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

Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock on doors to turn out votes.  Does it have a place in an administration?

Harry Boyte of the Humphrey school at the University of Minnesota seems to think it should.   But should it?  Does the buck stop at the President’s desk, or do we all share some deep responsibility to change this country?

Here’s a snippet of Boyte’s recent op-ed on the topic:

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from “we” to “I.” The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration’s potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out “yes, we can” in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that “all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.” He had learned a philosophy of civic agency — that we all must become agents of change — from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. “I’m asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I’m asking you to believe in yours,” read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign’s field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, “The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance.” Field director Temo Figueros explained, “We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves.”

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already,” he laughed. “I’ve got more than enough to do.”

The change has partly reflected the administration’s adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama’s words about citizenship and involvement “were just throat-clearing.” Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government’s role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are — deliberation, community service, advocacy — fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship — that democracy is the work of us all, that government is “us,” not “them” — have sharply eroded.  [read more]

If we all had a role, what would that be? I want to agree with Harry, but I’m not sure how to “operationalize” that on day-to-day matters, including waging and ending wars.

My guess is that we can still be the ones we’ve been waiting for if we realize the importance of public will and civic capacity.

When I was a kid, my family adopted a retired, champion Afghan hound.  The owners said that she could jump our eight-foot fence, but not to worry — she didn’t know she could.

Likewise, I think that there is tremendous power that the public has to create or block change, but generally we seem to be oblivious to this power, even though it has tremendous effects large and small.  I’m referring to the power that Hannah Arendt noted that is created when people talk and act together — the capacity that is created to create and transform a public world.

As for how to operationalize this, we need practices and spaces to make this real.

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.

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.