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From Deliberation to Participation: John Dewey's Challenge to Contemporary Democratic Theory

  • Author(s): Jackson, Jeffrey Charles
  • Advisor(s): Dienstag, Joshua
  • et al.

This dissertation uses John Dewey's democratic theory to lead contemporary democratic thought away from the principles endorsed by deliberative democracy. I argue against the widely-accepted view that Dewey should be classified as a forefather of deliberative democracy, and I show instead that Dewey's theory effectively exposes shortcomings in deliberative theory. Dewey associates democracy with the possibilities for individuals to participate in the governing of their lives, and he highlights how these possibilities are affected no less by social and economic inequality than by political institutions, and how political institutions themselves cannot be isolated from the effects of social and economic inequality. On Dewey's terms, then, democracy involves a continuous process of overcoming interrelated social and political obstacles to individual self-government, rather than the achievement of a particular kind of deliberation within political forums. Deliberative theorists, by contrast, must isolate the political and social realms when they indicate that deliberative reason-giving in political forums will neutralize the effects of unequal social status. Dewey's theory in fact illustrates the need for democracy itself to evolve in its methods for achieving self-government, rather than being solely equated with deliberative reason-giving. Dewey shows us that, under conditions of structural social inequality, the practice of deliberation may produce undemocratic effects, and that non-deliberative practices such as broad-based social movements may be necessary to overcome such inequality. Dewey's position also would make the process of overcoming social inequality into a central aim of democratic theory. Some deliberative theorists do note (as an addendum to their focus on deliberation) that such inequality must be reduced, but they fail to explain how such a requirement could be attained through the deliberative practices they describe. Finally, Dewey can also demonstrate the potential value of "participatory democracy" (now widely assumed to be incorporated by deliberative democracy) to contemporary democratic thought. Participatory theory primarily advocates the democratization of both political and non-political authority structures, and Dewey's focus on continuously overcoming interrelated political and social obstacles to individual self-government can cogently illustrate the insights of participatory theory which are independent of deliberative theory.

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