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  • A Different Kind of Politics:John Dewey and the Meaning of Citizenship in the 21st Century
  • Harry C. Boyte

We need a wide-ranging debate about the question, "what does citizenship mean in the 21st century?" I am convinced that we need bold, savvy, and above all political citizens and civic institutions if we are to tame a technological, manipulative state, to transform an increasingly materialistic and competitive culture, and to address effectively the mounting practical challenges of a turbulent and interconnected world. Political citizens require, in turn, a politics that is based on the assumption of plurality, widely owned by citizens, and productive. Such a politics, drawing simultaneously on older conceptions of politics and also adapting politics to the rapidly changing contours of an information age, is different than the conventional, state-centered, distributive politics of left and right. The work of John Dewey, a pioneering theorist of knowledge and democracy, is useful as a takeoff point for thinking about citizenship and politics, both for its strengths and for its limits.

Dewey sought to extend the democratic project as America changed from a society of small towns and rural life to a technological, urban, professionalized nation. He made several major contributions that point toward a different view of citizenship and, implicitly, a different politics. Dewey had a deep respect for ordinary citizens that is sorely needed today among intellectual and professional groups. He advanced conceptions of situated inquiry and the social nature of knowledge that challenge contemporary academic detachment. He held a view of knowledge production as a democratic power resource that suggested a democracy of abundance, not of scarcity, different than zero-sum distributive power or the competitive, consumer culture. Here, he anticipates both the power dynamics of the information age and the need to break the stranglehold over our political imaginations produced by marketplace ways of thinking. Finally, Dewey had an understanding of education as a vital process of work and engagement, connecting students with the world, creating public spaces for democracy.

Dewey's views are by no means unproblematic. He acquiesced in understandings of civil society that removed it from "politics," if he did not invent them. As a result, his conceptions of citizenship, community, and democracy often have an abstracted and idealized quality. I will argue that to renew and extend Dewey's vision, we need politics.

Politics in 2002: The view from South Africa

Today, politics in America has become like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, disappearing until only a grimace [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] remains. As E.J. Dionne observed with prescience some years ago in Why Americans Hate Politics, people are willing to tolerate a great deal of unpleasantness in politics if they see politics as productive. But increasingly, politics has seen its productive side virtually collapse. Today's problems—whether corporate scandals or global warming or the growing numbers of Americans lacking health coverage or living in poverty—quickly become yesterday's forgotten headlines. In the 2002 election, the accusation of "being political" was hurled back and forth by both Democrats and Republicans.

The world looks different from South Africa where I spent last summer as a visiting scholar with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, a remarkable organization which played a key role in the struggle against apartheid and now has projects across the continent. South Africa proclaims politics from telephone poles. Banner newspaper headlines, used as ads, detail political developments like sports coverage in the US. South Africa reminds the visitor that politics at its best is not only productive and visionary. It can also be fun and full of life.

The trip also dramatized, as the anniversary of the attacks on September 11th drew near, how America's professions of innocence in the world are not innocent. They are products of careful political calculation backed up by the technologies and techniques of modern public relations and marketing. From South Africa, the neat parsing of humanity into an American-centered alliance of altruistic good guys versus an axis of terrorist evil seems unreal. Even conservatives in South Africa were alarmed by the Bush administration's war talk. President Thabo Mbeki, a moderate among Third...


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