Reprinted from the Ocean Issue:


In Search of the Great Community:

John Dewey, Barack Obama, and the

Possibility of a Pragmatist Politics



At the conclusion of The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey looks forward to the transformation of American democracy. In the future, he claims, democratic deliberation should take the form of “a free experimental social inquiry” in which all political preconceptions are abandoned in favor of testable hypotheses. When deliberation takes the form of an experimental method, “those concepts, general principles, theories and dialectical developments that are indispensable to any systematic knowledge [will] be shaped and tested as tools of inquiry,” and “policies and proposals for social action [will] be treated as working hypothesis, not as programs to rigidly adhered to and executed” (202-3). This new pragmatic approach to democratic deliberation will replace the dogmatic politics of the past, a politics based on fixed and eternal principles. Dewey cites an example of dogmatic absolutism the “person who holds the doctrine of ‘individualism’ or ‘collectivism’” and thus “has his program determined for him in advance” (202). Once policies are viewed as testable hypotheses, such divisively dogmatic political opinions will no longer exist; they will have been replaced by debates about provisional strategies for achieving collectively agreed upon goals.

The audacity of Dewey’s ideas is, if anything, even more palpable today than it was in 1927, when the book was first published. In the section of the book mentioned above, he defers any final judgments on the programs of either Lenin or Mussolini in favor of a program of education that will in the course of a couple of generations accustom people to this new way of doing politics. Then and only then will democracy be able to shed its malaise and engage its most pressing problems. With only minor modifications, Dewey’s experimental method can be read as a précis of the ideas that have shaped Barack Obama’s much-discussed pragmatism. Obama entered office promising that he would overcome political partisanship by first identifying the self-evident problems faced by his electorate and then proposing practical, testable solutions to those problems. The measure of any political program would not be an abstract set of political principles but its practical efficacy and, even beyond that, the possibility of measuring that efficacy.

This much of Obama’s pragmatism is familiar and has done much to shape his image in the press. For his critics, this experimentalism masks either a technocrat’s willingness to defer to the rule of experts or, worse, a lack of values altogether, a value relativism that is designed to accommodate the shifting demands of political expediency. What these criticisms overlook, however, is that Obama’s pragmatism has a second dimension, one that it also shares with Dewey. Like his pragmatist predecessor, he believes that political experimentalism can work only when it is thoroughly incorporated in public dialogue, when it is an integral part of the process of public deliberation itself. In order for this to happen, Dewey and Obama agree, a new kind of public must emerge, a public that is both knowledgeable about the issues of public policy and inspired by their understanding that self-interest and the interests of the community are inextricably entwined. Dewey calls this new kind of public “the Great Community” and waxes rhapsodic about its potential to change American democracy. For him, it is both a moral ideal and a practical goal that can only be reached through a careful and thorough program of education. Obama describes this new public in terms that are reminiscent of Dewey’s Great Community, but he is less clear about the relationship between the ideal of the Great Community as a moral abstraction and the politics of the present, the politics with which he must contend. Dewey laments the fact that the Great Community does not exist and argues that its creation will take arduous public planning, while Obama, out of political necessity, speaks as if it somehow already exists in a kind of inchoate form that might at any moment be transformed into a viable political force.

The terms in which Dewey and Obama describe the new public that can enact their experimentalist program are so common in contemporary political discourse as to be nearly ubiquitous. What politician hasn’t at one time or another spoken of the need to overcome partisan differences in order to achieve a common good? What politician hasn’t at least paid lip service to the notion that the electorate must be well-educated, informed, and motivated to engage in even the most recondite policy decisions? Because such ideals are so commonly invoked and so infrequently put into practice, it is not surprising that this part of Obama’s program is systematically ignored or summarily dismissed as mere rhetoric. Yet, unless we credit Obama at least with the aspiration to create a Great Community in which his experimentalism might thrive, his pragmatist program can at best amount to little more than the kind of technocratic rule that his critics denounce. In what follows, I will use Dewey’s discussion of the Great Community to bring to light those parts of Obama’s program that are frequently overlooked. When these overlooked dimensions of Obama’s program are acknowledged, I think that it is clear that his true vulnerability as a politician may not be his endorsement of a soulless technocracy as some of his critics charge, but, rather, his commitment to a Deweyean ideal (if not idealism) that many would consider overly optimistic if not completely improbable. I will then conclude by discussing the obstacles, both practical and theoretical, that stand in the way of the kind of Great Community that Obama hopes to bring into being.




For Dewey, the social solidarity embodied in the Great Community has priority over both democratic norms and democratic procedures. Such solidarity is “necessarily precedent,” Dewey claims, “to any fundamental change in the machinery [of democracy]” (146), and without it, democratic principles, notions such as freedom and equality, amount to no more than empty slogans. This means that if the body politic is fractured, Dewey feels that institutional reforms such as voting rights and well-regulated election will not suffice to create a functional democracy, as important as these reforms might be. Nor will espousing the correct political doctrine. Prefatory to such things, Dewey insists, there must be a moment of communal self-recognition in which a democratic society experiences itself as a community with shared interests and responsibilities. This self-recognition is the inception of the Great Community. In Dewey’s words, in the Great Community an otherwise “scattered, mobile, and manifold public” is able to “so recognize itself as to define and express its interests” (146).

Fundamental to this moment of collective self-recognition is the reconciliation of the self-interest of individuals with the collective interests of the community as a whole. When a community is able truly to recognize itself and to act upon this recognition, Dewey optimistically insists, the conflict between self-interest and collective interest vanishes. From the standpoint of the individual in the Great Community, the democratic idea “consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of the members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common” (147). In this fusion of self-interest with the interests of the community, Dewey imagines the reconciliation of individualism and collectivism and the opposing right and left wing political doctrines that they inspire. True democracy is thus saved from Communism’s supposed indifference to the individual and capitalism’s selfish individualism. Furthermore, the solidarity of the Great Community eliminates the need for rigidly held political or ethical principles. Rather, such principles can be transformed into the flexibly held “tools of inquiry” mentioned above. Because the members of the Great Community are “naturally” committed to a common good, they respond spontaneously to society’s collective needs. In seeking the greater good of the community, they don’t need to follow rules or act from a sense of duty any more than they depend upon rules or principles when seeking their own individual self-interest. However, despite or perhaps because of the utopian flourish with which Dewey invokes the political satisfactions of the Great Community, he is careful to insist that this community is inaccessible in his contemporary world. Because it will take generations to create such an electorate, he expects the ideal of the Great Community to serve as a kind of beacon guiding us to our ultimate goal but at the same time reminding us of what is necessarily flawed about our political deliberations.

Obama, of course, cannot afford the luxury of placing his hopes in a utopian future. The Great Community that he requires must be developed on a much more modest time scale. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama uses both Dewey’s language and his argument to condemn the dogmatic “absolutism” of partisan politics and to invoke a new spirit of national solidarity that will allow us to rise above our political differences and our own narrow self-interests, but he writes as if the community that he needs in order to bring his plans to fruition already exists or will soon come into being. In his account of recent history, Republicans have thrived by formulating an absolutist ideology, an “absolutism of the free market, an ideology of no taxes, no regulation, no safety net” (37), and the Democrats have responded in kind by relying on wedge issues of their own. The result has been a polarized electorate that is incapable of moving beyond a self-promoting partisanship. It is the “scattered, mobile, and manifold public” that Dewey hopes his political program can transform. Obama’s solution to this polarization is a reprise of Dewey’s: “What’s needed is a broad majority of Americans—Democrats and Republicans, and independents of good will—who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interests as inextricably linked to the interests of others” (40). Obama identifies this community of like-minded citizens as a kind of silent majority: “They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting,” and they are “waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them” (42).

It is precisely upon this kind of community that the success of Obama’s policies depends, a community possessed of a common sense and a good will that places it above the partisan squabbles of Republicans and Democrats. As Obama emphasizes, the members of this community are able to “see their own self-interests as inextricably linked to the interests of others,” and as I have already mentioned, this kind of appeal to bipartisanship is a staple in American politics, and, on the face of it, there is no reason that the public should pay more attention to it here than to any of its other numerous manifestations. Yet, a pragmatist politics depends upon making good on this rhetoric in a way that other political doctrines do not. To put it somewhat schematically, the more a pragmatist like Obama plays down the ideological doctrines that motivate partisanship, the more he must play up the ideal qualities of democratic deliberation itself. Indeed, unless he idealizes democracy, unless he takes the need for a Great Community seriously, he has no way of distinguishing himself from the soulless technocrat with whom he is frequently confused and no way of distinguishing his flexible approach to problem solving from an opportunistic relativism. Dewey is unambiguous about insisting that the value of the democratic process far exceeds the value of any of the results of its deliberations. To the extent that Obama follows this same line of thought, he must demonstrate—and not just assert—the power and importance of the process that might allow us to rise above dogma and partisanship.

In Obama’s early days in office, he seemed to understand this, as was apparent from his attempts to promote bipartisan dialogue in a number of venues from White House policy deliberations to the town hall meetings that accompanied debates on the Healthcare Bill. The announced purpose of such public dialogues was to forge an agreement on the various provisions of the Bill itself, but it was of equal importance for the Obama administration to demonstrate the existence, or at least the possibility of the kind of nonpartisan Great Community that he had invoked during his campaign. It quickly became apparent, however, that Republicans, both in and out of office, saw no political advantage to participation in those dialogues, and rather than becoming showcases for a new civility, many of these public discussions became exhibitions of an extraordinary partisan rancor. So intense was the partisan rhetoric, especially on the Right, that one could not help suspecting that it was not the Healthcare Bill as much as the ideal of bipartisanship itself that was being judged and summarily rejected as a dangerous erosion of political principles. Indeed, some of the protesters even said as much.

It was, to put it mildly, ironic that the attempt to promote a dialogue that could rise above political ideologies should so dramatically demonstrate the deep divides between political camps, but, as might be expected, the collapse of this dialogue seemed to confirm people’s worst suspicions about Obama’s pragmatism itself. In the absence of any edifying public discussion, pragmatist governance was perceived to be little more than a kind of technocracy in which panels of experts deliberate on matters of public policy while remaining aloof from the political fray and, their critics say, out of touch with political opinion. This is reflected most dramatically in the continuing uproar over Obama’s appointment of policy “czars.” Although he reportedly has fewer such czars than the previous administration, he is often represented in the popular press as someone dedicated to replacing democratic deliberation with the rule of experts.

It is in just such terms that Obama is described by Jacob Bronsther in an editorial in The Christian Science Monitor, for instance. Bronsther distinguishes between two types of Pragmatists. The first he characterizes as a type of “expert rule.” Under this type of pragmatism, “the ethical questions of politics” become “scientific questions” to be decided upon by panels of scientific experts. Bronsther contrasts this expert rule pragmatism with a second type, the pragmatism of the bipartisanship which is forged by reasonable compromise. He thinks that Obama has mistakenly assumed that the first type of pragmatism will lead to the second, that expert testimony will lead to a bipartisan national consensus. This is wrong, Bronsther concludes, because the partisan divide that prevents the emergence of consensus is the product of moral and philosophical differences and, thus, can only be bridged with moral arguments, arguments that appeal to principles. If Obama and the Democrats are to succeed, he argues, “they need to unite their pragmatism rhetoric with real moral argument about the meaning of rights, freedom, and equality.” Interestingly, this kind of criticism is increasingly common even among those generally sympathetic to Obama’s cause. In a New York Times editorial entitled “Obama’s Trust Problem,” Paul Krugman complains that Obama “comes across, far too often, as a dry technocrat who talks of ‘bending the curve’ but has only recently begun to make a moral case for reform.” Furthermore, Krugman feels that the Democrats’ pursuit of bipartisanship has left them vulnerable to manipulation by Republicans and that Obama’s perceived weakness has cost him the support of his Democratic base.

As should be apparent, both Bronsther and Krugman underestimate the importance of the democratic idealism in Obama’s Pragmatist vision. As the inheritor of Dewey’s vision of a Great Community, Obama views consensus not just as a means of getting legislation passed but as an occasion for community to recognize itself, to see itself as greater than any of its particular accomplishments. Such collective moments of self-recognition provide the moral center of Obama’s political vision, the ethical substance that his critics look for in more conventional forms of ethical language. While Bronsther and Krugman see talk of bipartisanship as an evasion of ethical commitment, the Deweyean pragmatist might see it as ethics’ most authentic form. To recognize this as the heart of Obama’s ethical vision, however, is not to pass judgment on either its coherence or its viability, and not all of the difficulties that Obama faces can be attributed to his critics’ misunderstandings. These difficulties include both practical and theoretical challenges to Obama’s pragmatist position, challenges that must be overcome if he is to succeed.

One of the most serious practical obstacles that Obama faces is the gap between the idealized nonpartisan public that he invokes in his speeches and the more fractious public with which he must contend in reality. Even if he manages to cultivate the goodwill that he claims is latent in the majority of the electorate, he is faced with the difficulty of orchestrating a dialogue on some very complex issues. Indeed, the issues raised by public policy have only grown more recondite since the time that Dewey reckoned that it would take generations of education to produce a public fit for the task.

Various forms of expert rule are coming to seem more and more inevitable in a world beset by so many convolutions of crises, and the stupefying complexity of the crises in the economy, healthcare, international relations seems to place real limits on the role that public deliberation can play in their solution and perhaps even more severe limits on the motivation of the public to engage with the details of such policy decisions. In the absence of such detailed discussions of policy substance, it is not surprising that the public deliberations about these policy matters should rely so heavily on ideological generalities. Of course, all American politicians must confront the dilemma posed by our increasing reliance on expert rule, and this has been true for some time, but, ironically, this dilemma is more acute for the pragmatist Obama because it undermines the type of drama of public deliberation that he depends upon. The administration’s heavy reliance on technological expertise is not really Obama’s policy choice as much as it is a fact of life in contemporary government, but for this very reason he needs to be more aggressive in educating his electorate and modeling the kind of conversation that he hopes to promote. At moments in the healthcare debate, the public seemed to be confused not just about the details of the plan, but also about the more general shape of the issues under debate. Obama must play a leading role in shaping public discussion, even at the risk of being charged with the absolutism that he deplores. The more seriously that one takes Dewey’s claims about the Great Community, the more seriously one is compelled to take the elaborate educational program that he thinks might make it possible.

Another type of difficulty that Obama faces is both practical and theoretical. It has to do with understanding the roles that moral and political principles can and should play in orchestrating social interaction and organizing political activity. The very fact that both Obama’s supporters and his critics complain so vociferously about his lack of principles indicates that he has a practical, if not a theoretical, problem in articulating and promoting his pragmatist vision. By definition, our membership in the Great Community requires that we somehow think differently about our commitments to at least some forms of value, that we hold at least some of these commitments more loosely than would otherwise be the case, that we advocate them less dogmatically, and that we transform our advocacy for these specific values to a more general commitment to community itself. Yet, democratic political discourse as we know it is mostly about advocacy, and commitment to principles plays a central role in motivating this process. As Krugman and others have complained, any literal attempt to embrace a nonpartisan view for its own sake (or for the sake of an abstract notion of community), any attempt to rise above the political fray, risks the impotence of a kind of political quietism. In the present political world, at least, we seem to need principles to rally the troops and get things done.

A related theoretical concern questions the cogency of Dewey’s fundamental distinction between the process of deliberation and its ideational contents and, thus, between ideals that a community propounds and the ideals by which it understands itself. Stated most simply, the theoretical problem is that it is difficult to make an argument for the Great Community without appealing to the very value commitments that the pragmatist would claim need not be the prerequisites for joining the community in the first place. As their critics on the Right are aware, both Dewey’s and Obama’s versions of the Great Community presuppose many of the liberal or progressive values that underwrite the progressive partisan politics that they are supposedly rising above. In a recent article, John Holbo explores this paradoxical feature in Dewey’s political legacy and notes a further paradox: The dialogue that embodies the essence of democratic process is usually a quest for the kind of truth or certainty that the pragmatist would also put into question. In his example, Socratic dialogue provides a model of open-minded inquiry of the sort that pragmatists might prize, but it is, nonetheless, a quest for Platonic certainty (108). More fundamentally, it is difficult to imagine a Great Community that is formed only for the purpose of recognizing and celebrating itself as the Great Community. As Holbo points out, such cooperative communities are characteristically the byproducts of other types of endeavors (120). It is difficult to pursue them as direct goals.

The extent to which Obama is vulnerable to such theoretical objections to his pragmatist stance is not entirely clear, since, despite his determination to rise above partisan politics, he is careful to avoid committing himself to anything like value relativism. While he argues that we can take a pragmatist view of those values that produce partisan disagreements, that we can, as it were, hold them lightly, there are other values that he seems to regard as universal, values that he expects to be shared by any member of the community as a threshold of decency. In The Audacity of Hope, for instance, he affirms his commitment to several sets of moral principles such as “honesty, fairness, humility, and compassion,” principles that he sees as shared by the community at large and thus not likely to produce partisan strife (55). Furthermore, his Christian faith gives him access to values which presumably are not to be held lightly or subject to negotiation. In true minimalist fashion, however, Obama often describes these universal values in such a general way that their actual content will depend heavily on the context in which they are deployed. Fairness may be a universal value, but what constitutes fairness at any particular historical moment may be very much up for grabs. In this way, he is similar to those pragmatists who claim to find a middle way between moral universalism and moral contextualism.

In light of these criticisms, however, I think that Obama should recognize that his vision of a community that is able to rise above partisan politics is one type of moral ideal among others and must be defended as such. That is, paradoxically, he must make arguments, principled arguments, for what many see as his aversion to principle. Only by risking the utopian grandeur of Dewey’s language can he begin to defend himself from the charges that his willingness to “let the process work,” his willingness to wait for consensus, is only a political ploy or the sign of his mandarin indifference. At the same time, acknowledging the moral core of his commitment to community can free him to make other kinds of ethical arguments as well, even though those arguments are based on commitments that are “held lightly” in anticipation of the Great Community that is to come.
















Works Cited


Bronsthen, Jacob. “The Emptiness of Obama’s Pragmatism.” The Christian Science Monitor. May 26, 2009. p 3.


Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1954.


Holbo, John. “Dewey’s Difficult Recovery, Analytic Philosophy’s Attempted Turn.” Democracy as Culture: Deweyan Pragmatism in a Globalizing World. Eds. Sor-hoon Tan and John Whalen-Bridge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.


Krugman, Paul. “Obama’s Trust Problem.” The New York Times. August 20, 2009. p 2.


Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Random House, 2006.

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