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American pragmatism and democratic faith

Robert J Lacey, University of Massachusetts Amherst


My dissertation is a study of the origins and legacy of participatory democratic thought in America. In June 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society signed the Port Huron Statement, in which they articulated their vision of citizens participating directly in the governance of their country and putting an end to many intractable problems in American life, including racial discrimination, poverty, and the paranoid logic of cold war policy (e.g., brinkmanship). The New Left ideal of participatory democracy captured the imagination of a generation of political activists in the late 1950s and early 1960s but never planted a firm foothold in American political soil. Largely dismissed as an unviable idea in such a large country, it had limited influence on the development of political institutions in the United States and would only receive serious consideration from political theorists. To understand why participatory democracy was so short-lived, I argue that one must trace its intellectual origins to the pragmatists who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries laid the foundation for this ethos. Thus, I focus on the writings of the early pragmatist philosophers, including Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Next, I turn to the legacy of participatory democratic thought and examine the work of Sheldon Wolin and Benjamin Barber, two contemporary political theorists who, respectively, represent radical and mainstream versions of this idea. Finally, I argue that once situated within the pragmatist tradition, participatory democratic thought proves not only impracticable but also theoretically untenable. This might compel political scientists to revisit questions about participation, civic education, citizenship, civil society, and representation.

Subject Area

Political science|American history

Recommended Citation

Lacey, Robert J, "American pragmatism and democratic faith" (2006). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3212736.