John Dewey on the struggle of democracy

‘The task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more human experience in which all share and to which all contribute.’ – John Dewey, The public and its problems (1927)

I was kindly invited to participate in a graduate seminar this morning at CU Denver School of Public Affairs, given as part of the work of the Center for Policy and Democracy, co-directed by Tanya Heikkila and Chris Weible.

Apart from the pleasure of attending an in person discussion, the seminar’s choice of theme – John Dewey’s political philosophy – pricked my conscience. Dewey was one of the influential voices about democratic governance who failed to make the cut in the final version of my book.

Dewey’s thinking still speaks to us today. As a founder of the American pragmatism school of philosophy, Dewey believed in the importance of our interaction with one another and with the world around us in providing an experiential, pragmatic basis for meaning and truth, rather than some abstract or taught concept of right or normal. Like civic republicanism, he saw democracy as something to be sustained through collective civic effort and its institutions as instruments which need to remain relevant to our changing understandings.

Above all, Dewey saw the need to sustain wide, interacting communities as the source of democratic life in the face of a complex industrialised society with its mass media, economic imperatives and ability to distort meaning or mask cause and effect. This led him to write extensively on education and the importance of developing critical thinking through experiential learning, rather than rote learning or custom and practice.

Dewey’s political writing links to civic republican ideas of the importance of institutional design and to the demands of deliberative democracy. He posits social constraints on ideas of individual freedom and of equality that echo ideas of non-domination. His approach mirrors theories which did make it into the book such as Habermas on ‘communicative action’ and Arendt’s ‘different others’. The frequent warnings about the risks of a lack of critical judgment, about isolated societal associations and imperfect access to information seem especially prescient for our age of social media.

From the perspective of sustainability, and in retrospect, Dewey’s pragmatism may be open to criticism for his focus on human to human interaction, and a lack of a wider ethical position than shared human benefit. Yet, Dewey adumbrates, in his view of democracy, a principal challenge of sustainable development. That is, how distant, complex, long-term and large-scale impacts make it more difficult for the public to see direct cause and effect in order to prompt or support change.

Ultimately, Dewey’s writing causes us to consider how democratic institutions might serve to create an ethos that supports critical and creative civic dialogue. This would be to go some way to achieving Dewey’s aim of a ‘Great Community’, rather than the present fragmentation, disconnection and the view of democracy and the public interest as asimply a war of competing individual interests.

CU Denver School of Public Affairs Center for Policy and Democracy (

Recommended reading from John Dewey:

The public and its problems (book, 1927)

Philosophy and civilization (essays, 1931)

Creative democracy: the task before us (article, 1937)

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