Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Elastic, Agonistic Publics: John Dewey's Call for a Third Party

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Elastic, Agonistic Publics: John Dewey's Call for a Third Party

Article excerpt

In April, 1931, George Coleman of Lincoln, Nebraska, wrote a letter to the editor of the New Republic, responding to a series of articles written by John Dewey. Coleman wrote approvingly of Dewey's call for a new party to challenge the political orthodoxy in a time of great economic and social crisis. The letter concluded, "John Dewey bears watching. He is a clever politician as well as a great philosopher" (1931, p. 238). This essay reflects upon Coleman's statement by exploring the implications for public sphere studies of Dewey's series on the need for a third political party, published in the New Republic in March and April 1931.

By the early 1930s, Dewey had retired from his faculty position at Columbia. Though still heavily involved in academe, he also turned his attention squarely to more public concerns. Throughout his career but particularly beginning in the post-war years, Dewey had consistently and quite visibly engaged a range of political concerns on the dais and in print. In addition to publishing widely and holding top positions in political organizations such as the People's Lobby and the League for Independent Political Action (LIPA), he sat on the editorial boards of a number of journals of opinion that routinely published his writings. (1) Throughout the 1930s, Dewey continued and escalated a strategy of using the pages of left-leaning and progressive periodicals such as the New Republic, Common Sense, Social Frontier, and Survey Graphic to test out ideas, communicate to a broader audience; and advocate for a social liberalism that would protect - publics from the dangers posed by the encroachment of private industry in to political life. (2)

The goal of this essay is to demonstrate that attention to Dewey's public writings bears fruit for argumentation scholars in ways both pedagogical and conceptual. First--and no small matter to those of us who teach Dewey in our classes--Dewey's public writing is quite accessible when compared to the often convoluted features of his scholarly work. (3) Max Eastman recalled Dewey's notorious opacity fondly in an Atlantic Monthly profile of the man who had been his teacher: "He has published 36 books and 815 articles and pamphlets, but if he ever wrote one quotable sentence it has got permanently lost in the pile" (1941, p. 671). Indeed, for students reading Dewey for the first time (often, in my graduate seminars, starting with The Public and Its Problems), the barrier of Dewey's writing style can seem insurmountable. Although students are always quick to recognize the immense value of Dewey, they also experience a great deal of frustration in reading his prose. As a result, they sometimes miss critical moves v ital to understand if we wish to make Dewey relevant to the questions of public sphere studies. One way around this problem is, of course, simply to encourage students that the reward is worth the effort. Another is to engage Dewey's public writings.

Attention to Dewey's public writing is also warranted because, quite simply, Dewey wrote in public. Unfortunately, Dewey scholarship (both in the field of communication as well as outside of it) typically fails to make use of the material Dewey published in journalistic contexts, or does so only as this material has been anthologized in Dewey's massive collected works. (4) As a result, Dewey scholarship tends to privilege Dewey the "great philosopher" at the expense of seeing the full rhetoricality of Dewey as "clever politician." Attention to Dewey's public writing may thus function as a corrective to emphasis on Dewey's philosophical works and thus provide a fuller picture of Dewey's engagement with the political and social issues facing publics in his own time.

What exactly might that "fuller picture" reveal? In this essay I offer a brief but, I hope, illustrative set of observations about how Dewey's third party series gestures toward some of the concerns of public sphere studies. …

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