Today, we are experiencing our own form of collective hallucination as the Trump administration uses lies and misrepresentations to create the misperception that his regime will protect the white working class while it works to make the rich richer. Gone is any semblance that the federal government is concerned with the “rights of man” or the “public” as it was envisioned in the Constitution.
Dewey’s concerns about totalitarianism in the 1930s are good lessons as we watch the 2020 election unfold amid the social and economic disruption that is being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the daily abuses of the Trump administration. As Dewey concluded in Freedom and Culture:
If there is one conclusion to which human experience unmistakably points it is that democratic ends demand democratic methods for their realization . . . An American democracy can serve the world only as it demonstrates in the conduct of its own life the efficacy of plural, partial, and experimental methods in securing and maintaining an ever-increasing release of the powers of human nature, in service of a freedom which is operative and a cooperation which is voluntary (p. 133).
Dewey, John. (1927, 1957). The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Ohio University Press..
Dewey, John. (1989). Freedom and Culture. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Press.