Dewey and the current toward democracy

Nevertheless, the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms. That government exists to serve its community, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless the community itself shares in selecting its governors and determining their policies, are a deposit of fact left, as far as we can see, permanently in the wake of doctrines and forms, however transitory the latter. They are not the whole of the democratic idea, but they express it in its political phase. Belief in this political aspect … marks a well-attested conclusion from historic facts.

— John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, chapter v

This passage connects at least three ideas: 1) a principle: government exists to serve its community; 2) a mechanism: public selection of office-holders; and 3) a factual generalization about history: it is moving toward democracy.

The usual way to connect these would be to say that people have discovered or created the moral principle of equal political power. To make this principle influential in the world, they have invented and advocated certain “doctrines and forms,” such as regular elections. As a result of their efforts, some communities are now governed by means of these mechanisms. We can use the democratic principle to the assess the actual governments of the world and will conclude that some regimes serve their communities, while others do not.

Dewey puts the elements together in a different way. He detects an underlying current, a tide in the affairs of humankind, that throws up both concrete procedures (such as regular elections) and ideals consistent with those procedures. The importance of the procedures and ideals is a fact that we can observe in the world around us. The deeper explanation is some kind of natural process of human development. I think it has a basically Hegelian form: We homo sapiens naturally associate. Because we have language, we can reflect on the forms that our association takes. Because we have huge potential, we strive to reform our associations so that they give us more scope for creativity and flourishing. Our striving makes the current flow steadily toward democratic forms.

Dewey does not want to separate ideals [“mystic faith”] from facts; and, above all, he does not want to attribute causal power to ideas.

[We] must protest against the assumption that the [democratic] idea itself has produced the the governmental practices which obtain in democratic states: General suffrage, elected representatives, majority rule, and so on. … The forms to which we are accustomed in democratic governments represent the cumulative effect of a multitude of events, unpremeditated as far as political effects were concerned and having unpredictable consequences.

Problems with this method:

1. The current is hardly steady. Indeed, when Dewey wrote these passages, most of the world was under colonial domination; and soon thereafter, most of the colonial powers fell under evil tyrannies. Why should we be confident that the current will generally or ultimately flow in a democratic direction?

2. Many ideals are facts, in the sense that they motivate and inspire human beings. That is true not only of democracy and freedom but also of nationalism, greed, and religious fanaticism. We could substitute nationalism for democracy in Dewey’s argument (above) and conclude: “That government exists to lift its own people over all the other peoples of the world, and that this purpose cannot be achieved unless a government builds a powerful and aggressive military, are a deposit of fact.  …” We must be able to use independent reason or judgment to conclude that democratic ideals are desirable, or else they are just some of the ideals that exist in the world.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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