Sunday, April 29, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education IX: Deliberation vs. Participation

[To read the entire series, go here.]

Progressive education scholars are, on the whole, the children of the Deweyan progressives of the turn of the century. I say Deweyan, but Dewey is central mostly to educators. A wide range of other key intellectuals, including Jane Addams, Richard Ely, Henry Lloyd, Walter Raushenbusch, and others in a broad assortment of religious, social, and political organizations held common cause with Dewey on many issues.

Recent scholarship on the progressives, especially Stromquist’s Reinventing ‘The People’ and McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent, have chronicled the ways in which the progressive movement was, in large part, a response to the class conflict that raged during the end of the 19th Century in America. Progressives, these and other works argue, developed a vision of a democratic society that, they hoped, would overcome these class divisions. They imagined and fought for a democratic nation in which everyone would work together for the common good.

With McGerr and Stromquist and others, I have argued that this is a vision that could make sense only to those with extensive privelige. One does not need to be a doctrinaire Marxist to understand that people without power cannot hope to have an equal dialogue with others who have more power unless they can find some way to be treated as equal. Unless they have some way of exerting their own forms of power, they are doomed in such circumstances.

Community organizers understand this fact of power. This is why community organizing is centrally, if not only, about finding ways to generate power for those who don’t currently have it.

The hope, visible in much of Dewey’s work, was that if people could just be induced to sit down together, they would find common cause. They would discover that they could accomplish more together than they would apart.

Recent work on discursive democracy has thrown cold water on this dream.

On a theoretical level, Mark E. Warren, in Democracy and Association, shows that there is a tension between dialogue across diversity and the ability to freely leave a particular association. He uses the classic distinction between “voice” and “exit.” What he shows is that where an option for exit is freely available, people will generally tend to leave an organization if it doesn’t fit with their current beliefs. It is only in those groups where exit carries a real cost, like unions, where people are likely to stick around to deal with the difficulties that come with real disagreement. In other words, Warren argues that by their very nature free associations are most likely to generate groups of like-minded individuals. A diverse democratic dialogue, in his vision, is unlikely to emerge “naturally” in an open civil society.

In Hearing the Other Side, Diana Mutz, to her surprise, found something similar to what Warren said would happen when she conducted empirical work on deliberation in organizations. In somewhat different terms than Warren, Mutz argues that deliberation and political participation are opposing forces in organizations. Organizations that can tolerate diversity, that can tolerate dialogue across difference are unlikely to be those that can also engage in political struggle. Conversely, those organizations with the capacity to engage in political struggle are likely to be those that are most lacking in internal diversity of opinion. She refers to this as the tension between “deliberative and participatory democracy.”

From a theoretical and an empirical standpoint, then, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to create a society where we are all able to both talk and act together across difference. The point, of course, is not that dialogue across difference is not extremely valuable. I would point readers, for example, to the wonderful work done by the Study Circles Resource Center, which has developed a powerful strategy for encouraging such dialogic spaces. What Warren and Mutz show, however, is that while strategies like this may inform cross group understanding, real collaboration is likely to be accomplished on a practical level only when different groups come to the table as partisans for their points of view, backed by some kind of organizational power.

To some extent this maps onto visions of public and private developed by neo-Alinsky organizers. In “private” we can talk and get to know each other. The private is a space, in these terms, for dialogue between whole individuals. In “public” we take on our roles as partisans for particular causes. Whereas the private can be made a space of relative safety, the public is an unsafe space where the real interests of different groups come into conflict. And organizers argue that we cannot expect the public and the private to serve the same goals.

Like all simple distinctions, this one is too simple to describe the vast complexity of social and political life. But I believe it is illuminating, and that it fits what we are learning about how associations and political engagement actually work “on the ground.”

And it seems to indicate that the progressive dream of a world without class conflict (which could be expanded to include any conflict over inequalities of power) is simply unachievable. When we teach students that this world is possible, I think we mislead them about the realities of the world around them. We disempower them, by filling their heads with utopian visions that may seem quite comforting but that have little relationship to reality. As Dewey also argued, dreaming is wonderful, but dreams without concrete tools for making them into reality can be very destructive if indulged too long.

For a more detailed discussion of the relationships between social class and strategies of social action, see this paper.

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