A Phenomenology of Democratic Politics

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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Professor McAfee,

    I’m working on very similar issues… I wonder what you think about the importance of economic structures in thinking about politics in the “depth” that you are speaking about?

  2. Exciting!

    1. Why a phenomenology? Why not just Tocquevillean quasi-anthropology? Phenomenology is philosophically over-loaded. If you use that word, you have to own it. Do you really want to own *that* word? (Maybe you do. But be clear that you are owning it and what it means for you.)

    2. Looking at the “whole body politic”. Great idea. But then why immediately boil it down to “two things”? Yes states are obviously important. Yes political culture is obviously important. But so too are economic structures, though, seconding the previous comment. But so too are religious institutions. But so too are emerging techno-sciences like genomics, nano, internet, etc.. But so too are… You get the picture. Why sacrifice the complexity? Maybe there is a good reason to take a slightly more rarefied view. I am okay with that. But then why say you are looking at the “whole” thing? If you want to look at state and culture primarily, say “I want to look at state and culture primarily”. It’s very tough to deliver on the promise of “whole”. If you are eager for that, though, then I will be even more excited.

    3. How do people deal with their problems? That is a great way to frame the project, says me pragmatist. But why does it have to be “local” and “immediate”? What do you mean by those metaphors? I have friends that live entirely on the internet. Their problems are “local” in one sense but certainly not in another. I know you are sensitive to this sort of thing. So it will help to be precise about what you mean by “local” especially because when chained to “neighborhoods” that metaphor often sacrifices an acknowledgment of the networked and diffuse structure of contemporary political practices. Who lives, politically, in a “neighborhood” anymore? Hardly anybody! Not me. In an era of renewed big nationalization, this seems an odd focal length. (Put another way: you will have to answer the sorts of worries well articulated by Iris Marion Young.)

    These are just a few impressions hastily scribbled down. I hope they are not put too abruptly. I think this is a great project and am very eager to watch it unfold.

  3. Hi, Colin. Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. I have indeed been mulling over whether to use the word phenomenology. I hesitate for some of the reasons I think you do — I don’t want to put myself forward as some kind of Husserlian. At the same time, I am Greek (and that was indeed my first language), and I like the general meaning of the term as being how things appear to me. I’m just giving an account of what seems to be the way that demoratic politics seems to happen. The Greek phenomai means to appear or seem or happen.

    2. Notice I say “at least two,” being mindful of all the other dimensions. All these other arenas (the economy, religion, etc.) obviously have political effects. But at the very outset I’m trying to get to the heart of the matter. And the heart of politics, to borrow Ben Barber’s way of putting it, is the process of people having to decide, in the face of uncertainty, what to do about when something has to be done (or when not doing anything will have its own effects) about something of common concern when there is no agreement about what to do and no independent foundation to appeal to. The more inclusive that project is, the more democratic it might be. If the process is delegated to a select body or a king, we might be talking about politics, but not democratic politics.

    I’m following the lead of a colleague of mine, Hal Saunders, in pointing out these two areas — the mechanisms of government and the political culture. In his book, Politics is About Relationships, Saunders (who worked for Carter back in the day on the Camp David talks and is now the head of the International Institute for Sustained Dialoge) points out these two areas to help his reader see that politics is not just what governments do. It is also what members of political communities can do to shape their common life. It’s so easy to reduce politics to the actions of institutions, that it helps to show this other arena of politics. Actually, Hal’s distinction is between the mechanisms of government and the culture of democracy. I prefer to use the term “political culture” to “culture of democracy” in order to understand places Haiti and Soviet-era Romania.

    3. I don’t think problem-solving is only local and immediate. I’m just starting here. I share your interest in all the other kinds of communities and networks and networks of networks that so many of us inhabit — and in fact that you and I are inhabiting in this space right here. It is odd, I think, that so many people feel more efficacious and connected in their cyber-lives than in their physical lives. I’ve been thinking about this all a lot. I’ve decided it is okay to privilege, or at least take as fundamental, the local and immediate, and I mean originating at the place that I put my head down every night, because this is where I am thrown, this is where I find myself. Sometimes I choose where I live, sometimes I don’t. I rarely get to choose who my neighbors are, and I’ve lived for years on streets where I barely knew any of them.

    It is in these spaces, though, that some quintessential elements of politics arise. Something happens to me or us; we don’t know what caused it, who else is affected, or what to do about it. (I experienced this in one of my anonymous neighborhoods when every once in a while the water coming out of the pipes would turn black and the town officials denied that there was a problem. So I started organizing my neighborhood. I didn’t know these other people, but i started knocking on their doors and talking with them so we could do something about the problem. Ah, but I moved before we ever finished!) In these situations we need to find a way to deal with people we may not know or like or agree with in order to address matters of common concern. That’s politics.

    With you, though, I’m interested in how virtual and interest and professional communities function politically. There are some commonalities with the local, and some differences. We can pick and choose a bit more — we can also say the hell with you and split off to start a new group. There is less of this in the local. In the local, we’re stuck having to engage, and create power, or retreat and opt out.

    For the past four years I have had the good fortune to live in a really thriving community with a long history of common work. Many of the people who moved here fifty years ago are still here. They have a long history of coming together to do things — including starting a progressive school many years ago, starting a food bank, maintaining the local parks. I’ve never been in any place like this. I have learned a lot. For example, just because people care about the same things and know each other doesn’t mean they’ll agree or get along. People here are very passionate and sometimes they can be at each other’s throats. It has been an amazing lesson.

    As for Iris Young’s worries, I think I’ve address a lot of these in the past. In her very last book before she died, she ended up coming around a bit. Maybe you could tell me what particular concerns you have in mind?

    Thanks, again. It’s great to have interlocutors on this project.

  4. I’ll try to be brief in trying to explain my question. I definitely agree that institutions and political culture make up a political whole (as a student of Stephen Elkin, I tend to use the term “regime”) However, I think economy is another critical piece of the political regime, and, whether we like it or not, the most substantial influence on both institutions and and political culture (I’m thinking of Lindblom here) Economy changes culture, economy limits political reform, and while Sandel bemoans the moment that our government figured this out, but we’ve hardly been offered an alternative political economy. Instead, we get offered political theory that ignores economy (see: deliberative democracy), and Sandel decided to go complain about messing with people’s genes rather than actually think about the hard choices about how economy and community should actually accommodate one another after voicing his displeasure with how we do it now.

    So now, if institutions and political culture make up some broader understanding of politics that cannot be reduced to economic models of democracy, it seems to me that the question remains: if economics and economic rationality is not everything in political theory, it is also not nothing… so what is it? What role does the economy play in thicker accounts of democratic politics? Not just in terms of the economy of resource distribution, but also in the economy of realizing competing democratic values whose structured support and maintenance have costs of their own?

    I hope that made my question more clear rather than less. It is an interesting project, and I look forward to following it on your blog.

  5. Thanks, Steven.

    No doubt the economy is part of the political scene. What I’m trying to do in that first discussion (which will be put much more precisely in the book) is to boil down the essence of politics. As I suggested in my response to Colin, I think it is the process of deciding what to do on matters of common concern in the face of uncertainty, disagreement, and conflicting agendas, attitudes, or values. As you rightly point out, the economy is a major factor, or part of the larger field, that affects this process. But I don’t see the economy as a potentially reflective, deliberate agent that is engaged in a political process of deciding what to do on matters of common concern. “The economy” is a complex structure steered by money and power. It does indeed, and perhaps now as much as ever, encroach on or colonize the political culture. That is certainly worth discussing. But at this point I am just trying to get some vocabulary set as to what the meaning of politics is.

    If I need to clarify this more, or if you have concerns that I’m not getting at, please let me knowl

  6. Thanks for the reply. I am slow with the response but here it is.

    2. Boiling it down.
    I like what you are saying and the df of politics as ‘making decisions about matters of common concern’ (paraphrasing) suits me well. The one ambiguous word for me in this df is ‘common’. I think it can be clarified well enough but perhaps it ought to be. For it sounds like you are also here offering a df of ‘the public’. That helps tease out the point that there are a plurality of those who find themselves in ‘common’ with others. Over here I must decide in common with Y. Over there I must decide in common not with Y but with X.

    Now when we make decisions about pressing matters of vital concern I agree that these decisions are most often ‘governmental’ or ‘cultural’. I would say that the latter is a big umbrella for lots and lots of different stuff so perhaps the idea of ‘the cultural’ as all one thing may ultimately prove misleading. But I would also say that sometimes these decisions we make in common are ‘economic’. Sometimes we decide that market mechanisms will be the best way for us to resolve an issue. I see no way around that. But I wonder if it’s definitional and somehow your conception of ‘decision’ excludes market mechanisms. Your response to Steve suggests as much. Money-steering is not Reason-steering as you point out in a Habermasian kind of way. That is well and good. But then I worry that this is just a stipulative claim not an informative one. For if you have already decided in advance that only Reasons matter then you have already assumed that your theory of politics will be a deliberative one in which participation in a capitalist market is not a political activity. But then you need an independent argument for: why only Reasons matter for politics.

    I worry that I am missing something, though.

    3. The local.
    Your points here are persuasive but I just cannot help but feel that there are some things which are not local which are a heck of a lot more important to us. Isn’t the current mess in the financial markets decidedly non-local? Aren’t a bunch of people implicated in it so deeply that they cannot become unstuck? Isn’t it just as problematic for them as a broken pipe next door, if not moreso? I guess I want an explanation as to why local problems are somehow more important problems. Indeed sometimes it is just easier to move out of a crummy neighborhood than it is to extricate oneself from a crummy non-local ‘network’.

    In short, I agree that local problems are important. It’s just that they are just not the only ones that are important. So again, why prioritize them? (I could imagine an interesting empirical argument for their prioritization — but one would have to actually show the numbers for this to be convincing.)

    Oops I didn’t mean to write so much and hog your blog comments.

  7. Colin — thanks for these great queries. I was just starting to write a bit about what I mean by “common” because i understand that this word can be a red flag. Later today in my 3d “installment” I’ll address these points. These are worth moving the discussion back to the front page. –Noelle

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