Image credit: Radu Bercan / Shutterstock
This panel discussion was presented at the New School forum “American Democracy in Crisis: Perspectives from Tocqueville, Douglass, Wells, Dewey, and Arendt” on October 13, 2022. This transcript, edited for clarity and length, features remarks by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, Juliet Hooker, Deva Woodly, James Miller, and moderator William Milberg, as well as questions from the audience.
William Milberg: We have a little time left for a quick round of comments from the table, if you have anything you want to add in response to what you heard from the others.
James Miller: Deva, I think that Dewey’s hopes for “social intelligence” are in big trouble, given of the current reign of social media, the Internet, and the very sophisticated manipulation of public opinion by professional psychologists and market researchers. And I don’t think that John Dewey ever came close to meeting the challenge of fostering an informed public opinion. He knew it was a problem, but he could never answer Walter Lippmann. So, I can’t share your hope on that score. In fact, the current state of our “social intelligence” fills me with despair.
Deva Woodly: I think Dewey did answer Lippmann. So, I think I’ll present the same kind of answer to you. It’s true that the Internet can be a swamp filled with misinformation that’s detrimental to the capacity for social intelligence. It’s also true that it’s the greatest index of human knowledge that has ever existed. What matters is how people use it, not what it is. It’s just a tool, like the printing press. You can print stuff that’s lies that widely circulates or you can print things that stimulate people to interact with the empirical, the material world in different ways. In any case, for me, pessimism is not a politics, so I am not interested in it. I want to live. And so what does it mean for us to develop a politics where we can live and thrive? Some of that will be violent and disruptive. I certainly agree with you there. I mean, I must agree with you there. That’s empirically true. But in the end, I think that what we have to be concerned with as a human population is: How do we live and thrive? And if that is not our chief concern, then we will perish.
Jeffrey Goldfarb: I actually want to argue that Tocqueville’s approach to democratic culture is in some ways an anticipation of Dewey’s idea of social intelligence. But that may be because my reading of Tocqueville is influenced by Dewey. I’m also not convinced that Lippmann won the debate with Dewey. As I mentioned earlier, I’m working with students at the American University of Afghanistan. Some are in Afghanistan, and some are up the Hudson at Bard College. And we’re having real classes, with real conversations. And that tells us something about the potential of our new media. And then I want to say something about Jim. I think he conflates social movements and violence. Yet, I think often there are social movements that are predicated on nonviolence, not necessarily because of some moral position, but because of some realistic, pragmatic calculation. They know who has the guns. And the way they are going to achieve their ends is actually through nonviolent means. And I think this is actually the distinction between contemporary movements on the Left and the Right. So on the Right, there’s much more acceptance, celebration of using the guns than there is on the Left. And I think we’re suffering as a consequence.
Juliet Hooker: I just have a few comments. One is that I actually cut a piece of my talk that was going to be about Douglass as law-breaker, in that there are moments in Douglass where he talks about us having an obligation to resist unjust laws. And that, I think, is in line with Jim’s arguments. But I also think that we also need to think about moments such as the January 6 insurrection not just as a kind of expression of democracy but also as a moment when there was a collective refusal to actually engage in a key democratic civic capacity, which is to accept loss. If you legitimately lose an election, you’re supposed to accept, and if you don’t, you can’t really have a democracy, because your own side is not always going to win.
Milberg: That’s a good point on which to turn to the audience for questions or comments.
Audience member: This question is mainly for Professor Woodly, who was saying about we are entitled to imagine new forms of organization, different from what people in the eighteenth century could imagine. It seems now that we’ve come to a time I’d say where liberal democracy is very, very troubled. And now we’re seeing new political discourses, we see what’s going on in Brazil, we see what’s going on in Italy, and we’re seeing how liberal democracy is under challenge, and becoming more and more in crisis. Of course, I’m not expecting a full answer here, but what do you think are some possible new scenarios of how we can reimagine new forms of democracy, and new forms of governance?
Woodly: Well, as it so happens, I’ve recently been in conversation with lots of people about this. I think that I’m interested in “abolition democracy,” as Juliet knows, as an alternative to liberal democracy. If we think about the way that liberalism anchors democracy, it largely relies on rights and institutional design. Just as a descriptive matter, it’s the case that the institutions that have been designed and the regime of rights that has been conceived, including the regime of human rights that has been conceived, is not up to the challenge of delivering well-being to the majority of people in the world most of the time. So just simply on those grounds, people have gone looking for new forms of governance. Some people have looked and said, “Hey fascism, that’s one option.” But people are also interested in new forms of democracy that are more like the sort of multiracial democracy that Douglass talked about, but also new forms of democracy that avoid the carceral and security regimes that have also characterized liberalism. And we see examples of this in, for example, Colombia and places where they’re rewriting their constitutions, such as in Chile. So we are seeing pushes in all directions. It’s not the case that we already know where the balance of power will lead but it is certainly the case that everything’s up for grabs. And I think that we need to take the notion of the evolution of democracy quite seriously because it is grounded in responsive relations of care. And I think that is what people are searching for in the end.
Audience member: One concept I didn’t hear anybody discussing here today is civic virtue. If you’re going to have an explosion of democracy with people who are crazed by the internet and misinformed by other sources, it’s going to be a disaster. So my question to you is, do you have any thoughts about how we can inculcate some other form of civic virtue, so people will listen to one another or work with one another? Because I don’t see much of that today.
Miller: A standard answer going back to John Stuart Mill is that participation will become a great school of civic virtue and that it will unleash social intelligence of the sort that Deva has been talking about. It’s interesting to me that there’s not a whole lot of empirical studies that show that participation has such enlightening effects. And in fact some studies have shown how consensus-seeking radical democratic organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society, during their most radical phase of seeking consensus in the late 1960s, actually increase polarization and paradoxically empower extremists. And one of the great challenges for radical democrats who are trying to avoid the pitfalls the New Left faced—which, after all, slid into terrorism and became quite ineffective—is to find a way to empower ordinary people and allow them to see and imagine alternative futures in their everyday life without having a kind of fetishization of consensus that ends up with what was not intended at all, which is the creation of an unaccountable leadership that claims to be democratically pure. This is a complex institutional problem that Deva has worked on in her most recent book, and she can talk about it more, as there is a lot of disagreement among empirical social scientists and historians about what actually happens in these movements.
Woodly: So it’s true that political participation can increase polarization, although it also can have these civically virtuous effects. So that’s a mixed bag kind of empirically, but that’s when we are looking at political action. Civic action and participation actually does produce many good effects: when people are working together to do things that may not be directly political, it improves trust and social capital. For example, during the pandemic we saw an explosion of, for example, mutual aid networks of people who were doing things with community gardens, and people who began to offer free services, just because they had the time. One thing we haven’t mentioned much is that one of the things that steals civic time from us is the political economy that we’re under, right? Which demands waged labor from us all the time so that we don’t have as much time for civic action. And that was one of the things, for example, in the 2020 uprisings that was so key: we actually had a pause in our political economy, so that people could pay attention and do civic and political things. And one of the things that they did were pour into the street for protests. These were many of the same people who were setting up mutual aid networks and the friendly fridges that popped up and the community gardens that were distributing free food to their local neighborhoods. And it’s partly because people had time to do something other than work for a wage. So that’s something to consider.
Goldfarb: I would like to highlight the implications of what Deva just said and use it to critically evaluate something else concerning liberal democracy. As someone who worked in the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, and as someone who’s now working with people in Afghanistan, I’m just not so ready to discard the idea of liberal democratic institutions. But on the other hand, I think that we must not think that these political institutions kind of solve all problems or that they’re flawless, that we have to actually understand that they need to be knitted into social life. And our imaginations about the future I think should have some fundamental agreement about basic democratic representative institutions, liberal rights, and so forth, but that it needs to be empowered by social movements. And I think that social movements, echoing what Deva said, need social capital, if people are to act in the ways that Tocqueville recommended.
Milberg: Before we conclude, I wanted to ask one small question about enfranchisement and the ballot. Juliet, you mentioned this in response to Jim—and I wonder whether the kind of voter suppression we’re seeing today represents to you the crisis, perhaps the most visible aspect of the crisis of democracy.
Hooker: I absolutely think that the continued attempts to suppress the vote of racial minorities—and the casting of such votes as illegitimate, and of democratic victories as inherently illegitimate because they’re based on a multiracial coalition—is a serious problem. But I also think that this has been an ongoing crisis. It is not new. Yet instead of listening to the canary in the coal mine, the media gives us these feel-good news stories about heroic Black voters, such as an 80-year-old woman who stood in line for six hours in order to vote. That’s not a sign that democracy is working! That’s a sign that democracy is in disrepair.
For more perspectives on American democracy in crisis, see Jeffrey C. Goldfarb on Alexis de Tocqueville and a new tyranny of the minority, Juliet Hooker on Frederick Douglass’s vision of multiracial nationhood, Deva Woodly on John Dewey’s social intelligence, and James Miller on Hannah Arendt and our unfinished, unstable project.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School. He is the founder of Public Seminar.
Juliet Hooker is Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science at Brown University.
William Milberg is Dean of The New School for Social Research.
James Miller is Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics, and Faculty Director of Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism at The New School. He is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar.
Deva Woodly is Associate Professor of Politics at The New School.