The Philosopher-Lobbyist: John Dewey and the People’s Lobby, 1928–1940, written by Mordecai Lee

In: Contemporary Pragmatism
Author: Nick C. Sagos1
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suny Press, 2015. 299 pp. isbn 978-1-4384-5529-7 (hardcover).

Mordecai Lee’s account of the People’s Lobby is both exhaustive and multifaceted. The book proceeds in chronological order, tracking the lobby’s emergence, its assent, and its eventual dissolution, in September of 1950. The existence of the lobby is worth studying for several reasons. First, its history is largely forgotten even among professional historians and political scientists. Second, when the People’s Lobby does figure in the academic literature, discussions of its origins and goals remain largely schematic. Third, the People’s Lobby founded by John Dewey and Benjamin Marsh created something new. Their organization marshalled political pressure in the public interest. The People’s Lobby’s was not just groundbreaking for its time. Lee catalogues how its efficacy made the group an architype for every activist organization that followed in its wake. The activist template developed by Dewey and Marsh is so influential that it remains the bedrock of political outreach even today.

The book divides into three main sections, each corresponding to a critical period in the lobby’s career. Part i, deals with Dewey and Marsh’s motivations. Part ii, explores Dewey’s presidency of the Lobby. Part iii, looks at the post-Dewey years. By explaining the political and social climate of the times, Lee tries to describe the rationale underlying the creation and direction of the People’s Lobby. Whenever possible, Lee uses primary sources. He employs private correspondence, editorials, internal memoranda, newspaper reports, academic publications, and official government files, to substantiate the claims he attributes to Dewey and Marsh. Early chapters give readers a biographical sketch of each man. The biographies explain their respective political views and show how these change over fifty years. They also provide socioeconomic background on the respective situations of Dewey and Marsh through those years. Later chapters deal with the internal management of the group. Lee is meticulous in tracking the events that lead to the Lobby’s founding. Lee wants to understand how a preeminent academic (Dewey) and a pioneering city planner (Marsh) got involved in direct political action and mass media as such a crossover was exceedingly rare in the early 1900s. The Lobby’s career is instructive as its successes and failures shaped the practice of political lobbying for decades to come.

In Lee’s view, America’s involvement in World War i served as a founding catalyst for the association. By endorsing Wilson’s entry into the war, Dewey hoped to implement the progressive values he promoted philosophically at an international and institutional level. Through the endorsement, Dewey broke with many anti-war socialists in Europe and the us who were against the intervention. Despite the endorsement, Dewey continued advocating for progressive policies such as the outlawry of war. He also railed publicly against Red Scares. Eventually he and others became disillusioned with Wilson’s handling of the War. Having long supported third party presidential candidates (all of whom lost repeatedly) Dewey began to think that concrete political change was now required. Social progress had stalled. Voting and writing alone would not bring about the requisite institutional change. According to Lee, trips to Mexico and the Soviet Union in 1926 and 1928 only solidified Dewey’s resolve to contribute more directly to non-ideal politics, especially in matters of generalized public interest. Marsh was on a similar ideological trajectory, though more of an agitator. Lee notes that progressives of the period were already demanding greater publicity and transparency from business leaders and politicians. In 1922, Walter Lippmann’s book Public Opinion helped galvanize this ever-growing sentiment on the Left.

Dewey and Marsh shared the sentiment as well. For them, publicity could serve two important purposes.

First, it was an end, that of shining a light on the corrupt activities of corporations and politicians […] reformers wanted transparency of business and government. The mere threat of publicity would also be a prophylactic protecting the public interest from mal-doers. In this sense, publicity, in and of itself, was a goal. Second, publicity campaigns could be mounted by reformers (and the politicians they liked) to enact reforms they felt were in the public interest. Publicity would convince public opinion (then often called sentiment) of the benefits of a particular legislative proposal and, in turn, prompt lawmakers to enact such reforms if they wanted to bask in the approval of the voters. In this sense, publicity was a means. However used, publicity contributed to the goal of a fairer and more just political economy. Dewey [and Marsh] agreed with both roles for publicity that progressive reformers had formulated” (p. 19 [brackets mine]).

In this, Tufts and Dewey were prescient. By 1908, they had already written of the power of publicity in Ethics. “Publicity is not a cure for bad practices, [they argued] but it is a powerful deterrent agency so long as the offenders care for public opinion and not solely for the approval of their own class” (Dewey and Tufts 1929, 520). Writing about industry in 1922, Dewey reasoned that greater “publicity about the activities of industrial and financial captains and the consequences of their doings would bring an overwhelming check of public sentiment to bear upon what they do” (p. 19 [brackets mine]).

As the value of publicity grew, government and industry became ever more adept at manipulating the message. Lippmann in particular grew increasingly concerned at the way postwar journalism had abdicated its role as truth teller. Public opinion in Lippmann’s view was now steeped in misinformation. Dewey and Marsh agreed with Lippmann’s analysis of the causes and factors, but they wanted to resist his conclusions. Liberal democracy would devolve completely if there was no corrective to the distorting influence of vested private interests. Public opinion needed to work for democracy and against oligarchy, reasoned Dewey and Marsh. For this to obtain, unbiased information needed to find its way more directly to the people.

Throughout the book, Lee shows the urgency with which progressives attacked the problem. Mass communication was the new battleground on which socioeconomic combat was fought. Marsh understood this as a career activist. Dewey came to understand the import of mass communications as he developed his notion of the Public. Yet the shadow of Lippmann and his influence on other progressives loomed large at the time. To Dewey, corporate messaging had turned citizens into spectators of public affairs and the People’s Lobby aimed to guide citizens back toward participation. Real news for Marsh and Dewey required a context. It required an unbiased account of policy alternatives. Moreover, it owed the public an explanation of what was not being reported and a rationale for the omission.

Unlike many leftist political action groups, the People’s Lobby had a clear focus. While its goals expanded as its membership and influence grew, Lee does an admirable job of underscoring the steadfastness of the movement. From its infancy, the Lobby held fast to its core commitments. These can be summarized as follows: (1) To engage in maximal publicity to reach the citizenry. (2) To use such publicity to give a larger coherence to the episodic nature of the news. (3) To disseminate information and alternatives that the economic and political oligarchy may be suppressing. (4) To provide relevant and credible new knowledge that may contribute to a public debate about policies (p. 26). This four-part mission statement is consonant with Dewey’s own political philosophy, which was expanded on in The Public and Its Problems, written a few years after the group’s founding. The Lobby affords Dewey the rare opportunity of institutionalizing his political philosophy. It gives Marsh (the activist) an organized platform. And it gives them both a chance to implement concrete public policy.

Their policy agenda continued to evolve but it always gravitated to large-scale change. Some of the Lobby’s initiatives included nationalizing the railroads, breaking up economic monopolies, enacting a bill of rights for unions, amending the progressive income tax code, and criticizing the Federal Reserve for its high rates of interest and for its discriminatory lending practices (p. 33). Each of these issues remain politically salient today.

Mordecai Lee’s The Philosopher-Lobbyist is a valuable contribution to the emerging field of non-profit history and activism. Political scientists and philosophers will find it valuable as a guide to both the history of progressive lobbying and as a rare window into what happens when academic specialists work in public policy settings as professionals. The efforts of the Lobby appear to have been mostly positive. Yet its legacy is still haunted by Lippmann’s democratic pessimism. The authentic Public that Dewey and Marsh envisioned is seemingly in Eclipse today. Cruelty, greed, and class, persist as features of our stridently anti-egalitarian politics. For better and worse, political action committees now use the tactics and methods developed by the Lobby across the political spectrum. With greater access to emerging technology, perhaps the emancipatory meliorism of the Lobby will again take new root.

Reference

Dewey John and Tufts James H. 1929. Ethics. New York: Henry Holt. (Originally published in 1908).

  • Dewey John and Tufts James H. 1929. Ethics. New York: Henry Holt. (Originally published in 1908).

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