The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism

The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism

The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism

The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism


Pragmatism and its consequences are central issues in American politics today, yet scholars rarely examine in detail the relationship between pragmatism and politics. In The Priority of Democracy, Jack Knight and James Johnson systematically explore the subject and make a strong case for adopting a pragmatist approach to democratic politics--and for giving priority to democracy in the process of selecting and reforming political institutions.

What is the primary value of democracy? When should we make decisions democratically and when should we rely on markets? And when should we accept the decisions of unelected officials, such as judges or bureaucrats? Knight and Johnson explore how a commitment to pragmatism should affect our answers to such important questions. They conclude that democracy is a good way of determining how these kinds of decisions should be made--even if what the democratic process determines is that not all decisions should be made democratically. So, for example, the democratically elected U. S. Congress may legitimately remove monetary policy from democratic decision-making by putting it under the control of the Federal Reserve.

Knight and Johnson argue that pragmatism offers an original and compelling justification of democracy in terms of the unique contributions democratic institutions can make to processes of institutional choice. This focus highlights the important role that democracy plays, not in achieving consensus or commonality, but rather in addressing conflicts. Indeed, Knight and Johnson suggest that democratic politics is perhaps best seen less as a way of reaching consensus or agreement than as a way of structuring the terms of persistent disagreement.


In 1927 John Dewey published The Public and Its Problems in which he complained: “Optimism about democracy is to-day under a cloud.” This dispirited view, in large part, reflected widespread doubt—doubt Dewey himself did not share—about the capacity of regular men and women to act as democratic citizens. In part, skepticism about democracy reflected general concern for large-scale demographic, technological, and economic change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The despair also had several more proximate causes: a credulous American public (Dewey included) had been persuaded to support a brutal war aimed putatively at securing democracy abroad; the same public endeavored to constitutionalize moral strictures, giving rise to the protracted, ultimately insuperable, tasks of legal monitoring and enforcement that accompanied prohibition; and the same public displayed widespread skepticism—animated to a large extent by religious fundamentalism—not just about this or that scientific finding but about the enterprise of science itself and how it was taught in the public schools. In the face of wartime propaganda, prohibition, and fundamentalist creationism, critics of democracy no doubt felt well warranted in their skepticism.

One might well say that in very broad strokes, the American political landscape has not changed terribly much in the intervening eight decades. Like Dewey, we confront ongoing, poorly justified military adventures overseas; economic dislocation and rapid technological change; extreme and growing disparities of wealth and income; judicially sanctioned infiltration of those financial resources into politics; and a poorly informed, credulous electorate confronting complex, large-scale, entrenched social, economic, and environmental problems. Like Dewey, we have witnessed the effectiveness of wartime propaganda, the persistence of moralism in politics with its devastating consequences, and a widespread skepticism about science and its findings. There is little in all that to inspire political optimism. Yet, like The Public and Its Problems, this book is a defense of democratic politics. Indeed it is, we think, a robust defense of democracy. While Dewey regularly proclaimed his “faith” in democracy, we do not embrace that term. It is not that we lack faith in the capacity of regular people to engage in self-government. But we recognize that in order to effectively exercise their capacity, ordinary men and women must be able to rely on the existence of certain material and institutional conditions. In that, too, we take up and extend Dewey's pragmatist commitment to . . .

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