John Dewey's Eclipse of the Public: the Public Decline in the Political Arena

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The thesis from Dewey’s The Eclipse of the Public that will be analyzed here is that the public has been lost (eclipsed) because of economic change happening faster than political change. Dewey thinks the public has been lost because of the disconnect between public opinion and political outcomes, which explains the absence of the public in the political machine of the country.

There are three explanations for the eclipse of the public that sum up and explain why Dewey thinks that the public has been lost. The first reason is the decline of leisure. According to Dewey, leisure was the foundation for much of the political participation that happened in ancient republics. People with time to spare and without financial constraints could turn to politics because they had no other concerns. Today, however, people are far more predisposed to work. In fact, Dewey argues, the more people succeed at their work, the more they work. The increasing demands of business and work have taken away from the political sphere.

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The second reason for the decline of the public from the political sphere is that politics has faced increased competition from a host of entertainments. Mass culture ends up consuming most of whatever amount of leisure time people have left. The third reason for the decline of the public from politics is that the very underpinnings of the economy erodes the emergence of an efficacious public. Dewey argues that evolution in production means an evolution in the way that society is organized. Dewey seems to attribute this constant shifting of the structure of society to migration from rural areas to urban areas, although today it is due to things like large companies undergoing structural changes and laying off employees, causing unemployment. New economic conditions constantly force people to move, which, according to Dewey, prevents the formation of an efficacious and engaged public.

An important part of Dewey’s thesis that needs explaining is the solution to the eclipse of the public. The solution, for Dewey, seems to be the building of a great community that will be in line with the great society. It turns out that this is mostly a problem of coming up with the right form of communication that would bring the public into this great community. In Dewey’s words, “We have physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence not common. Without such communication, the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself…Communication alone can create a great community. Our Babel is not one of tongues, but of signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible” (143). He also explains what would enliven this great community: “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (145). Communication, it seems, must be put into practice in order for this consciousness to come to light. Ultimately, then, Dewey’s solution for the eclipse of the public is a connection between democracy, community, and communication.

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