A B S T R A C T  

[T R A D I T I O N A L   P A P E R]

A Tragically Melioristic Hypothesis for Democratic Living:

Risking Our Hopes on Direct Citizen Participation


     Reflecting on Dewey’s hope for a world-wide rebirth of faith in democratic living, James’s insight that the truths we most need sometimes cannot be warranted in advance of taking an active hypothetical stance toward them, and Frankl’s Holocaust-born insights about how to live a meaningful, even joyful life during tragic times, this essay advances a “tragically melioristic” hypothesis about the promising future of direct democratic citizen participation.  Drawing on twenty-first century pragmatist methods of collaborative story-telling checked by both empirical sources and existential tests, I suggest that framing our lives in terms of efforts to deepen democracy in local and global contexts is what James called a “genuine option” for many contemporary people, validating action from “a deeper rationality of the human spirit.” In these times, an active, meaning-filled, even joyful life of growth within collaborative democratic struggle can revive and sustain social hope while fittingly expressing appreciation of life.


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A Tragically Melioristic Hypothesis for Democratic Living:

Risking Our Hopes on Direct Citizen Participation


     In spite of many challenges to its desirability from critics and to its feasibility from worried friends, direct citizen participation beyond the voting both is already a well-established practice in many areas of public policy-making at all levels in the United States, especially in our cities.  Overcoming successive waves of opposition from generations of “democratic realists” as well as from powerful anti-democratic interests, various formal and informal opportunities for citizen participation in democratic self-governance have emerged piecemeal during the past thirty-five years.  Such active citizen roles have emerged as possible and as necessary in response to the manifest limitations of representative government to govern wisely and equitably in its absence, and also to the rising expectations and associated participatory capacities of an increasingly well-educated and well-informed citizenry, in America and in many other parts of the world.[i]

     However, many other factors are likely to influence such future-focused political tendencies, suffused as Americans now are with continuing resonances of September 11:

Many potential voters who depend upon the mainstream media alone for their moment-by-moment sense of actual and possible trends in the world might take recent events as reported by our mass media as evidence that critics who demanded “more democracy” in the shaping of preferable global futures have been effectively silenced and shown to be irrelevant to the actual exercises of power in the twenty-first century.      

     However, despite these recent events, the continuing global communications revolution has speeded up the pace and vastly extended the resources for citizens’ education in the meaning and preconditions of democracy world-wide, helping to increase the numbers of people who cross the divide between ignorance and knowledge about the importance of citizen participation through and beyond the voting booth.  Even in the years of declining voter participation, many citizens have willingly taken up an expanding array of opportunities for direct participation in government decision-making throughout the United States and in many other parts of the world.  Non-government organizations and community-based coalitions have dug in, attracting the involvement of citizen-activists who are committed to and increasingly effective in making small gains within long-term struggles to change the actual conditions in which humans and other species live at local and global levels.  Moreover, in Seattle, Washington, Prague, Lima, Belgrade, Quebec, Genoa, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Kiev, and other great cities, many citizens have taken great risks to assert their democratic influence on global futures outside such government institutional frameworks, drawing on the protest traditions of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X. Shabazz, Saul Alinsky, Nelson Mandela, and the great movements for social justice they led, and at the same time, following in the footsteps of citizen predecessors in other cities only weeks or months earlier.  A new generation of democracy-minded students has begun to shift in their attitudes from normative apathy to an increasingly widespread hunger for creative new ways to connect with one another in common causes that are both local and global, and they have already shown that they can make themselves heard in coalition with other citizen groups.[ii]

     Responding affirmatively and effectively to this less visible but desirable and expanding hunger for experiences of deep, participatory democracy will require a far-reaching educational campaign about the existence and the importance of already available opportunities for direct citizen participation in government, and why we need more of these.  It will require federating local, community-based democratic citizen organizations into effective regional, national, and globally-virtual communities of information, innovation, and mutual support.  In addition to on-going formal participatory roles within government and on-going informal roles within community-based nongovernmental organizations, fostering democratic ideal possibilities in our real world of the twenty-first century probably will continue to require occasional citizen participation in mass movements and protest events against unacceptable conditions and government proposals, especially in times of crisis, as well as in issue-focused colloquies that can harvest citizens’ widely dispersed reconstructive insights about how to build preferable global futures.  In close combination with the courts and the representative processes of constitutional democracies, these four forms of direct citizen participation, if embraced with commitment and persistence by a critical mass of world citizens, may be able to carry forward the processes of democratic cultural transformation at all levels in which they have already played important historical roles of the course of the last century.      

     When considering, against the advice of the “democratic realists,” whether expanding all four kinds of opportunities for direct citizen participation is desirable, whether they are capable of having a significant positive influence even though opposed by powerful forces, and in particular, whether we ourselves should take the plunge into one or more of these modes of democratic citizen-activism, we might be wise to follow John Dewey’s lead in closely associating both general and personal desirability with feasibility, while considering both of these in relationship to contextual conditions and the likely consequences of alternative choices.  The various city-based events and developments discussed above show that an increasing number of people in America and world-wide in fact do desire a deeper democracy, by which they mean a new way of living that heightens the experience of community, that includes but goes deeper than the institutions of representative self-governance, and that makes provision for ongoing, cooperative, difference-valuing, mutually educational processes of direct citizen participation in shaping the terms of our increasingly globally interconnected lives.  Moreover, the multiplicity of opportunities for real citizen participation that has emerged in the past thirty-five years because of determined citizen advocacy in the face of powerful opposition shows that the will and the basic capacities for this “second strand” of democracy already exist, in America and in many other parts of the world. 

     How effective citizens can become in more deeply democratizing current globalization processes through interlinked processes of direct, on-going participation in government institutions, in widely federated community-based nongovernmental institutions, in actively connected, democracy-minded mass movements and protest events, and in issue-focused colloquies and international congresses remains to be seen, but the examples discussed above offer good reasons to think that the hope that direct citizen participation can have significant transformative influence is not futile—in fact, that the scope of its effectiveness may in fact depend upon a critical mass of citizens claiming a “will to believe” of the kind William James theorized.  Not only the historical and contemporary evidence from its proponents, but even the vigorous and continuing efforts of its opponents suggest that democratic citizen participation can be powerful, even world-changing in its significance.  Otherwise, as John Stuart Mill argued on behalf of women’s rights, why would so many try so hard to suppress opportunities that they really believed could not be effectively employed because of some characteristic in our nature?

     Neither kind of evidence is conclusive—nor should we expect any antecedent body of evidence concerning the scope and limits of the possibilities for deepening democracy through active citizen participation to be conclusive, given the dynamic, context-dependent plasticity of human capacities and of the social forces at work in shaping them.  Nonetheless, the evidence from several hundred years’ experience, as well as from the recent events and studies discussed above, suggests

     Moreover, we cannot reasonably expect that we will ever have decisive evidence of the scope of potential transformative efficacy of democratic citizen participation, much less a proof so powerful that it would make one’s brain explode if one refused to accept it, as Robert Nozick humorously suggested concerning another matter (Nozick 1981).  This does not mean, however, that fallibilistic knowledge about this key question and about other important historical issues is impossible, as Richard Rorty has argued, much less that acknowledging ourselves to be permanently truth-free in this domain would be liberatory, because it would make room for “joyous social hope” grounded only in “poetic imagination” (Rorty 1998 and 1999).  This is no time for ungrounded life choices that are merely self-expressive, because there is a great deal at stake for all of us in this question.  Anti-democratic terrorists have already shown in New York City, in Jerusalem, in Baghdad, in Tyre, and in many other great cities that they can and will stand up to the greatest concentrations of power the world has ever known, and that they can and will frustrate power’s smooth administration, even if the cost of doing so is loss of the activists’ lives.  The great question for us is whether a nonviolent, deeply pro-democratic citizen activism of the kinds whose recent rebirth has been chronicled above can yield equal and lasting transformative effectiveness in influencing the formally democratic world powers they have so shaken. 

     As William James argued, when a “genuine option” between two hypotheses is living, forced, and momentous in the difference it makes in our lives, after we have gathered and weighed the best evidence available so that we can make that choice as reasonable as possible, we should act with the guidance of the deepest impulses and sensibilities in our nature, fallibilistically choosing that hypothesis which, if born out by experience, seems most likely to make our lives meaningful and satisfying, and at the same time, most likely to lead to new experiences that can expand our understanding of the important question at issue (James 1896).  Only by acting on such a hypothesis will we be able to gain the additional experiences that will tell us whether it was the right one, the wrong one, or as John Dewey suggested, a partially insightful one that may need to be modified in certain ways to more fruitfully guide future experience.  James’s insight about our epistemological “right” to adopt a provisional experiential hypothesis in the case of such a “genuine option,” as well as the impossibility of avoiding a choice one way or the other, is as relevant to the question of whether and how to engage in democratic citizen participation as it is to the religious and scientific questions that originally motivated James’s analysis.[iii]    

     The “tragically melioristic” hypothesis on behalf of which I argue and offer evidence here, not only as a confession of my own faith, but also in the hope of influencing other non-violent, deeply democratic citizen-activists to join what may become a transformative “critical mass,” is not a simple-minded, silver lining-seeking, “glass is always half full” denial of the dangers we are in and the dreadful losses we have already sustained.  Critics of William James and John Dewey often read their work as such a “cock-eyed optimism,” and those of us who find insight and inspiration in their work are sometimes dismissed with a similarly airy misreading.  In their own language, however, the existential stance of James and Dewey was “meliorism,” based on the Latin term for “the better.”  Their philosophical claim was that in spite of our limited human understanding about the most important matters, and in spite of our limited power to do good, as well as the great evils and tragedies we must contend with at many key junctures in living, there are always experientially warranted distinctions to be made between the worse and the better:

·        in hypotheses and beliefs,

·        in historical interpretations,

·        in values,

·        in words,

·        in public policies,

·        in actions, and

·        in life choices.  

Their existential commitment and advice was to always choose and act for “the better” in a particular context, based on a reasonable interpretation of the evidence available to us at the time, even if “the best” is unclear or apparently unachievable; then we must pay attention and learn from what happens in acting upon that particular hypothesis, so we can more effectively spot and fulfill “the better” on future occasions. 

     In spite of a disagreement in language, Viktor Frankl’s “tragic optimism” (from the Latin term for “the best”) is actually very close in spirit as well to James and Dewey’s “meliorism.”   In the face of tragedy, Frankl argues, we must existentially claim and actively employ our human potential to reshape the meaning of events, starting within ourselves in the attitude we take and the choices we make to fulfill the best that is possible for us in those circumstances, taking our own and others’ suffering as a spur to action, taking our sense of guilt as evidence that we must change our habits in living, and taking the rude shock of human mortality that hits us in times of great loss as a wake-up call to live responsibly in time, so as to make our own lives count for something more ideal (Frankl 1984: 162)    

     The challenge of acting on the “tragically melioristic” existential and practical hypothesis that we can expand existing opportunities for direct citizen participation in democratically shaping global futures is that it goes against much of the “common sense” of our age and requires us to form new habits of living that are counter-cultural in many ways.  This is doubly difficult for us as citizens of the twenty-first century because we are so “busy” just maintaining ourselves in our current cultural contexts, and because many regard efforts to change our life contexts as futile, or even dangerous, and thus tend to scorn and to actively oppose efforts to do so.  The history of this century, though young, is already woven through with symbolic and practical patterns of terror, insecurity, grief, anger, and loss of that sense of partial control over circumstances we humans need in order to feel open to and hopeful about the future.  At the same time, these new patterns have emerged within a deeper, continuing fabric of twenty-first century globalization in which a small number of “elite” decision-makers who wield enormous and unprecedented economic, diplomatic, and military powers are committed to democracy only to the extent that their “democratic realism” means that they employ the flexible formal structures of constitutional democracies to make, to legitimate, and to enforce their decisions. 

     In light of these still-fresh patterns of grief and loss as well as this continuing background fabric of busy-ness and anxiety in our present lives, we might ask ourselves why we as individuals would even want to invest our time and our hopes in seemingly irrational efforts to sustain and to expand opportunities for direct citizen participation in democratic self-governance.  However, there is a deeper rationality than the economic, political, and military models elite decision-makers employ in wielding global power – an existential rationality of the human spirit that demands meaning, hope, and lasting relationships with persons and with places, and that can neither be silenced nor satisfied with a life of limited opportunity and limitless insecurity in which all we care most about can be swept away in a moment, not by an “act of God,” but by another human person’s decision, in whose calculus our dreams have no place.  It is this deeper rationality of the human spirit that drives what Viktor Frankl calls “man’s quest for meaning,” that motivates Dewey’s imperative toward the conditions of our own and others’ growth within mutual relationships of depth that endure, and that justifies James’s will to believe, at least hypothetically, when the weight of our own dreams of a life that matters is added to all the other forms of evidence that careful inquiry makes available to us. 

·        All three of these wise ancestors experienced the deep marks of tragedy in their lives: James in grappling with the brutality of the American Civil War that so scarred his family and contributed for a time to his own once-insuperable emotional paralysis;

·        Dewey in losing two children and his beloved first wife as well as his adult hopes for a democratic peace in an era of rising fascism and bureaucracy;

·        Frankl at Auschwitz, and even before that, when he parted from his wife and other members of his family who would perish with so many of the best in the Holocaust. 

All three of these wise men recognized in mystical ways that such personal and historical tragedies run deep and continuously within human experience, yet none of them regarded such tragedies as inevitable or “God’s will,” and all of them came to a sense that Something – perhaps James’s God of mud and sweat – struggles with us to transform this river of suffering, to allow us to endure, and to enable us to “say yes to Life,” in Frankl’s phrase.  Unlike those who treat the Holocaust as a single massive event of a unique kind in human history from which no lessons for other times can be drawn, Viktor Frankl wrote about it as many small moments in which people made decisions and acted from the values and the habits they had become—moments more like than unlike other times in human history and in ordinary people’s lives.  The lessons he learned from observing himself and others enduring those hard, tragedy-laden days became the rich text of his teachings about “logotherapy,” his innovative, influential, and widely effective approach to aiding late-twentieth century people who were living with a loss of hope, of purpose, of health, and of loved ones to find new meaning and value in their lives through commitment to some work or deed, to someone or something who had touched them, or through determination to be worthy of their suffering in this mysterious and powerful stream of life.  Claimed in a spirit of “tragic optimism” that is also a pragmatist “meliorism,” a commitment to any or all of the four forms of direct citizen participation in democratically influencing the emergence of preferable global futures can be such a meaning-infusing work, which may also be a fitting tribute to those who have touched our lives, and an expression of our sense that suffering or at least sacrifice of our time and energies in the struggle for a world that is worthy of life’s complex, myriad, and mysterious forms is a fitting expression of our appreciation of life.      

     Therefore, we may conclude that the best available evidence in combination with deep, widely shared human impulses toward creating the conditions for mutual flourishing within our global biotic community – especially in the wake of great human tragedy and in times of frustration and uncertainty – seems to support and may even require action on the “tragically melioristic” hypothesis that expanding opportunities for real democratic citizen participation in government, in non-governmental organizations, and in issue-focused movements and colloquies with an urban-regional base and a global awareness is a desirable, a feasible, even a necessary element of future-planning processes through which current malformations of economic, political, and cultural  power can be transformed into resources of, for, and by the people of diverse, deeply democratic communities.  Its desirability is demonstrated by its moral, political, epistemological, and ontological significance – it has shown itself already to have individual-shaping, people-forming, lifeways-transforming powers.  Its feasibility is suggested by contemporary governmental, environmental, cultural, religious, intellectual, and civic warrants for widening and deepening citizen participation in democratic self-governance, whose interactive weight is so great that, even as they have been continuously and powerfully opposed, they have combined to authorize a variety of interlinked opportunities for real citizen participation from which we can learn a great deal about the characteristics of the most effective models.

     Drawing on these interlinked warrants and the evidence from studying an even richer set of current and future examples, we need to develop strategic visions, local and global, for shaping new roles for citizens and for educating diverse world citizens to fill and to expand these roles effectively.  The transformative process of experimenting, learning, and evolving strategic visions has already begun.  In these early years of the twenty-first century, increasingly hard-to-limit, citizen-to-citizen communication about the results of citizen participation efforts world-wide is forging a “Beloved Community” of shared concern, mutual education, and collaborative struggle whose democratic aspirations, emerging cooperative intelligence, and potential interlinked powers portend new possibilities for democratically influencing the emergence of a preferable future for the biotic community in both local and global contexts.



[i] In contrast with these trends, participation in voting, the most basic and still most important citizen role and responsibility, had decreased dramatically prior to the American presidential election of 2000, both in most “experienced democracies” and in many of “new democracies” of Central and Eastern Europe that had emerged so hopefully out of the brave, revolutionary events of 1989.  Perhaps the international cable television news networks’ thirty-six day global seminar on the rule of law and on the importance of every vote during the Bush vs. Gore presidential vote recount struggle, which added the city names of Miami, Palm Beach, and Tallahassee to the international geographical lexicon, has positively influenced many citizens’ likelihood of voting in the future, especially those once-cynical young people who so recently had shrugged off the opportunity to vote as meaningless.


[ii] My students have found Paul Rogat Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999) a great help in thinking through their own existential decisions about whether to risk their time and their hopes on some form of active citizen participation in local and global future-shaping.


[iii] James’s assertion of this epistemological “right” was framed in terms of an ethics of belief that he broadly shared with his main opponent in the controversy, William Clifford, as well as many other scientists and philosophers of the late nineteenth century.  That is, James acknowledged that our thought-in-action draws upon and influences the future of a shared fund of truths that make a difference for the practical security and the meaningfulness of human existence.  Thus,  he argued, we must take seriously our reliance and our influence upon others in making our own belief commitments, and we must make them in such a way as to be open to future evidence one way or the other.  Nonetheless, James argued, if our goal is not just to avoid error but to know and to benefit from the truth about something that greatly matters to us and that requires a provisional decision now – in  this case, the “moral truth” about much democracy as is possible and desirable in our times – we must risk the possibility of being wrong and all that goes with it by adopting one belief or the other.  Thus, in the case of a “genuine option,” having considered the available evidence carefully, we have the “right” to adopt a hypothesis and to actively seek to know whether experience will confirm or falsify it.