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

Deliberative Democracy Exchange

I’ve just come off of an amazing three-day meeting convened by the Kettering Foundation: the Deliberative Democracy Exchange.  There were about two hundred participants from all over the world coming together to exchange thoughts and think through little-d democratic politics, a politics that’s about deliberation, engagement, and civic agency.  I like to describe democracy as the opportunity for all who are affected by public matters to have the ability to shape their world.  That’s pretty basic, but still a lot to hope for.

Last night there was a panel of speakers form Latin American, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand who talked about the state of democracy in the world today.  I was struck by the Columbian who said to America, keep your money, help us build civil society.  And I was especially struck by the Jordanian, speaking for the Middle East, talking about why it has been so hard for the Arab world to become democratic.  There are internal and external factors, he noted.  Internally there was the problem that various Arab regimes seized on the Israel problem as an excuse for forestalling democracy. Externally there was the problem that the best beacon for democracy — the U.S. — was modeling anything but democracy in the Middle East, by supporting dictators and brutal regimes, by waging an endless war, not supporting peace.  I got the message from all that the United States is still a country that others in the world admire and love for its values; they just wish the U.S. would start living up to them.

What Kind of Democrats are Obama and Clinton?

Robert Gooding-Williams has an interesting post on the new Gender, Race, and Philosophy blog. He makes a good case that candidate Clinton is a democrat in the old elite style, while candidate Obama is a deliberative democratic. I’d love it if the latter were true. Whether it is so will be seen in practice, by how truly interested he is in cultivating and incorporating reflective public will. I don’t need any persuasion to agree that Hillary Clinton’s style is anything but participatory or deliberative. Recall her 1994 health care initiative: it was crafted behind tightly locked closed doors. No public input or oversight was welcome. Perhaps she thought this would be better somehow, but the results were predictable: the proposals that emerged were roundly dashed and never got off the ground. The same thing had happened in 1988 when AARP met behind closed doors with members of Congress to hammer out a catastrophic health care plan. The bill was enacted shortly before winter recess. Members of Congress returned home to find seniors up in arms over the new bill. It called for sacrifices that those subject to the bill had had no hand in shaping. They hadn’t had the chance to work through (in the Freudian sense, and the sense that Dan Yankelovich discusses) the costs and trade-offs. So when Congress recovened, one of the first things it did was rescind the new law.

Yankelovich once told me in an interview, “Any public policy that is not built on public will is built on sand.” Sand is what met the AARP bill and the HRC proposal. But I doubt that either learned that lesson. Obama seems to know instinctively that politics calls for drawing on public wisdom, not trying to manufacture public support after policy has been crafted.