A Phenomenology of Democratic Politics, 2d post

I ended my last post, the first of a series on my current book project, with these questions: 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.

I recently posed this question to the students in my graduate seminar on democratic theory and post-conflict democratization. A student from a small town in Northern, Virginia, described how people in his town got riled up over the day laborer issue and descended on the town council meeting to air their grievances, one way or the other. A student from a small town in Florida said that whenever there was a problem in her community people would gather at the local diner and talk it over. A student from a small country in West Africa noted that when there were problems the elders, particularly the male elders, would gather at the village level to talk it through and decide what to do. A woman from the Middle East described a similar sex-segregated form of community, informal discussion and decision. She was clearly not pleased with how women were excluded from the meetings, I think she called them douania, but said that the women generally accomplished more in their own meetings. Finally, a student from another West African country reported that in his village, when there was a problem like the government failing to provide education funds, the young people would riot. I asked, do you mean demonstrate or riot? Is it violent? Oh, I mean riot, he answered; often several people would be killed.

We reflected on these various forms of political culture, ways in which people at community levels take up and address problems. I reminded the students of a previous meeting when a woman from Haiti visited the class and reported that in her village no one ever stepped outside, that there was no community public space.

So consider these various political cultures and forms of community-level problem addressing. There are those who gather to talk, others who gather to complain or protest, and yet others who gather to burn things down. There are some who talk without doing much of anything, and others who talk with an intent to devise a plan of action. There are communities that let only a select portion of the population engage in this political work, yet precious few that are inclusive in talking with the aim of coming up with a plan.

As I mentioned in my last post, in the 19th century, 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.

Political cultures generally supervene on implicit expectations about who the legitimate political actors are and what kind of power exists. If we expect that government officials are “the deciders” and the actors, then it would seem irrelevant for all those who are affected by these actions to deliberatively engage the issues themselves. If we think that political power is solely a matter of the power of the gun, the purse, or the law, then we might just as well stay home and watch American Idol.

In places such as this, whether parts of America or Haiti, when no one ventures into public life with others, opportunities to create power are lost. Members of these communities recognize only the power of authorities, of the state. And when the state is dysfunctional, as it is in Haiti, then there is precious little power at all to create any kind of meaningful change.

Hannah Arendt reminded us that there are at least two kinds of political power: power over, such as the power of coercion, force, money, and control and power with. The mechanisms of government are certainly invested with power over. In fact political theory is often defined as the study of institutions vested with such power. Power with is the power that is created when people come together and create a plan to address something. This power is more than the sum of its parts.

Places that have this power have the intangible quality of civic capacity.

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. Just wanted to say I’m really liking this series so far. Two questions:
    1. What’s the course you’re teaching called?
    2. Is this a ‘forthcoming’ book or an ‘in progress’ book? If the former, when is it coming out?

  2. Hi, Josh. The course is call “Democratic Theory and Post-Conflict Democratization.”

    2. This is a book in progress. Several chapters are written dealing with pieces of the overall account. What I am trying to do here is informally lay out the way to approach the whole thing.

    3. Let’s do get together for coffee sometime.

  3. Hi Noelle–

    I’m teaching a seminar on “Theorizing the Public” this spring, and just ran across James Kloppenberg’s essay “American Democracy and the Welfare State: The Problem of its Publics.” (in Moore and Vaudagna, eds. The American Century in Europe). He’s comparing the post-WWII construction of the welfare state in Britain and the US with regards to the question of citizen participation. It goes some way towards illuminating the fading of US civic culture in the postwar period; interesting to read alongside Theda Skocpol’s arguments about the nationalization of political culture.

  4. Pardon these quickly formed ruminations in advance if inadequate, but… What of the importance of gauging an effective number of constituents in a situation such as a small town or neighborhood gathering? Or the intrinsic motivation of an individual(s) who decides to pursue any kind of power? Assuming there are various forms and that their appropriateness, for the most part, is subjectively morally assessed. As exemplified by your current students and evident in certain communities -though we have it in us to identify x problem, and further recognize others who share our assessment of said problem as such (something problematic), once we begin our organizational process toward excercising “power with”, it seems we can operate successfully in this manner so long as the group remains small enough to 1) remain consistent in our goal and shared identification of the problem. 2) effective in the actual logistics of human organization. 3) collectively recognize 1 and 2 as critical to the goal, necessitating a limit on how many gather to exercise keeping in mind that the larger the number, the more we lose in the quality of 1 and 2, and thus our overall effectiveness.
    It feels like a positive thing to assume that the larger the number of community participants, the stronger the power piece of “power with” becomes. Not to mention it would seem conceptually inconsistent to exclude a viewpoint. But what happens when the viewpoints on x problem become so varied due to the number of voices on what presents itself originally as a rather particular issue, that the founding moral imperative to act on x as a community becomes thin, maybe even irrelevant in some cases and/or the excercise loses sight of x all together? I suppose this goes beyond the methodology of community action or inaction, and addresses more the effectiveness to, in a sense, stay on track . If we can, then certainly this type of power is inspiring and as you say, larger than the sum of it’s parts.
    It is unfortunate the number of people in smaller communities that relinquish the potential for this power to larger governmental bodies. Don’t we however in many cases find ourselves climbing the walls that lead to them in order to be appropriately heard? That is to say, do we gather to solve problem x ourselves, or our we doing it to be heard by those who constitute those larger bodies? If the latter, is not this a plural version of knocking on the magistrate’s door?Would it be correct to assume that some number of the very same people who found themselves intrinsically motivated enough to rally, gather, etc with others from their community for the sake of solving problem x and excercising “power with” eventually have also found themselves running for office and thus the gaining of “power over”? It seems the distinction between powers also carries of its keepers a distinction in human kind. The idea of “power with” seems to hold a romanticism whether effective or not, one that draws a certain type of individual. “power over” does away with the romanticism and the very real frustration of the small community attempt while satisfying an individual of a completely different nature. A nature some may say betrays his or her small town for now he or she is the magistrate. Unfortunately those who seek political office and this type of power who perhaps were raised in a small community often do not motivate by the ability to represent the community problem on a larger stage. Though occassionally, we get lucky.

  5. Again, in reviewing my post, my apologies for any inadequacies or typos for that matter.

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