Authentic political action: the unlikely theoretical convergence of Hannah Arendt and John Dewey

Whether authentic political action should reside with the people or the state institutions we create is an enduring question in the study of political theory. The famous Lippmann-Dewey debate of the 1920s brings into high relief the tension between these alternatives and provides a stable background against which to investigate the theories of political action, in particular, those of John Dewey and Hannah Arendt. Notwithstanding their emergence from distinct philosophical traditions, Dewey and Arendt’s theories demonstrate deep convergence vis-à-vis their citizen-based conceptions of authentic politics. The present analysis of their theories includes analysis of the structures and patterns of rules and conditions inherent to political action, epistemological and ontological foundations, notions of power and liberty and the public realm within which political action instantiates, and importantly, the institutional arrangements that are supported or constrained by their theories. Their citizen-based approaches, in conclusion, reinvigorate the current debate concerning citizen disengagement and incompetence and present significant challenges to theories of elite democracy, which more accurately reflect the reality of the modern American polity. Normatively, Arendt and Dewey’s significant contributions to political theory in a modern age support citizen-based solutions and thin state institutional structures.