John Dewey on Democracy: Part Two

More from Steven Simpson author of the new publication Rediscovering Dewey: A Reflection on Independent Thinking

In our last Friday Lesson post, Dewey’s democracy was compared to a town hall meeting. The key point of this metaphor was that Dewey believed individualism needed to be linked to a sense of community. Writing in the 1920’s, Dewey feared that the rugged individualism that had carved a nation out of the wilderness was no longer needed in an urban and industrialized society.

(from Simpson’s Rediscovering Dewey) Dewey’s solution to the problem was to update the definition of individualism – and in the process, refine the role of the individual in a democratic society. Dewey believed that the best way for democracy to thrive in an industrial world was to promote a communitarian form of individualism. Even though the old individualism no longer served democracy, the answer was not to do away with individualism altogether. Just the opposite. Individualism was an integral part of democracy. Independent thought followed by independent action was the driving force behind democracy, personal freedom, and self-reliance. There just needed to be a different kind of individualism from the one that had fueled the era of the pioneer. This new individualism would be “as significant for modern conditions as the old individualism at its best was for its day and place.”
In earlier times, individuals could more or less live apart from society, and a solitary life without societal obligations was a viable way to express self-reliance. Those days were now a thing of the past. New threats to democracy were too pervasive to not have all independent thinkers involved in the democratic process, and any notion about separating freedom and liberty from communal life had become, according to Dewey, just “a hopeless abstraction.” If people truly valued personal freedom, they needed to accept their civic responsibility and become an active part of their communities. Failure to do so left power in the hands of the few willing to grab it for themselves, which eventually would limit the personal freedoms of everyone. Active participation might mean running for local political office. It certainly meant personal involvement in community affairs. As romantic a notion as the self-sufficient loner is, cooperation and fraternity had become “as much a part of the democratic ideal as… personal initiative.”

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