The Task Before Us

In his last weeks as President of the United States, President Obama has been channeling some of the later work of John Dewey (1859 - 1952), American philosopher, educator and writer. A man whose writings have greatly influenced my thinking on democracy and the importance of public participation.

My copy of his book, The Public and its Problems, is highlighted and underlined and dog-eared but one of his most striking and relevant works and the piece that I believe Obama has been influenced by is entitled Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us, written in 1939 on the brink of the United States entering WWII.

He wrote about the need for the public to continue to recreate our democracy through deliberate and determined effort in an era of extremely complex conditions. Little did he know what we would be facing today. Dewey identifies one of the great challenges of our democracy is thinking that our democracy is something that perpetuates itself automatically, "as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics."

He warns that it is dangerous to think that as long as we are faithful in voting, performing that political duty, our democracy will maintain itself. Voting is not democracy. A sentiment that Obama has echoed in numerous recent speeches. Dewey maintains that we must see democracy as personal way of individual life.

Put into effect it signifies that powerful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its [democracy's] defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute personal character.

But what does it really mean, at its core, to treat our democracy as a way of life? Our democratic ideals and values can be encoded in statutes and laws but they don't mean anything unless, as Dewey states, "it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings display to one another in all incidents and relations of daily life." Dewey said,

To denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to fostering insincerity if, in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color or other class prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment. The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. The democratic belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one. It is universal. It is belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied.

This belief is the radical nature of democracy. Of course, in his time Dewey was accused of an undue, utopian faith in the capacity of people to make intelligent political and moral judgements. Dewey maintained this was not a faith that came to him without experience. He acquired it from his experiences with people over his lifetime. I know what Dewey means. If didn't ultimately believe what Dewey states about people, there is no way I could emotionally or intellectually continue to do the work I do.

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? I am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian states of the right and the left the view that faith in the capacities of intelligence is utopia. For the faith is so deeply embedded in the methods which are intrinsic to democracy that when a professed democrat denies the faith he convicts himself of treachery to his profession.

But, treating democracy as something that lives within us and not something that is external is a lot of work. It is easier to focus our hopes and fears, our anger and our elation on individuals because the alternative is scary. The alternative is to realize that our societal and political problems are complicated and intertwined and that the solutions require long-term multi-generational thinking and planning, cooperation and conflict, failures and successes that involve engaging the actual public, not the public we want or handpick, but the public that exists right now, today.

Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life. For everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life. Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred. These things destroy the essential condition of the democratic way of living even more effectually than open coercion which- as the example of totalitarian states proves-is effective only when it succeeds in breeding hate, suspicion, intolerance in the minds of individual human beings.

Here is the full un-edited essay. I highly recommend spending some time with it.

Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us

By John Dewey

Under present circumstances I cannot hope to conceal the fact that I have managed to exist eighty years. Mention of the fact may suggest to you a more important fact-namely, that events of the utmost significance for the destiny of this country have taken place during the past four-fifths of a century, a period that covers more than half of its national life in its present form. For obvious reasons I shall not attempt a summary of even the more important of these events. I refer here to them because of their bearing upon the issue to which this country committed it­self when the nation took shape-the creation of democracy, an issue which is now as urgent as it was a hundred and fifty years ago when the most experienced and wisest men of the country gathered to take stock of conditions and to create the political structure of a self-governing society.

For the net import of the changes that have taken place in these later years is that ways of life and institutions which were once the natural, almost the inevitable, product of fortunate condi­tions have now to be won by conscious and resolute effort. Not all the country was in a pioneer state eighty years ago. But it was still, save perhaps in a few large cities, so close to the pioneer stage of American life that the traditions of the pioneer, indeed of the frontier, were active agencies in forming the thoughts and shaping the beliefs of those who were born into its life. In imagi­nation at least the country was still having an open frontier, one of unused and unappropriated resources. It was a coun­try of physical opportunity and invitation. Even so, there was more than a marvelous conjunction of physical circumstances involved in bringing to birth this new nation. There was in ex­istence a group of men who were capable of readapting older institutions and ideas to meet the situations provided by new physical conditions-a group of men extraordinarily gifted in political inventiveness. At the present time, the frontier is moral, not physical. The pe­riod of free lands that seemed boundless in extent has vanished. Unused resources are now human rather than material. They are found in the waste of grown men and women who are without the chance to work, and in the young men and young women who find doors closed where there was once opportunity. The crisis that one hundred and fifty years ago called out social and political inventiveness is with us in a form which puts a heavier demand on human creativeness.

At all events this is what I mean when I say that we now have to re-create by deliberate and determined endeavor the kind of de­mocracy which in its origin one hundred and fifty years ago was largely the product of a fortunate combination of men and cir­cumstances. We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day. The present state of the world is more than a re­minder that we have now to put forth every energy of our own to prove worthy of our heritage. It is a challenge to do for the criti­cal and complex conditions of today what the men of an earlier day did for simpler conditions. If I emphasize that the task can be accomplished only by in­ventive effort and creative activity, it is in part because 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 so­which 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.

Of late years we have heard more and more frequently that this s not enough; that democracy is a way of life. This saying gets down to hard pan. But I am not sure that something of the exter­nality of the old idea does not cling to the new and better state­ment. In any case we can escape from this external way of think­ing only as we realize in thought and act that democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose· in all the relations of life. Instead of thinking of our own dispositions and habits as accom­modated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes. Democracy as a personal, an individual, way of life involves nothing fundamentally new. But when applied it puts a new prac­tical meaning in old ideas. Put into effect it signifies that power­ful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deep­seated as to constitute personal character.

Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature. Belief in the Common Man is a fa­miliar article in the democratic creed. That belief is without basis and significance save as it means faith in the potentialities of hu­man nature as that nature is exhibited in every human being irre­spective of race, color, sex, birth and family, of material or cul­tural wealth. This faith may be enacted in statutes, but it is only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings display to one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life. To denounce Naziism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to fostering insincerity if, in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our daily walk and con­versation, we are moved by racial, color or other class prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for provid­ing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfil­ment. The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his per· sonal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. The democratic belief in the principle of leadership is a generous one. It is universal. It is a belief in the capacity of every person to lead his own life free from coercion and imposition by others provided right conditions are supplied.

Democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgement and action if proper conditions are furnished. I have been accused more than once and from opposed quarters of an undue, utopian, faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence. At all events, I did not invent this faith. I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit. For wha tis the faith of democracy in the old of consolation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in the 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 teh free play of facts and ideas which are secured by effective guarantees of free inquiry, free assembly and free communication? I am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian states of the right and the left the view that fain in the capacities of intelligence is utopian. For the faith is so deeply embedded in the methods which are intrinsic to democracy that when a professed democrat denies teh faith he convicts himself treachery to his profession.

When I think of the conditions under which men and women are living in many foreign countries today, fear of espionage, with danger hanging over the meeting of friends for friendly conversation in private gatherings, I am inclined to believe that the heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gathering of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gatherings of friends in the living rooms of house and apartments to converse freely with one another. Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life. For everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life. Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion: by abuse􀀥, by fear and hatred. These things destroy the essential condit10n of the democratic way of living even more effectually than open coer­cion which-as the example of totalitarian states proves-is effective only when it succeeds in breeding hate, suspicion, intol­erance in the minds of individual human beings.

Finally, given the two conditions just mentioned, democracy as a way of life is controlled by personal faith in personal day by day working together with others. Democracy is the belief that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation-which may in­clude, as in sport, rivalry and competition-is itself a priceless addition to life.  To take as far as possible every conflict which arises-and they are bound to arise-out of the atmosphere and medium of force, of violence as a means of settlement into that of discussion and of intelligence is to treat those who disagree­, even profoundly-with us as those from whom we may learn and in so far, as friends. 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, m­stead of by overt imprisonment or in concentration camps. To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves cause of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one's own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life.

If  what has been said is charged with being a set of moral com- monplaces, my only reply is that that is just the point in saying them. For to get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external and to acquire the habit 􀁖f treating it as a way of personal life is to realize that democracy is a moral ideal and so far as it becomes a fact is a moral fact. It is to realize that democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a com­monplace of living.

Since my adult years have been given to the pursuit of philoso­phy, I shall ask your indulgence if in concluding I state briefly the democratic faith in the formal terms of a philosophic position. So stated, democracy is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness. Every other form of moral and social faith rests upon the idea that experience must be subjected at some point or other to some form of external control; to some "authority" alleged to exist outside the processes of experience. Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more im­portant than any special result attained, so that special results achieved are of ultimate value only as they are used to enrich and order the ongoing process. Since the process of experience is ca­pable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education. All ends and values that are cut off from the ongoing process become arrests, fixations. They strive to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experiences.

If one asks what is meant by experience in this connection my reply is that it is that free interaction of individual human beings with surrounding conditions, especially the human surround­ings, which develops and satisfies need and desire by increasing knowledge of things as they are. Knowledge of conditions as they are is the only solid ground for communication and sharing; all other communication means the subjection of some persons to the personal opinion of other persons. Need and desire-out of which grow purpose and direction of energy-go beyond what exists, and hence beyond knowledge, beyond science. They con­tinually open the way into the unexplored and unattained future. Democracy as compared with other ways of life is the sole way of living which believes wholeheartedly in the process of experi­ence as end and as means; as that which is capable of generating the science which is the sole dependable authority for the direc­tion of further experience and which releases emotions, needs and desires so as to call into being the things that have not existed in the past. For every way of life that fails in its democ­racy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the nteractions by which experience is steadied while it is also en­larged and enriched. The task of this release and enrichment is one that has to be carried on day by day. Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of de­mocracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.

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