Kevin Mattson. Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy During the Progressive Era. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. 208 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-271-01722; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-271-01722-8; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-271-01723-5.
Reviewed by Maureen A. Flanagan (Michigan State University)
Published on H-Urban (April, 1999)
This book is an intellectual history of a group of activists and thinkers during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, in the United States. Its author has two purposes: The first is to "rescue" these people and their ideas from their usual dismissive designation as nostalgic communitarians or middle-class social controllers; The second is to show how their ideas, writings, and the urban institutions they fostered, can provide a way to "rescue" American democracy from its late-twentieth century doldrums of a public composed of "consumers passively enjoying products bestowed by American corporations or occasionally choosing among politicians who [have been] turned into commodities by political advertisers" (p. 3).
In regard to the former purpose, Mattson has written a thought-provoking book. He returns to the Progressive Era to investigate what he considers a wrongly-dismissed project of several middle-class reformers to form an effective democratic public, one in which "citizens gather together to deliberate and make public judgments about local and national issues that affect their lives" (p. 4). With this in mind, he reexamines terrain generally familiar to any scholar working in progressive-era reform, looking at several reform movements and the men (and sometimes women) who promoted them. Chapter One considers the City Beautiful and University Extension movements, looking specifically at organizations such as the American Park and Outdoor Art Association (APOAA), and the ideas and activities of individuals such as Irene Sargent, a professor of Romance languages and founder of the arts and crafts movement's publication The Craftsmen, and educator and settlement house founder Charles Zueblin.
Chapter Two focuses on the ideas of civic reformer Frederick Howe and Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson and their role in founding public forums such as "tent meetings" in Cleveland and the People's Institute in New York City. Chapters Three and Four analyze the development of what Mattson considers the epitome of the movement for participatory democracy, the social centers movement and its political ideology. Chapter Five explores Mary Parker Follett, whose ideas Mattson believes reflected the radical possibilities of the movement. Chapter Six reflects upon the reasons for the ultimate failure of these movements to create a democratic public.
According to Mattson, scholars have too often dismissed these movements and their advocates as largely middle-class efforts bent on social control of the new undesirable elements of urban society. He argues that in doing so, scholars have not only failed to realize the democratizing ideas of these movements, they have mistakenly characterized these reformers as anti-urban throwbacks, seeking to impose a small-town-like consensus of shared values on the polyglot city. Follett, in particular, he views as having been seriously misunderstood in this regard. When she emphasized the importance of the local, the neighborhood, according to Mattson's interpretation, she was not seeking a small-town consensus politics, but recognizing that to be effective, public debate had to begin with the small and the local where people could actually speak to one another. >From the neighborhood debate, a democratic public could then build upward to create a new American nation (p. 104). Rather than being either anti-urban or rigid, Mattson argues, these movements in fact recognized that the very diversity and heterogeneity of the growing industrial city was a source of strength for American democracy. For the men and women who gave intellectual life to these movements, according to Mattson, the city was an arena for hearing the multiplicity of voices, and debating the range of private ideas and opinions, that were absolutely necessary for fostering a vigorous public debate whose result would be a true democratic public. Without such debate, there could be no democratic public, and without a democratic public, these reformers feared that democracy would degenerate into little more than "crude power relations and corruption" (p. 85).
Creating urban public institutions and venues, the promoters of these movements believed, would allow Americans to avoid this dreary fate. Since all urban residents could participate, these venues would, first, create a citizenry educated for assuming the responsibility of self-government (p. 60). Second, the extensive public debate generated in these venues would enable Americans to develop a "collective public judgment" (p. 72), especially as it would introduce a broad range of citizens to conflicting ideas about which they could debate and arrive at collective compromise. And third, out of such collectivity would emerge "critical" citizens who could translate debate on the local level into a consideration of "the concerns of a wider public" (pp. 79 and 81), thereby elevating the good of the whole over individual and private needs.
For Mattson, then, what united the politician, Tom Johnson, the Johns Hopkins-trained political scientist turned lawyer, Frederick Howe, and the upper-class Bostonian, Mary Parker Follett, was a belief that true reform of American society would not come through reform of political institutions which would then empower democratic citizens, as was the aim of so many progressive-era reforms. He argues that these progressive activists rejected the liberal democratic idea that political institutions were necessary evils, protecting private needs from a potentially rapacious government or unruly elements in the social order. They embraced, instead, the idea that true reform began with development of a politically-engaged urban citizenry. Such a citizenry in turn would demand democratic political institutions that would foster the public good. According to Mary Parker Follett, passionate public deliberation would produce a "new synthesis" of political ideas over and over again (p. 93).
The progressive era promises of the creation of a democratic public, Mattson concludes, were undermined first by entrenched political interests and then killed by World War I. The war created a "new conception of public opinion," one that saw "public opinion not as an active process willed by citizens in community arenas ... but as a passive object to be manipulated by political leaders and advertisers" (p. 129). The efficiency-based administrative reforms of "liberal" progressives succeeded instead, producing "an increasingly weak democratic public alongside an increasingly administrative state" in which citizens have become increasingly incapable of distinguishing between "personal feelings to public claims" and the idea that there may exist a public sphere beyond themselves (pp. 130-31).
Democracy can be a tricky concept for historians because it is both a political philosophy and the institutional arrangements that result from the philosophy. Where Mattson succeeds best in his overall analysis is in fostering an appreciation for a group of progressive-era reformers who believed that the institutions of democracy were not enough to foster a democratic life. He shows how these people rejected the idea that the guarantee of political equality in the individual right to vote would foster sufficient democracy. They believed, rather, that democracy could only be safeguarded if citizens recognized that they also had a "duty to think, reflect, and collectively deliberate" (p. 83). Democracy, for them, was a public, other-regarding responsibility, not merely a private, self-regarding right. The mechanisms and institutions could only function at their best if democratic citizens dedicated themselves to such a public view.
It is more than time to "rescue" these and many other progressive-era activists from the social-control analysis. Proper appreciation of this time period in U.S. history demands that we recognize, as does Mattson, that this was a time of great potential for change in American government and society. That what resulted may have benefited some groups far more than others, does not mean that all progressive-era activists wanted this to happen. By examining the movements and the people that he does in his book, Mattson reminds us of the diversity of experiences and ideas circulating at this time, of the caution given U.S. urban historians by Philip Ethington, that "Progressivism was distinguished by the way people became mobilized and integrated into relations with the state, and not by a set of groups that can be identified as "progressive'"
In regard to the book's second purpose, however, Mattson seems less successful. What can we learn from these figures and movements that we can apply to the end of the twentieth century? Mattson wants to urge Americans to find the way to create real participatory democracy by recreating movements and venues similar to the social centers movement. He sees the Industrial Areas Foundation originated by Saul Alinsky and its concept of community organization from the bottom as providing a "hope for democracy" (p. 132). But now as one hundred years ago, the intellectual, philosophical underpinnings of democracy cannot be easily separated from the concrete world of politics and political institutions that they have engendered. The lesson of the social centers movement may well be not, as Mattson wants to believe, that applying more patience and allowing more time for their creation than did the progressives will pave the way toward the creation of a genuine participatory democracy of the type these reformers envisioned. The lesson may well be that the institutional arrangements of democratic government may in fact not allow such a democratic public to exist. But to consider this factor, more attention must be paid to these institutional arrangements than this book undertakes.
. Philip J. Ethington, The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 (New York, 1994), p. 346.
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