BY SCOTT R. STROUD
By almost all accounts, America is in a state of crisis. What exactly the crisis is, depends on which partisans you ask. To some, it a crisis of those on the right with their supposed doubts about the past election; to others, it is this or that conspiracy on the left, or the putative liberal domination of the news media. Sorting out these claims and assigning some of them validity is not what this essay intends to do. What is of interest to me is the deeper problem: we simply lack the trust, respect, and free interaction among political partisans in our democracy to create the sort of community so many of us dream about in our philosophies. Over the course of 30 years, the American public has become more divided than unified, due to heated differences over policies, priorities, values, and more (see Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2015; Bruun Overgaard et al., 2021). This is known as the phenomena of polarization. This can occur in regard to differences in views concerning issues— issue-based polarization, or how divergent Americans are on certain policy proposals. A more worrisome sort of partisanship for a sustainable American democracy, however, is affective polarization . This concerns how much we care for, like, or simply trust opposing partisans and citizens (Iyengar, Sood, & Lelkes, 2012; Iyengar et al., 2019; N. Stroud, 2011).
America is divided on the issues, and we often lack the trust or respect to find compromises or solutions to our challenges. There is much division, and unity or cooperation tends to be limited to separate groups or parties. Too many Americans think of people in terms of whether they are part of their in-group (their party or political ideology) or if they are an out-group or an opponent to their views and aims. Such affective polarization “is not just a matter of seeing those with a different perspective as misguided. It is also viewing their judgments as irrational, ascribing sinister motives to them, or even casting them as threats to democracy itself” (N. Stroud & G. Masullo, 2020, 1). Americans can tell what party others belong to by the car they drive, where they live, what popular media they consume, where they shop, and in many more increasingly precise ways (e.g., Bishop, 2009; Hetherington & Weiler, 2018). Americans are more and more supportive of censoring or even harming those who disagree with them (Cox, 2021); partisan views increasingly affect who we date, marry, work with, and who we talk to in the course of our everyday life (e.g., Huber & Malhotra, 2017). It even governs how we talk to in-group and out-group members, online and in person (Muddiman & N. Stroud, 2017).
Polarization can occur in various ways, and of course the existence of difference and divergence is not inherently or always bad (e.g., Rosenblum, 2008). As I shall argue, however, if one has a certain conception of democracy—one that reaches beyond periodic votes or elite representatives in the sequestered seats of government—we can gain an idea of what is problematic and a vision of what we are hoping for in creating and recreating our democracy. Bridging partisan divides is all the more difficult in our era of social media and digital technologies that seem to thwart our every attempt at building trusting and enduring connections among democratic citizens. Drawing on the hints provided by deep democrats like the American pragmatist John Dewey, I will begin the process of enunciating a different account of democracy, one that can be loosely organized around the concept of connective democracy, that can help us engage what’s problematic about current practices and realities. As a concept, it can also serve as an ideal that guides us in figuring out what we want out of our communities, our processes, and all of our wrangling over rights, elections, communicative behaviors, and media practices.
What is Our Task as Democratic Citizens?
What do we demand out of democracy—and the citizens that compose it? These are questions of ethics as much as of political theory, and they clearly extend beyond matters of political procedures and formal government. One of the hallmarks of democracy that I shall rely upon in this brief investigation is the idea that democracy goes beyond the halls of government. It concerns connections with others, even if a citizen or group of citizens are not in a policy-making position. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Let us return to the idea of the task that democracy demands of the members of a given community. The title of this essay adapts a well-known title from Dewey’s important work, one he entitled “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us.” Dewey’s essay was read as a speech by his friend Horace Kallen on the occasion of a large celebration for Dewey’s 80th birthday. It would shortly be published in various places afterwards, as it was a very succinct and powerful account of Dewey’s philosophy, an evolving body of thought that always returned back to democracy and life’s course of experience. I shall primarily rely upon Dewey’s 1939 account of creative democracy, since it seems to be very useful in elucidating the notion of connective democracy that I want to propose as worthy of extension and expansion in our era of digital technology and partisan divides.
Most accounts of democracy focus on distinct and rarified moments. This election, that vote in the Senate or House, this law that was passed. The theories track this emphasis, focusing on fair elections, or at a slightly wider level, what correct moments of deliberation and decision-making look like. Some focus on a state achieved through a special process, such as consensus through deliberative procedures. These are not unimportant aspects, of course, but Dewey’s approach encourages us to look at democracy in a different way. Writing his essay in 1939, the exact time that Hitler’s invasion of Poland reached its successful end and started the conflagration that would be known as the Second World War, Dewey couches his exploration of democracy in the atmosphere of violence and division of his time. While our time may be less violent, force and division—driven by hatred of various “others”—still color much of our political life, as well as much of our social media experience.
Dewey had long been concerned with building a notion of democracy that reached all levels of society. In his book, Democracy and Education (1916), he discussed education as inherently connected to all experience, and not just formal institutions. It was there that he continued his move toward the position we shall see in full bloom in “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us.” In 1916, Dewey famously claimed that “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1985, 93). This continued, and refined, his views that appeared as early as his 1888 essay, “The Ethics of Democracy,” that argued that democracy was more than a system of government—“Democracy is a form of government,” claimed a young Dewey, “only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association” (Dewey, 1969, 240). What Dewey is getting at in all of these various stages of his constantly-evolving political philosophy is that the ideal state we want to form is more than just a certain sort of political mechanism; it points to a certain quality of community or connectedness among its members, its formal or informal citizens.
By 1939, having seen Hitler’s overt militarism and his barely secreted brutality in rounding up his political foes, Dewey speaks carefully on the growing threats to democracy. He surely sensed the risks to democracy that were growing in Europe, but he had learned from his enthusiastic advocacy around 1916 for American involvement in the Great War. There, violence and force did not create the democratic security he wished for, and that the western European nations had promised. Dewey answers his situation in 1939 by arguing for “Democracy as a personal, an individual, way of life.” What does this mean? Dewey places his response in the context supplied by the violence and, I would add, the divisions of the time: “Put into effect it signifies that powerful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute personal character” (Dewey, 1988, 226). Democracy is a habit or attitude of individuals, and not something external that can be affected with military action or civil lawmaking. This is a radical point, especially in the face of the increasing power of Nazi Germany: democracy is a way of life that each individual ought to adopt and follow, as best as he or she can.
Democracy concerns the creation and recreation of a certain type of unified community. How is the community unified? On Dewey’s account, shared interests and the free interaction among individuals and groups are what characterizes the most intense forms of democratic experience. It holds a vision of the ideal community that we hope to bring into existence. This is why Dewey uses the cryptic nomenclature of creative democracy. But we could just as easily describe this idea of deep, everyday democracy asconnective democracy, since it prioritizes and emphasizes connections between individuals being created, shared, and sustained.
Communication figures into this approach to democracy as it is the primary way that connections are realized or experienced. We do not silently exist around our family, our friends, or our neighbors; we interact, or we choose not to impinge on someone’s life at a given moment. Communication also creates certain realities. How we talk to others (if at all) conditions and affects how they see us, and what sort of relationship exists. The media reflects and shapes our perceptions of what our problems are, who is the cause of these issues, and the likely ways to address them. All of these aspects to communication have a place in Dewey’s idea of creative democracy, a fact evidenced by his return to the topic on everyone’s mind in 1939. Making reference to the rise of Hitler’s Germany, Dewey states that “To denounce Nazism for intolerance, cruelty and stimulation of hatred amounts to fostering insincerity if, in our personal relations to other persons, if, in our daily walk and conversation, we are moved by racial, color or other class prejudice; indeed, by anything save a generous belief in their possibilities as human beings, a belief which brings with it the need for providing conditions which will enable these capacities to reach fulfillment” (Dewey, 1988, 226). The way these prejudices or hatreds make themselves known in experience is through the employment of force in communication. Partisans talk of the out-group, their opponents, in ways that evince a certain polarized mindset and that helps create the reality of division among and within groups and individuals. In Dewey’s words, they lack “faith in the capacities of intelligence,” or a “personal faith in personal day-by-day working together with others” (Dewey, 1988, 227).
What Dewey is pointing out is captured in the idea of our relationships with others, and with the attitudes we bear toward them (or toward people like them). Do we see them as important to include in our endeavors, or as worthy of talking to in our attempts at persuasion or self-expression? Or do we mark them as opponents, as enemies, or as retrograde elements within our larger community? Doing these latter things to others in our community prevents real community—community as a group with free interaction among its members and shared interests that drive some of the group’s activities. Simply having the legal right to express one’s self to others is not enough; Dewey’s concept of democracy emphasizes the attitudes and habits that orient us toward others, regardless of the absence of state sanction: “Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred.” “These things destroy the essential condition of the democratic way of living,” says Dewey, “even more effectually than open coercion which—as the example of totalitarian states proves—is effective only when it succeeds in breeding hate, suspicion, intolerance in the minds of individual human beings” (Dewey, 1988, 227-228).
The American pragmatist is getting at an important part of democracy: the attitudes and overt actions that are entailed in our communicative practices. Whether it is online or in person, how we orient ourselves toward others—and how we actually talk to them and about them—matters. This point becomes clear when Dewey argues that “Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life.” Each of these actions is treason to democracy because they represent breaks, even if we feel they are warranted, of one part of a community from another. This is problematic in the long run, if not in the short run, since “everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life” (Dewey, 1988, 227-228).
One of Dewey’s students, the Indian politician and reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956), also internalized this lesson. Ambedkar, like Dewey, sought to reform his society through legislative and social reform, and avidly pursued his goals of social democracy and the end of caste oppression through means saturated with communication and persuasion. Even amidst his most assertive activist agitations, Ambedkar still believed that one must respect and even love (as he put it in the 1950s) one’s enemies, or the hope of forming a democratic community with them is dashed. As he put it in a speech in 1947 to students who looked forward to a future of political action, you cannot win “by giving a black eye to your opponent.... You will have to carry a proposition only by the art of speaking, by persuading [your] opponent, by winning him over his side by argument, either gentle or strong, but always logically and instructively.” (Ambedkar, 2003, 378). Later, he wrote that he and his fellow Buddhists should “cherish no anger. Forget your enmities. Win your enemies by love. This is the Buddhist Way of Life” (Ambedkar, 2011, 189). This theme of how to orient one’s self toward those marked as one’s enemies is inherent in Dewey’s 1939 idea of creative democracy, a text we have good reason to believe was influential to Ambedkar’s own journey toward a pragmatist and democratic Buddhism (Stroud, 2018). In some ways, Ambedkar puts the charge of creative democracy in more straightforward terms. In a democracy, we must not seek to destroy our enemies; instead, we must find ways, including that of some sense of love or respect, to bring them into community with us.
Connective Democracy: The Task Before Us
Dewey’s thoughts on creative democracy, however preliminary or clouded with his New England optimism, are useful as a goad to think through what we might mean, and what we might want, with the concept of connective democracy. Whereas Dewey was concerned with democracy as a way of life that needed to be created and recreated each day, our concerns point us more toward the world of digital and mediated connections we have to others. In America, for instance, we know many people around our home and our workplace; we also “know” others in remote states through our mental images (or “stereotypes,” as Walter Lippmann would call them in his book, Public Opinion) produced in part by the media we consume.
An individual votes in the heated presidential election. She knows family members, and what they might do once at the polls; she also knows to some extent what her party (and its supporters) stand for, and what “those people” in the other party supposedly support. Often, this generalized mental picture is full of abstractions and shortcuts—not all Republicans or Democrats think the same way, for instance, nor do they all support the same policies for the same reasons—and it’s often calculated or adjusted to bolster one’s own partisan group. This is the nature of motivated reasoning. It functions to make us and our group seem more reasonable, more moral, and more just. When such an individual talks about members in the opposing party, the opposing side comes off looking flat—they are simplistically described, and their motives and reasoning powers are defective. This is what I’ve called elsewhere “partisan perfect reasoning.” This habit of thought and argument is characterized by three commitments or traits. First, it tends to conceptualize argument as primarily a struggle for the dominance of one’s view over others, as a contest to win as opposed to a context for change, belief optimization, or synthesis. Second, this partisan habit also assumes that it starts from a position of certainty (the partisan arguer’s beliefs), and that deviating others must be incorrect or mal-intentioned. Third, the intelligence of the partisan arguer is invested in defending and buttressing their position, and not in exploring or elaborating the views of opposing others (S. Stroud, 2015). Partisan perfect reasoning is an orientation of thinking and arguing in a way that leaves no room for your opponents to be fellow community members—even if they wanted to—short of total acquiescence to you and your putatively superior point. And what partisan ever wants to simply say, “You’re right, my party’s policies are motivated by greed and evil and ought to be totally repudiated?” Yet this is the rhetorical position that much partisan discourse puts its targets into. From the Deweyan perspective, such partisan reasoning habits can also be characterized as lacking any robust notion of sympathy or open-mindedness for those that disagree with the partisan (Dewey, 1989; S. Stroud, 2016).
Connective democracy aims to solve the problems or partisanship, polarization, and division that beset the community through useful habits and practices of deliberation and inquiry, and to enable further acts of community problem solving in the future. This is a tough demand, and it is one that unites the ends we are seeking in our democracy with the means that we allow ourselves to employ. Dewey noted this point in his work on democracy during the turbulent start to the Second World War, noting that many regimes and groups agree on the same endpoint. Democracy is radical, according to Dewey (1987), precisely because it insists that democratic ends must be realized in and through democratic means. What that means, effectively, is that even if we can achieve some goal through force, we must be wary of such alluringly effective shortcuts. We should take care that our victory does not come at the price of creating more entrenched enemies and partisan groups that we will have to reconcile with in the future. We must try to create cooperation and community now, and at least not set back its realization tomorrow. Dewey recognized this point, and even acknowledged that it is compatible with difference and even heated disagreement: “Democracy is the belief,” he opines in 1939, “that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation—which may include, as in sport, rivalry and competition—is itself a priceless addition to life” (Dewey, 1988, 228).
What we must do is to try to reduce the forces that create enemies and oppositions as much as possible: “To take as far as possible every conflict which arises—and they are bound to arise—out of the atmosphere and medium of force, of violence as a means of settlement into that of discussion and of intelligence is to treat those who disagree—even profoundly—with us as those from whom we may learn, and in so far, as friends” (Dewey, 1988, 228). Thus, connective democracy has a variable emphasis that can be placed on task functions as well as relational quality. Our interactions with others (or lack thereof) can be effective or ineffective at addressing some issue or dispute or conveying information; they can also enhance or further detract from a relationship of respect and trust among involved parties.
Connective democracy recognizes a range of connections that individuals and groups can have. We can be connected with others, even nominally, through social media, the media ecosystem, our physical movements and locations, and through the necessary tasks of everyday living. Some of these connections are deep and sustained by multiple interactions; one’s recent interaction with a relational partner or family member, say, is ensconced in just such a deep history. Other connections lack that depth or history; we are connected, at a nominal level, to the effectively unknown commenter on a news site whose partisan drivel seemed to compel us to flame them back. There’s a quality to that relationship, although one severely limited by anonymity, lack of previous interactions, and our own attitudes toward partisans who take the opinions we just read. Even if that relationship is not destined to be as lasting and deep as those with a longtime neighbor, for instance, it could be better; their comment, along with our response and what it assumes of the other partisan, could be improved in such a way that it opens the door for some chance of change, persuasion, or even mutual understanding.
The Myth of the Omni-Connected Citizen
Connective democracy emphasizes the connections among citizens and groups and, perhaps more precisely, the quality of those connections. Do they allow for the free flow of information, opinions, needs, hopes, and views? Or are they non-existent, one-directional, subject to the whims of power or influence? Following Dewey, the ideal of connective democracy can be fleshed out as a fully connected community of flourishing individuals, all animated by some shared interests and purposes, and also respectful of each other’s role as fellow community members. It is at this point a common objection may occur—is it reasonable or desirable, the skeptic might ask, to dream of each citizen being connected to all other citizens and groups in a community? This demur has more weight when we consider communities the size of modern cities, or even a community of a large nation-state such as the U.S. Is this even a possible demand or ideal?
This sort of critique of connective democracy targets what could be called the myth of the omni-connected citizen, a notion that builds on Lippmann’s famous critique of democratic theory’s omni-competent citizen. Lippmann’s concept was proposed in his book The Phantom Public (1925), and it grew out of his disbelief in what many conceptions of democracy demand (especially those that emphasized the importance of citizen deliberation and decision-making): democracy requires that we be informed about and ready to act on any given issue facing our community, but the reality is that no citizen meets this high bar of knowledge or ability to meaningfully act on problems that are so often provincial or specific in their impact. Lippmann called this belief in democratic citizens ready to weigh in and intelligently act on any given problem facing all or part of the community the “mystical fallacy of democracy” (Lippmann , 2009, 28). A similar realism may beset a view that desires high-quality connections among all members of a democratic community, especially large and diverse states such as the U.S. or India.
It’s unreasonable, the critique would urge, to think that we can be connected in a meaningful way to all of these other people and groups who so often reside outside our scope of action. This objection, like Lippmann’s concern, misses the mark of any view that sees democracy as processual and everyday. Just as Dewey’s reply to Lippmann focused on skills and habits of inquiry (e.g., Dewey, 1984), connective democracy can be defended by showing its emphasis on habits and orientations toward others that are so often refracted by our media practices. No one individual knows or interacts with all of the others in their partisan group, let alone all of those that would constitute opposing groups or parties. But how they see or pre-judge these types of people and groups matters for who they actually interact with, how they react to news and disputes involving these other groups, and the chances that they may form high-quality and respectful relationships with people like this in their own everyday realms of experience. In other words, the habits that polarize and destroy actual or potential connections, and hence the hope for a deep democratic community, are the focus of connective democracy.
These habits reside in individuals, but they can be enabled, furthered, or altered through systems such as our dominant media practices. Partisan news can inflame hatred or distrust of the other side, but practices of news reporting and discussion can be imagined that increase tolerance, understanding, and even respect among disagreeing parties. Connective democracy does not demand that everyone be connected to everyone else in the same fashion; instead, it envisions a unified community that solves more problems than it creates through its habits and systems of communication, interaction, and decision-making.
Connective Democracy and Pragmatic Respect
Beyond the objection concerning the possibility of connecting to all individuals and groups in a community lies another objection: one focusing on the desirability of connecting to many of these individuals or groups. The U.S. has a long history with bigotry, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and more; there is no shortage of hate, nor of groups that others judge worthy of being hated. This will undoubtedly influence who one connects with through communicative channels. Who wants to connect with a white supremacist group, for instance, or a group that espouses no sympathy whatsoever to the plight of immigrants or refugees?
The philosophical underpinnings to such a line of critique is simple. It argues that there are clear and principled ways to sort out the morally good and the morally deficient parties in a community, and that our connections should be maximized with the former and minimized with that latter. Perhaps there’s even a commitment to interact with the latter (the morally deficient) only in ways that lead to their detriment or harm. The challenge that the idea of connective democracy would pose to such a worldview is simple: barring exclusion or exile (or worse), these undesired and undesirable parties are part of our community, as imperfect as it is now. Is minimizing the chance for productive present and future interaction the way to enhance the nominal community relationship that holds now?
Those fleshing out the ideals of connective democracy in the future will disagree on the specific limits and details of the connections we desire, but surely there will be the shared theme of meliorism in our relationships and interactions, with others and through the media. Are racists improved by dehumanizing them, ignoring them, or underestimating their ability to change? This worry becomes even more pertinent if terms such as “racism” and “sexism,” or “communist” or “socialist,” expand to include controversial, but more commonly held, positions or views. Does laughing at a certain joke make you a racist? Does liking a certain tweet make you insensitive to the plight of Palestinians? Does supporting Trump mean you support violence against women, or are necessarily in favor of the January 2021 riot or coup attempt at the Capitol? Is a vote for Biden a show of support for a take-over of the American public by heavily-handed leftists bent on winning a culture war? All of these questions presuppose partisan starting points—and predestine an argumentative ending point. Partisan perfect reasoning will always find a way to apply the worst, most actionable label to one’s opponents; sometimes this will be warranted, but in many cases it will be far from useful in improving relationships among community members or in solving disputes without causing more entrenched problems in the future. It will only harden one’s opposition, and make it that much more difficult to form a deeply democratic community with them now, or in the future. And they are already in a sort of community with you now—albeit one of a nominal nature of sharing the same town, state, or nation and the shared future that entails. Short of forcefully excluding those one hates or disapproves of, one has to come to terms with them as community members, and even hold out hope that they can improve, change, or adapt to other, perhaps more beneficial, views. An individual or organization committed to connective democracy is committed to finding ways to change through communication and persuasion.
Communication doesn’t always lead to consensus or agreement, but it should enable our hope of solving problems and deepening our connections to others regardless of the outcome of current disagreements or decisions. This is similar to the faith that Dewey spoke of in his notion of creative democracy, a faith in communication making a better future, and a faith in individuals being susceptible to persuasion and change at some point. Dewey’s hope is that of a democracy at peace, and not at war, both within and outside of its borders. As he put it in 1939,
A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself, instead of having one party conquer by forceful suppression of the other—a suppression which is none the less one of violence when it takes place by psychological means of ridicule, abuse, intimidation, instead of by overt imprisonment or in concentration camps. (Dewey, 1988, 227)
Connective democracy shares these commitments to removing force, in its range of forms from violence to partisan mockery and ridicule, from our communication systems, media practices, and everyday habits. If one hates or despises other partisans, there is little chance of them forming sustainable and adaptive connections with you (or perhaps even with your group), and a greater chance that they will only increase the strength of similar orientations toward you or your group.
Part of the hope for connective democracy lies at the individual level in habits of respect for all members of the community. By “respect,” I do not mean one common usage of the term to indicate “admiration” or “honor.” The term is employed here in the sense of a basic level of valuing, a sense that one is valued as an actual or potential member of some democratic community. In this sense, a partisan can respect their political opposites not because they agree with their stances on immigration, but because they believe that beyond each political decision or commitment, beyond each past or present action, that person represents a member of the community that could be connected and communicated with; there is also the realization that all of these individuals and groups affect each other and rely on each other to fully flourish. Why should one hold this view? Ultimately the warrant is not in something akin to Kant’s pure practical reason that underwrote his exclaiming of the value of personhood. Instead, the reason why we ought to subscribe to some notion of a basic respect for others is a pragmatic concern for long-term practicality. In democracy, our fates are ultimately connected, for better or worse, with others around and affecting us; respecting other individuals and groups as integral to that mission of optimizing our community is a basic commitment of connective approaches because it should strike us as more promising over the long-run in dealing with such fellow citizens.
The notion of respect I am building here could better be called pragmatic respect, given its emphasis on the usefulness in certain ways of maintaining and optimizing democratic relationships and connections while conducting the often-messy business of democratic life. It does not mean that we have to endorse the views of the racist, say, or that we must encourage or let them continue in their ways; it does mean that we hold out hope in our attitudes and actions that they could change these hateful and hated views, that they could become better, and that their worth goes beyond any given view they may hold at the moment. It is useful to see them as a community member, and not merely as a racist, for both engaging racism and for holding out hope to make them better community members in the Deweyan sense. Once we sever or minimize our actual or potential connections with those we hate, we lose the ability to affect or improve them through our own communicative activities.
We do not need to admire or value every argument or belief in our democracy, but we ought to value those whose fates are tied into ours. Thus, connective democracy’s notion of pragmatic respect wants to add to our reactions and judgments to others the idea that beyond specific beliefs, policies advocated, or political affiliations, each individual should be seen as actual or potential community members in the deep sense of sharing fates, and sharing some interests and projects. Connective democracy is not about actual contact or connections, but it is about the quality of actual and potential connections.
How can we, and our media systems, encourage the useful valuing of individuals and groups in the heated matters of democracy in a way that’s conducive for present or future community-building? This is a difficult challenge, and it will often entail those committed to connective democracy to tolerate the supposedly intolerant, or to not hate those that seem very hateful. This is the challenge that Dewey speaks of when he points out that “To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one's own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life” (Dewey, 1988, 227). Many can agree to this sort of attitude in the abstract, but it becomes more difficult when it becomes concretized to the case of someone uttering something very objectionable or perhaps offensive—about race, immigration policy, cancel culture’s legitimate reach, and so forth. These people are part of our associated life in the state, however, and pathways for working with, rather than against, them should be pursued. Finding ways to harm or dehumanize others in or through speech is not where connective democracy places its hope.
The task before us for connective democracy is complex: we must explore micro and macro ways that individuals, practices, and media institutions can be meliorated to improve the quality of interactions and connections with others we are in association with in our towns, virtual communities, or that we could be in contact with. We need not talk to, or admire, everyone in our community, but our attitudes and the media that influence and reflect these orientations ought to allow for sustainable connection with others. Our present, and future, of our democracy depends on the quality of our connections with others. Many researchers are exploring and expanding the concept of connective democracy now, for instance those working on this concept at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Many more scholars will debate, use, and expand this concept that makes connections and their quality so central to modern democracies. But if there is a common thread to this on-going and future work, it will be a recognition of the size and importance of the task facing proponents of democracy in a world too often divided by a polarized public, much of which is fragmented and sequestered in various media enclaves.
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- Scott R. Stroud is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to editing Media Ethics, he is the author of the scholarly books John Dewey and the Artful Life and Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric, and he is the co-author of A Practical Guide to Ethics: Living and Leading with Integrity. He also serves as the Program Director of Media Ethics at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is part of a research team exploring polarization, division, and connective democracy. This article is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.