This academic year I’ve been working on a new book project. Roughly, it’s a phenomenology of democratic politics — democratic in the deep and strong sense, not the thin sense of liberal, representative democracy. I’ve written several chapters, that have been published as papers here and there. It’s time to start ordering this all in a coherent way.
I think I’ll use this blog of mine as a way of trying out the ideas. Of course my writing here will be in a rather different register than the book.
I’ll start posting a discrete thought one at a time. Please do share your thoughts as I move along.
Here’s the first thought:
To help a country become more functional and even flourishing, it is important to look at the whole body politic. This will include at least two things: the mechanisms of government (what we often refer to as the state) and the political culture. To understand the political culture it is important to start from the very local and immediate. At the neighborhood level, when there is a problem, what do the people do? Do they have habits and norms of problem solving? Or do they leave the problems for someone else to address? What are people’s habits and expectations about who will define problems, frame them, decide what to do and then act?
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that we Americans are peculiar. In France when there is a problem people start knocking on the magistrate’s door, demanding that the magistrate do something. In America, when there’s a problem, people form an association to do something about it themselves. By the 20th century this habit was long gone. But if Tocqueville was right, in the 19th century the French and the Americans had distinctly different political cultures. They had certain habits and norms about what to do when problems happen.
Think about where you grew up or where you live now. When there’s a problem, how do people behave? Do they get together? Do they protest, beseech, complain, or even riot? Do they give up? These habits are crucial indicators of a community’s civic capacities.