Can we repair our political practices and achieve something like the popular democracy that has remained always just around the corner? Popular democracy – a democracy in which the wisdom of a self-governing people is translated into policy – was opposed from the beginning of our nation’s history by the likes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a shrewd authoritarian who had the insight that capitalist elites, protected by federal charter and largesse, could rule safely as invisible monarchs. This, of course, unraveled the naïve hopes of Adam Smith, who attempted to include compassion and human sympathy within his rationalist model, and who thought a free, unfettered market economy would promote human sympathy, equality and understanding.
Today, the elite democracy view is embodied in top-down political practices that diminish the franchise and excuse voter suppression, advantage the wealthy through legal fiat that makes wealth and speech equivalent, reduce citizenship to passive consumerism, and maintain a class of political consultants and pundit elites who believe themselves a cut or two above the people they pretend to represent.
What’s loosely referred to as the “netroots revolution” is part of a revitalized progressive, popular democracy movement aimed at the reform of these practices. Its egalitarian emphasis is on engagement and action by the many. Citizens are entering the political sphere in numbers that threaten the hegemony of an elite class that has long dominated the Republican and Democratic parties. A good example of the movement’s spirit was seen in the overwhelming grassroots reaction against the patronizing and condescending performances of moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos during the ABC Obama/Clinton debate. Sen. Hillary Clinton revealed the elite’s us-and-them feelings of superiority when she told a private gathering of contributors that activists were getting in the way of their old-politics plans: “I mean, that’s what we’re dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions …” Clinton said.
This is all well-known to the readers of this site and other movement activists. Still, we need to continue thinking through the theoretical basis of the movement, including the articulation of fundamental progressive moral views. So much needs to be urgently accomplished, so much attention is needed on pressing issues and tactical demands, that the editors and readers of OpenLeft should take pride that they have always made room for such explorations.
Here I want to approach one of the keys to the progressive moral view and to the possibilities of popular democracy, and that is the role of human empathy in our political practices. In Part I of this series, The Promise of Popular Democracy: Origins, I looked at democracy’s true ancient roots in human empathy and anti-authoritarian practices. I deconstructed the privileging of austere reason over emotion in the Myth of Democratic Origins, and pointed toward a more authentic picture of the political human being.
But empathy remains somewhat controversial in political theory. Though based in our very biology, empathy is often misunderstood, even by the empathetic. It’s seen as a soft-hearted and unrealistic basis for political action and practice. Empathy is not some mild, inner innocent. Empathy challenges us to deeds of personal and social responsibility. It demands a fierce and courageous response to selfish and irresponsible acts, like an eagle eating a snake that threatens its nest. Some see in empathy a diminishment of autonomy, a loss of self, as though through empathy one somehow invades or inhabits the body and life of others, denying to them their uniqueness. The psychological devouring of self and other is dangerously pathological, and no doubt there are those who suffer from it. But that has nothing to do with empathy.
Since such essential popular democracy practices as universal suffrage are the enactment of our democratic covenant with one another – our public, political acknowledgement of equality, of the essential dignity of all – it seems prudent to further explore the human capability that makes such a covenant possible.
Looked at this way, citizen disenfranchisement, for instance, becomes something more than a procedural mechanism to perpetuate the power of the few over the many. It rips the heart out of our common lives, attacks our shared humanity, and denies those qualities which make all of us equally human.
Autonomy and Empathy
In her smart and beautiful book, Inventing Human Rights, historian Lynn Hunt traces some of the roots of the 18th Century egalitarian revolutions in America and France to the rise of a popular literature which allowed for “imaginative empathy.” Pointing to the 18th Century abolition of torture and the not-so-coincidental popularity of the novel, Hunt writes:
The political scientist Benedict Anderson has argued that newspapers and novels created the ‘imagined community’ that nationalism requires in order to flourish. What might be termed ‘imagined empathy’ serves as the foundation of human rights rather than of nationalism. It is imagined, not in the sense of made up, but in the sense that empathy requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you. Accounts of torture produced this imagined empathy through new views of pain. Novels generated it by inducing new sensations about the inner self. Each in their way reinforced the notion of a community based on autonomous, empathetic individuals who could relate beyond their immediate families, religious affiliations, or even nations to greater universal values.
It’s also not a coincidence that over the last six years, as the Bush Administration did its best to subvert and shred even the limited popular democracy America had achieved, it also revived torture as an acceptable practice. It’s not a stretch to say that elite democracy, like other authoritarian and even totalitarian regimes, depends upon the destruction of empathetic bonds among citizens. Domestic spying is not just about the collection of information, it is about the spread of suspicion and distrust. Ironically, the suspicion sowed greatly diminishes the accuracy of any information gained through these inhuman techniques. Racial prejudice is not advanced simply as a way of stealing wealth. It reinforces beliefs that not all humans are fully human. Assumptions of racial inequality and natural hierarchy make it much easier for authoritarians to assume superior, more-than-human status as they convince many of their followers not to worry: there are some even less human than they.
Hunt recognizes the deep biological roots of human empathy. She takes further the arguments we explored in Part I by exploring how innovative cultural practices of the 18th and 19th Century expanded the possibilities of empathy. Empathetic understanding of people we don’t know or who are not physically in front of us became easier once we learned to empathize at a distance through novels, engravings, and theatre. A new recognition that we are all alike helped lead to democratic revolutions based upon equality, dignity, and justice. This is a part of the picture often left out by those who see modern democracy arising from the Enlightenment rejection of authority based on unreasoned superstition and unrestrained emotion. From Hunt’s book:
Autonomy and empathy are cultural practices, not just ideas, and they are therefore quite literally embodied, that is, they have physical as well as emotional dimensions. Individual autonomy hinges on an increasing sense of the separation and sacredness of human bodies: your body is yours and my body mine, and we should both respect the boundaries between each other’s bodies. Empathy depends on the recognition that others feel and think as we do, that our inner feelings are alike in some fundamental fashion. To be autonomous, a person has to be legitimately separate and protected in his or her separation; but to have rights go along with that bodily separation a person’s selfhood must be appreciated in some more emotional fashion. Human rights depend both on self-possession and on the recognition that all others are equally self-possessed. It is the incomplete development of the latter that gives rise to all the inequalities of rights that have preoccupied us throughout all history.
The divorce of emotion and reason that followed the Enlightenment left empathy with a diminished reputation. We have exalted an austere, ghostly reason and trashed emotion in the political sphere. Kant specifically rejected empathy from any consideration in moral thought. The dominance of Kant’s view in philosophy and political science, the emergence of Hamiltonian market controls favoring elites, and capitalism’s later focus on rational self-interest and the creation of wealth, lead many to overlook Adam Smith’s moral thought. He believed human compassion balanced the pursuit of rational self-interest. Freed from market restrains, this could magically turn selfishness to sympathetic ends. It’s hard to find echoes of Smith in our contemporary political practices, which still rely upon “rational actor” models of behavior that reduce people to alienated, self-interested machines. Emotional manipulation and propaganda are condoned under a folk theory that smart, rational people ought to be able to see through it and rise above it. If they don’t, it’s the fault of their own ignorance.
Love is Blind; Blind Justice
Two shopworn concepts together reveal the absurdity of this binary picture of human nature that has served as the starting place for traditional Western political thought: Love is blind; blind justice.
Taken seriously, the little phrases suggest that regular travelers across territories of love and justice, which all of us are, necessarily enact another cliché. We become the blind leading the blind, always mucking up austere notions of justice with our messy emotions, always looking for some rational, objective measure of affection among those we love.
We try to resolve the obvious difficulties by telling ourselves that the blindness is domain-dependant, as though the worlds of love and justice orbit different suns, say, love around a red giant, justice around a hotter, smaller, bluer star. Eyes that see under one sun are blind under different light. We imagine a seeing eye dog guiding the blind lover in the one, the blind dog brought to heel by the seeing person of reason in the other.
Is the lover of justice twice-blinded, seeking justice in the light of love – and love in the light of justice? Those who have faith in the dominant, binary picture of human nature have many terms for such a lover of justice: “romantic,” “mystic,” “fool,” and, of course, “blind optimist.” But contemporary cognitive science is finding that the binary picture – the dualistic divorce of reason and emotion – is deeply flawed. It is only one of many new insights into the brain.
Brain scientists like Antonio Damasio have shown that reason requires emotion. Emotions are rational. A person unable to experience emotion or recognize emotional states in others is unable to act rationally. Reason without emotion is inhuman. Torture, for instance, might be logically justifiable by unemotional reason. In the true human universe beneath our single sun, it is ghastly and insane.
This new empirical science is telling us what the ancient prophets and poets said all along: it is the lover of justice who sees more, and the self-blinding denier of unemotional reason’s limits who is foolish.
If we pay attention, we might discover that the new picture of human being points the way to needed revisions of our theories of democracy and justice and reforms of our common political practices.
There have always been visionary dissenters opposed to the distorting, binary portrait of human reason and emotion. Still, the picture has, in one form or another, been the dominant view of human nature from Plato through Kant. It remained a central premise of America’s most widely read political theorist, the late John Rawls. Never did the perpetrators of this portrait explain how evolution happened to produce a creature born in existential need of bifocals, one lens for love, another for justice.
The great 20th Century German physicist Niels Bohr, moved by trouble with his son, once proposed a tentative solution. He saw a connection between the bifurcated self and the impossibility of simultaneously thinking about the velocity and position of a sub-atomic particle such as an electron. The thought occurred to him after his son confessed to the theft of a tobacco pipe from a local shop, and Bohr found he could not at once see his son in the light of love and the light of justice.
Bohr accepted the Cartesian mind/body dualism and the apparent estrangement of reason and emotion, and his parental dilemma led him to the notion of complementarity in physics. The idea of complementarity remains a credible narrative about the limitations of human thinking and perception. But the parallel with emotion and reason is misleading. The physicists’ mystery – why they lose track of a particle’s position when they measure its velocity – persists in empirical reality; the estrangement of emotion and reason, however, was only apparent, and was based upon little more than conjecture assumed to be psychologically accurate. Bohr doesn’t explain why nature would produce a sundered self.
The trouble is, a distorted picture of human nature necessarily distorts the political institutions and practices we invent to help us negotiate the differences, dangers and opportunities that emerge in our shared time on earth.
Recognizing the role of emotion in thinking and the importance of thinking to emotion does not mean rejecting the great insights of the Enlightenment and replacing rationality with a Romantic emotionalism. The philosopher Susan Neiman has a point when she reminds us of the liberating force of the Enlightenment, a force often overlooked or downplayed by those who criticize its errors – the erasure of empathy from moral thought, for instance. Here, I mean only to recognize, contra Kant, that empathy is essential to moral reasoning and political action. Replacing religious and political authoritarians with an authoritarian Reason that’s supposed to rule our all-too-human emotions from above does contribute to a certain idea of human individuality and autonomy, and that’s important. But it tends to separate us from one another and demand that we become creatures we can’t become: unfeeling, mathematical moralists who have not yet succeeded in finding any sort of viable foundation for a progressive politics based upon freedom, equality, fraternity.
Without empathy for one another, concepts like freedom, equality and fraternity mean little. Eliminating from moral and political thought the human biological capacity for empathy makes the achievement of a just post-Enlightenment society difficult if not impossible.
“I remove the tears from your eye.”
“I release your voice.”
In the past, even on this continent, empathy has been quite visible in human political practices. The following political rituals were described to me a few years ago by the late philosopher John Mohawk, a descendent of original Americans known as Haudenosaunee, People of the Longhouse, or Iroquois. John, who published the story here,was an expert on their Iroquoian practices. Here’s the story, paraphrased:
A circle of men and women moves through the tall grass. Not far away, another group of people with weary, blood-stained faces notes the approach of those with whom they hope to make peace. Soon the two groups, who earlier that very day fought fiercely with one another, now stand face to face. “I remove the tears from your eye,” says one who waited. “I release your voice,” says one who crossed the grass. These were ritual words, repeated with other phrases in similar peace-making circumstances. The People of the Longhouse used egalitarian rituals such as these long before European colonists came here to attempt the founding of a city upon a hill.
Notice the words used as part of their ritual peacemaking, the removal of tears and the releasing of voices. The former is a metaphor of protection, the latter a metaphor of empowerment. Protection and empowerment are the values that inform the progressive moral worldview. They are the very promises of the democratic covenant among the American people, and they flow from human empathy. It’s impossible to imagine a people without empathy speaking of the “removal of tears” and the “releasing of voices.” No, they first had to see their former enemies as human like themselves, and establish bonds of sympathy and cooperation where before were only antipathy and violence.
That is the spirit Americans should take to the polls with them on election day. The ritual bonding of a self-governing people should result in mutual protection and empowerment. Voting, the political practices that precede it and the government action that follows should be continually informed by just such an Iroquoian ethic. Our voluntary decision to abide by election results is, in a sense, the losers saying to the winners, “I release your voices,” and the winners saying in turn, “I remove your tears.” It’s not just noses that are counted, but hearts as well.
Our political practices consciously disenfranchise millions. They allow the national political conversation to be dominated by elite, corporatist pundits and paid advertising which everyone admits is deceitful, manipulative, overpowering, irresistible. Our public education system is no longer educating our young to be citizens. Schools are fast becoming vocational schools intended to do the opposite: produce passive, unquestioning, obedient followers who will defer forever to the Dick Cheneys of the world and others who seek only to silence the voices of the many and believe tears to be symptoms of irrationality and frailty.
These criticisms are not new. My point is that solutions won’t be found until we employ our new understanding of human being in the solution. Isn’t it true that while most Americans deplore deceitful and manipulative advertising, they believe it doesn’t influence them, but only less rational others? That’s a consequence of our culture’s mistaken understanding of rationality, a rationality that earns its status by its alleged universality and its power by its exclusionary, anti-universalist practices. The myth, of course, allows us to pretend we’re the rational ones. It’s those others who might be oppressed or manipulated.
If it did nothing else, bringing a little empathy back into our moral and political reasoning might quickly reveal that the joke has been on us.
What is justice? How do we vote for it? Well, Plato asked that question in the Republic, and it’s being asked still. One reason the answer slips from our fingers is that we forget we can hold it in our arms.
Empathy and Popular Democracy
How does the recognition of empathy and the role of emotions in human cognition alter our conception of popular democracy or help us turn the concept into political reality? This is the subject for Part III, but I want to make some brief remarks in advance of that exploration.
It will help if we simplify what we mean by empathy. It is nothing more than our ability to recognize others as human like ourselves, as possessing feelings like we feel, as having needs like we have. Empathy is made possible in part by a complicated neural system (a network of mirror neurons and their intricate connections to other parts of the brain) that allows us to learn by mimicry, from infancy through adulthood. Learning, memory and rationality are inter-subjective. From the womb to the grave, who we are is co-determined through our relations with others. The process of maturing includes learning to differentiate self from other, which is, in part, made possible by the use of empathy to recognize that the other is a person just like we must be individual persons.
Political practices built around this kind of understanding would look much different from our contemporary practices. For instance, shutting others out of collective decision-making by suppressing their votes means regarding them as less than human, as so unlike ourselves that their opinions and insights do not matter as much as ours. Seen another way, voting becomes an enactment of freedom, equality and fraternity – the very concepts democracy is supposed to advance. Diminishing voting to mere nose-counting diminishes the promise of popular democracy. Believing a “right” decision is more important than the shared decision is folly. That belief is one of the more outrageous justifications for elite democracy: as long as the most knowledgeable vote, democracy will survive.
It seems to me that we’ve made plenty of terrible mistakes relying upon an enfranchised elite while suppressing the opinions and participation of non-property holders, women, African-Americans, the illiterate, or simply those we won’t let off from work to vote, those whose votes are shredded in the dead of night, those who are illegally purged from the rolls, those intimidated from voting by armed, costumed thugs circulating near polling places on election day.
The truth is, the “right” decision now means a decision that empowers an elite who both define what is correct and benefit from the answer they’ve already defined. Was the invasion and occupation of Iraq the right decision? It sure was for defense contractors and neo-cons, the very people who continue to benefit in prestige, power, and wealth from that attack. They are, of course, the very people who argue most loudly against popular democracy.
Solidarity of the Shaken
The late Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage under questioning by Soviet authorities in 1977, coined the term “solidarity of the shaken” to name the human connectedness that precedes ideology and belief. Patocka, former Czech president Vaclav Havel’s teacher, was reaching for a grounding of a new progressive morality and politics. He was a rationalist in the tradition of Plato and Kant. But he was also a phenomenologist and a pragmatist who recognized the limits of reason. His thought here was that when we stood before the mystery of life with knowledge ofr our mortality, we trembled and searched for answers. The only answer, Patocka believed, was to live in truth, to speak and act authentically in ways that will undo the efforts of the powerful to deny the humanity of some or many. What we believe to be true would seem to require some belief or ideology, or at least an idea of what truth is. But Patocka believed there was always a deeper truth beneath whatever socially constructed truths of convenience prevailed at the moment: that was the truth of our shared humanity.
But how do I know who is shaken? Can I assume it, the way Kant assumed universal access to rationality. The answer is no. I cannot assume it. But I can feel it. And it’s empathy, informed by reason, that lets me do so.
Popular democracy is nothing less than the institutionalizing of the solidarity of the shaken. It has no final answer to what is truth, or certainty about what we should do tomorrow or the day after. Within this solidarity we will always tremble.
In fact, it’s only when we stop trembling that we’ll know democracy is dead.
First published 04/27/08 at OpenLeft.