Democratic Social Arrangements and Political Democracy

John Dewey described democratic social arrangements as ways people got along by understanding each other’s desires and needs.  With this start they would work out ways of providing both a voice and a solution to different human needs.  He assumed the need of a political structure and process, one in which he actively worked.

The present struggle of a political minority in the Federal Congress to overturn a law they, and some of their constituents, don’t like is a bad case of using the political process to frustrate a decision of the majority.

Ideas are shaped into bills and then made into law through the political process.  Virtually no bill becomes law without requiring some adjustment to the world it has to work in.  The give and take of the political process makes this fit.

At the very time Dewey was developing and spreading his ideas, the country was segregated between black and white; rigid in the South and less so in the rest of the country.  Through the seniority system then determining committee assignments and chairmanships, Southerners controlled Congress.  Most southern congressmen and senators supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal except when some part of it threatened segregation.  Then, if they couldn’t stop a floor vote, they mustered up a filibuster.  Using these means of political democracy they frustrated a major goal of democratic social arrangements until the Supreme Court declared illegal the use of political means to enforce segregation.

Having grown up in the depression South I remember the very strong, rigid negative opinions of many white southerners toward our black neighbors.  I certainly do not accuse opponents of our current Affordable Health Care Act of racism, but I am bothered by the similarity in rigidness and uncaring attitudes toward other people then and now.

Providing government support for medical care was a part of the Roosevelt agenda that would have undermined segregation, among other objections.  It has been on the agenda of several presidents since then.  It is not a new idea, but poor people are still unable to afford adequate medical care.  One characteristic of a civilized society is that it does not leave those who cannot help themselves without care.

“I’ve got mine” and manipulating Congress to keep other people from sharing it isn’t a basis for making democratic social arrangements work.  Whether we like it or not, government has to help some people lead a decent life and we have to deal with the complexity that generates.


  1. #1 by Jonathan Elliott on October 14, 2013 - 11:12 pm

    First of all, Dr. Boswell I want to thank you for all that you taught me during our class (Group 17). I have a number of memories of that class but one statement you made which continues to be a guiding model for me nowadays is that “It’s more important to ask the right question than providing answers.” It makes a great deal of sense, doesn’t it? If I’m answering a wrong or trivial question, what good is the answer?

    I was a Financial Advisor (GS-15) in the Federal Government and my wife Kate was a Lobbyist. So I was on the operational side of the equation; she was on the legal side. I had some very capable bosses. However, as a former General Manager in private industry I often discussed how we could make ourselves more effective and efficient. My goal was to save the taxpayer money. My friends in the Government used to remind me that Government was unlike businesses and could never be run like businesses. In fact, one said, the Government is in part a social welfare organization giving away money. To an extent that made sense. However, when I would develop activity based costing models to show executives to cost of programs, my models were often set aside as “nice to know” but rarely implemented. When my wife and I discussed my frustration at night, she compared what she saw in Congress…that the job of a Congress person was to get re-elected. From an operational stance, bosses were often looking for the next promotion and saving money is rarely rewarded in the Government. Unfortunately that brings us back to your “I’ve got mine” scenario and possibly one of the most important questions that the U.S. faces today: “What is the vehicle for moving the Government elite to help some people lead a decent life? I’m almost 66 now and I’ve been performing volunteer work since I was in my late 20s and I mentored 40 young people, many of whom still stay in touch. I know that any feelings I have of “wholeness” comes more from that work than anything else I accomplished during my career. However, that example may be a bit too anecdotal for those who feel that manipulation of people is “a better way.” Thank you for starting this blog. I look forward to reading your insights as well as others.

  2. #2 by Ralph Soule on November 17, 2013 - 12:19 am

    I take a different view. I am not so sure that calling the members of the majority party of House a political minority frustrating the will of the majority. The House majority leadership chose to go along with the strategy to shut down the government as did all of the party members. The majority of the electorate does not favor the legislation in question even though a majority did not favor shutting down the government over it. I would also hesitate to impute uncaring motives to the opponents of the ACA. Another view is that they have legitimate philosophical differences about how much power has to be granted to the government to make it work and what impact it has on other social arrangements beyond access to medical care. I also think it is a bit strong to state that people who cannot help themselves are without access to care. For one thing, many can help themselves, but have made destructive life choices that complicate their lives so you have to deal with how to balance moral hazard if you advocate unlimited social insurance for poor choices. Secondly, very few are without care. An argument can be made that many people lack the care third parties would choose for them, but that is more of a political question than a moral one in my view.

    I also would not call the legislative maneuvers that resulted in the shutdown manipulation. An alternate view is that those are the result of social arrangements and the normal political process at work. Just because it does not produce outcomes desired some group is not necessarily grounds for deeming it a failure. I agree that government deciding how much of a decent life it helps some members of society lead regardless of their personal and moral choices cause a great deal of complexity. It certainly generates adverse outcomes no matter how power and social accommodation are arranged, but that is just the nature of the social arrangements of our society. Thank you for the thoughtful post.

    • #3 by John Boswell on November 18, 2013 - 3:57 pm

      Ralph, we will just have to agree to disagree on this one. Were we to start dipping into the many issues I wouldn’t have time for mew blogs.

  3. #4 by Ralph Soule on November 19, 2013 - 1:10 am

    I am always will to try to learn from other perspectives, Dr. Boswell. Goodness knows that I am not always right. I suspect our disagreement may come from our different perspectives on the world and what role active agency has. The thing to keep in mind is that social policy and regulation, like wars, have all sorts of unintended consequences so I think it is healthy to have a large dose of skepticism that any of us know what “the” right answer is. I subscribe to the tragic view of the human condition. I believe that the biggest challenge of social policy and government action is not making things worse. After working in a large, bureaucratic organization for 30 years, I believe people on the outside of the machinery tend to be much more optimistic than experience might suggest is prudent about the possibility of achieving optimal (or even beneficial) outcomes using the very blunt forces of government. I think it is fine that you see things differently, Professor. That is what the ballot box is for.

  4. #5 by John Boswell on November 19, 2013 - 3:58 pm

    You are right. Life experience produces different views of the world which is a good thing if we respect other people’s views. And, the ballot box is our answer when enough people use it.
    Unfortunately, I have to agree with your take on large, bureaucratic organizations. Unfortunately, our Navy has problems I certainly never expected.
    Thanks again for pushing me to think.

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