A Phenomenology of Democratic Politics, 3d post

In two previous posts I started to lay out the argument, if you can call it that, of my new book project on democratic politics.  I don’t think it is right to call it an argument, exactly, because what I am really doing is laying out a general account of what I think is at work in democratic forms of self-organizing, deliberating, choosing, and acting.  I’ve called this a “phenomenology,” but Colin Koopman convinces me that this isn’t an apt phrase.  So this is a project very much in search of a title.

Rather than go piecemeal through the account, let me here offer a general outline of the whole project.  This is going to be a bit cryptic, but I hope understandable enough to spur some good conversation.  Here goes.

1. Politics from 30,000 feet
i)    politics as problem solving (Xav Briggs)
ii)    politics as world building and self making, anti-alienation, belonging, creating something a public sphere in which one sees oneself (Boyte’s comment at April DD, Arendt)
iii)    deciding what to do in the face of uncertainty

2.  Democracy from 30,000 feet
i)    as governance (whether representative or participatory)
ii)    as a political culture (whether robust and deep or atrophied; e.g. Haiti “no one goes outside”)
iii)    as a functioning whole, trying to put together the whole story to create a functional democratic society

3. Democratic Politics
i)    definition: the situation when all who are affected by common matters have a meaningful opportunity to shape their world, to deliberate, decide, and act
ii)    as a resistance to subjection, a resistance to the power of “what is,” as a normative orientation to creating something better than what is

4. Deliberation
i)    only occurs when one has to choose
ii)    choice work or the work of mourning
iii)    dealing with differends (e.g., the meaning of “America” in the immigration debate)
iv)    as a process for creating public will on matters of common concern (and in a democracy only those institutions and policies based on public will have legitimacy)

5. Democratic Ways of Knowing (Epistemology)
i)    given that politics arises in the midst of uncertainty, without any given authoritative source (Barber), how are people to know what choices to make?
ii)    the definition of the situation (Goldfarb) or “naming and framing”
iii)    the self-authorizing nature of democratic knowledge
iv)    in relation to expertise and professional knowledge

6. Civic Capacity
i)    the power to act, not just the will but the way (Briggs)
ii)    lessons from emergence theory (March Dayton Days)
iii)    horizontal power, the potential that springs up when people speak and act together (Arendt)
iv)    a mindset where people see themselves as having authority to decide and act, where the office of citizenship is robustly understood
v)    vital resource for development and economic flourishing
vi)    in a democracy it is often dispersed throughout society rather than concentrated in relatively few people
vii)    how to create civic capacity ex nihilo, in cultures lacking social capital

7. Democratic Public Action
i)    organizing not just mobilizing (Boyte)
ii)    the power of small things (Goldfarb)
iii)    the performative nature of political change: acting “as if” to make something so (Zerilli, Goldfarb)

8.  Venues for Democracy
i)    community organizing and self-organizing communities
ii)    civil society (the blobs and the squares) and why civil society isn’t always democratic
iii)    the importance of convening spaces (Boyte’s “free spaces”), mediating institutions (e.g., church basements for IAF)
iv)    the politics of where we live, local communities
v)    the politics of our associations, offline and online, often not local
vi)    new media and the ability to engage 24/7, how to make this expression or sublimation meaningful and democratic

9. Connecting a culture of democracy with the project of governance
i)    understanding the prevalent disconnect between the public and government
ii)    can public will and civic capacity hold government accountable? (e.g. in cultures rife with corruption or in failed states)
iii)    the potential and the limits of participatory governance
iv)    finding meaningful ways for government to engage the public – beyond the model of public interest lobbying and beyond mobilizing
v)    marshalling civic capacity to create more functional and democratic societies

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. I definitely see the influence of Dewey here. One thing that I (being both a philosopher of science and a political philosopher) like about Dewey’s conception of democracy is the emphasis on experimentation — `we’ (whoever `we’ happens to be in this case) should at least be open to trying out several different ways of solving a given problem, and then critically evaluate each of them. We might call these `public policy experiments’. It seems to me that this is relevant to your sections 4, 5, 8, and 9. For example, as I read Dewey, we don’t just deliberate publicly in order to form something like the general will; just like scientists, deliberating over the theoretical implications of an experiment, the public should deliberate over the practical implications of public policy experiments. We might say that, on Dewey’s view, we don’t just deliberate publicly about the ends of public or state action, but also the means. (As a happy upshot, this makes Dewey sound much less of a technocrat than other readings.)

    Incidentally, I highly recommend Henry Richardson’s Democratic autonomy, if you’re not already familiar with it. 🙂

  2. Noumena — yes, I’m very influenced by Dewey and, yes, his experimentalism is important in thinking about democratic epistemology. I’ve got Henry Richardson’s book on my shelf and, on your recommendation, I’ll pull it out to remind myself of how his project intersects with mine. Cheers.

  3. As per our conversation in the other thread, I look forward to reading chapter 9 to see how public and government can engage each other better.

    Re: phenomenology, I see Colin’s point…. Also, this doesn’t read like a whole book on just the ‘phenomenon’ of democratic politics. This is theorizing and institutional design on the basis of particular phenomena. If I’m wrong about the focus on ‘phenomena’, what’s wrong with the solid Latin ‘experience’ or even ‘life’ in keeping with Dewey, over the fancy Greek ‘phenomenology’? In keeping with your ‘30,000 feet’ metaphor, you might talk in terms of ‘zooming in’ on democratic politics, putting it ‘in focus.’ Alternatively, if you’re okay with the militancy of the metaphor, what about ‘Democracy and Governance: Marshalling Civic Capacities’? (Ugh: semicolons are very overplayed, but there’s a reason….This is why I hate titling whole works: I prefer chapter titles, where you’re getting a theme going and the semicolon isn’t so out of place.)

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