John Dewey

There is a disconnect between our people and our politics, as Jon Walker points out after almost every national poll. People favor government policies that help people, like Social Security and Medicare; and want to stop wasting money on foreign entanglements, raise taxes on the richest Americans, and cut programs that the Defense Department says aren’t needed. The Congress, and particularly the Republicans aren’t listening to those majorities. Instead, they cut taxes on the rich, assault Social Security and Medicare, and buy unnecessary equipment for the military. It almost looks like the elites run things for their own benefit and use elections to provide a veneer of democracy.

… the depth of the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics. We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany — or some other state capital — under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or so — which is a somewhat extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing political duties.

That is from John Dewey’s brief essay Creative Democracy — The Task Before Us written in 1939 when he was 80. The Depression was not over, and war hung on the horizon. Dewey tells us that his life spanned the change in the US from a nation operating with massive untapped material space and resources, a frontier state, to a nation dependent on its citizens for intellectual and creative resources and energy. What Dewey saw in the Depression was the waste of those human resources. People who wanted to participate in the economy and in their society as equals were starving for a place to put their abilities to work.

Seventy years later we are back in the same place. We are wasting our human resources, wealth is highly concentrated, the demands of capital are prioritized over those of workers, and our ideal of democracy is once again the province of elections that provide only a veneer of democracy.

Dewey believed that his fellow citizens had the capacity to participate in democratic action:

For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self- corrective, except faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the common man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication?

In his excellent book, Dewey, A Beginner’s Guide, David Hildebrand discusses the mechanism by which people participate in government, which Dewey called a “public”. When confronted with a problem, people affected by the problem gather into a group along with others interested in the problem, and work up solutions which they propose to government at the appropriate level. If traffic is heavy in a neighborhood, threatening the safety of the kids, the neighbors gather to discuss traffic calming measures and take them to the city council. If financing schools is a problem, school principals, parents and finance people gather to work out solutions that make sense at the state level.

This conception evolved into interest groups such as environmentalists and the anti-choice groups, which fought out issues before the federal government. Over time, these groups lost their real independence to structures identified with political parties, and willingly herded themselves into the Veal Pen for whichever party they had associated themselves. The whole idea of a “public” independent of politics disappeared. Policy became a weapon of political warfare. In this environment, government is bound to fail. Rich people bought fake academics and formed groups that appear to be independent, but furnish dissembling lies in support of policies that will benefit the organizers, or carry out their pet projects.

Dewey’s big idea is that every human is capable of growth. That idea is basic to democracy. It’s hard to accept that in the face of the notoriety of the likes of Glenn Beck and Americans For Prosperity, and their influence over large segments of the population. It’s hard to accept the fact that many people are not at present willing to open their minds to alternative ideas about the future. It’s hard to see a way forward, a way to change anything within existing structures.

If we want to remain a democracy, we have to accept the principle, and work to bring it into reality.

A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other — a suppression which is none the less one of violence when it takes place by psychological means of ridicule, abuse, intimidation, instead of by overt imprisonment or in concentration camps.

I wrote earlier that reading Dewey is difficult. I was wrong.