A more perfect union (democratic public)

This week, we move from the famous emergence of Populism in rural America during the 1880s and 1890s to a relatively unknown story of urban America in the early 1900s.  If the People’s Party effort failed (in the short-term, at least), other forms of democracy making persisted.  The author is especially interested in the ongoing effort to encourage a democratic public during that period.

What, according to Mattson, is a democratic public?

A democratic public is a work in progress. It “should be a goal in and of itself” (pg.8), and while it will not solve our problems, it “provides people with the opportunity to act democratically” (pg.12). A democratic public continually educates itself, involves participatory citizenship. Without a democratic public “political reform lost its meaning” (pg.36), because there was no deliberation and therefore no long lasting change. A democratic public “was not only politically necessary, but also a source of leading a good life since it could be exciting and encouraged commitment and concern for a common good that went beyond one’s individual self” (pg.38) A democratic public provides a type of intellectualism dedicated to truth and criticism “that could develop only out of collective deliberation”(pg.45)

How did Progressive-era reformers try to cultivate and create a democratic public?

In several different attempts and exercises, reformers of the Progressive-era intended to institutionalize the idea of a democratic public. Starting with the city beautification projects, activists envisioned a city to become a place of public works and art, with the idea being that if everyone was able to appreciate the work the public would become “imbued with civic pride”(pg.17) and “encourage interaction among different people and generate a democratic public.”(pg.18)

Next was the university extension programs aimed at educating the public. A democratic public is one that “relied on much more than commercial entertainment”(pg.27) and “depended on skills like concentration and development through continuous education”(pg.28) In these extension programs, the lecturer faced a different audience – not one of educated academics well versed in the subject matter to be presented, but was required to strike a “balance between sympathy with and criticism of the public”(pg.28)

Next were the forums and tent meetings assembled by Frederic Howe, based on the idea that democracy required the “decentralization of power” (pg.35) and a tent could be deployed anywhere. This also linked Howe’s faith in home rule to a democratic public, where “self-government and decentralization went hand in hand”(pg.35)

The creation of social centers was the last attempt before World War I at creating a democratic public discussed in the book. A social center was intended to give the public even freer range at deliberation of political issues because the people “decided what was to be debated and who was to do the debating.”(pg.52) They provided a venue for political candidates to hear about issues outside of special interest groups “thus creating an institutional basis for the Progressive Era challenge to political corruption”(pg.57)

According to Mattson, why did these efforts matter?

The American political system suffers from and is open to, corruption. Reducing political corruption requires a democratic public and all that a democratic public requires. These efforts were the foundation that we can build upon to make a democratic public in modern times. A more engaged and involved democratic public is the only path to “true democracy”.

Finally, how do Mattson’s assertions relate to other readings we’ve done?

When Mattson upholds Zueblin’s understanding  that “a (democratic) public relied on much more than commercial entertainment” he is referring to the same forces that Lasch mentions on page 96 in”The revolt of the Elites” when he writes ” Material abundance weakened the economic as well as the moral foundations of the “well-ordered family state” admired by nineteenth-century liberals” On page 132, Mattson mentions Harry Boyte and how he has argued for a “stronger conception of democracy that grows out of the efforts of these community organizers” when speaking about the efforts of the IAF and how they have grown from the roots of the social centers endorsed by John Dewey and his book “The Public and it’s problems”.  Boyte’s book “Free Spaces” definitely makes a nod to the early activists for social centers in that the title of Boyte’s book might actually be “Social Centers”. Mattson, Boyte, Dewey and Lasch all call for greater public involvement in political life in their works to create a better democratic public.