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  • Radical Democracy and Sacred Values:John Dewey's Ethical Democracy, Sheldon Wolin's Fugitive Democracy and Politics of Tending, and Cornel West's Revolutionary Christianity
  • Aaron Stauffer (bio)

I. Roots in Deweyan Ethical Democracy

John Dewey envisioned the "American experiment" of democracy as a moral and ethical ideal, lived out in personal habits and "in our daily walk and conversation."1 More than mere external political forms or institutional arrangements, Deweyan democracy is a "personal way of life."2 Democratic political organizing is typically captured in campaigns focused on single issues, but broad-based community organizing (BBCO) is more closely aligned to Deweyan radical democracy as an ethical way of life. This kind of organizing is "relational organizing" that, as Mark Warren says, brings people "together first to discuss the needs of their community and to find a common ground for action."3 BBCO is first and foremost about organizing relationships around values to create relational power. The value-laden relationships are enacted through a political culture consisting of radically democratic social practices.

This essay will turn to how various publics habituate individuals in radically democratic social practices and what political conditions are required for individuals and groups to engage in an ethical way of life free of domination and arbitrary influence. I have a particular interest in showing how the political culture of Deweyan ethical democracy is lived out in BBCO and that it not be prejudiced against sacred values commonly held dear by religious political participants. Sacred values are an important part of the political cultures of groups embattled in some of the most urgent political fights of our day. To make this case I turn first to Dewey's thought on democracy. But there are particular problematics that exist in Dewey's thinking of the political, namely [End Page 72] with regard to stark challenges in our time regarding the role of power in democracy and the dangers white supremacy poses for radical democracy. Sheldon Wolin's democratic theory might be one potential source to address these problematics, but his notions of democratic fugitivity and his politics of tending ultimately fall short, too. My reading of Cornel West's work helps to address these shortcomings in Dewey and Wolin and in so doing come to terms with the way everyday patient work of BBCO recasts Dewey's and Wolin's theories of radical democracy. Bringing BBCO together with Dewey, Wolin, and West generates a unique theory of radical democracy that is capacious enough for political struggles involving sacred values and honest enough about white supremacy and power in democratic life.

Democratic Individuality, Sacred Value, and Political Culture

To be radical, democracy must start at the root of our associational life, asking questions about the kind of persons and power formed within groups. This ethical conception of democracy places a premium on democratic individuality and each individual's potential to political participation.4 Democracy as merely about institutional arrangements or states of affairs is too "external" for Dewey. Democratic societies arise from personal "ways of life" and "habits."5 To say that democracy is "social" and "ethical" means that democracy exists as a form of government and in its institutions only insofar as it exists in the "dispositions and habits" of its individual members.6

Democratic individuality requires individuals take responsibility for freely taken choices that are possible only in association with others.7 Dewey is concerned about cultivating a democratic society grounded in self-reliant individuality.8 The heart of the ethics of democracy is democratic individuality: a form of association that consists in "having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activity of the group to which one belongs and in [End Page 73] participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain."9 My sense of democratic individuality is built off of work done by Dewey, Wolin, and West, and my own contribution to this conversation will develop slowly throughout this paper as I correct and affirm aspects of radical democracy in Dewey, Wolin, and West. A recent volume on democratic individuality and William James by Stephen Bush is another noteworthy version of what I mean to call attention...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2156-4795
Print ISSN
0194-3448
Pages
pp. 72-92
Launched on MUSE
2022-04-15
Open Access
No
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