Democratic deliberation can be viewed in a few different ways. It can be approached as a means of competing interests coming together to bargain between groups until they come to some kind of political agreement.
From an epistemological sense, deliberation is what we do in the absence of certainty, and where uncertainty exists so does the political. This requires us to practice as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt says, “thinking without banisters.” Deliberation takes place as members of a community discuss and determine answers to perennial questions: What is real? What is moral? What do we value? How can we best address our political or economic problems?
There’s a third form of democratic deliberation, one often overlooked or under-utilized: deliberation as a way of working through emotional trauma. Rather than debate the significance of certain political events and which legislative actions should be taken, this more therapeutic view considers deliberation a tool for helping communities process emotional cataclysms or psychological maladies, especially past ones left unacknowledged or repressed.
This can happen on a personal level, or collectively, for a community. Think of it like political activism as a massive group therapy session.
This third form is advocated for by Noëlle McAfee, a professor of philosophy at Emory University with a secondary appointment as professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. She is also the director of Emory’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program. In her 2019 book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, which won the American Psychoanalytic Association’s 2020 Courage to Dream Book, McAfee applies a psychoanalytic lens to some of the most pressing political issues faced by American democracy today, such as racism, inequality, alienation, and globalism.
In this conversation, we reflect on a few things.
What is the fear of breakdown and how does this anxiety make democracy more difficult to practice? What are some psychoanalytic explanations for the rise of nativism and authoritarianism in the United States? What are some of these political ghosts and wounds that remain submerged or repressed? And what does it look like to use democratic deliberation as a form of collective therapy?
Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis by Noëlle McAfee (2017)
“Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” by Sigmund Freud (1914)
“American Democracy and Its Broken Bargaining Tables” by Daniel Layman (2021)
“Who Cares About Democracy?” by Walter Horn (2021)
“We’re Overdoing Democracy. But Why?” by Kevin Vallier (2019)
A podcast about our relationship to ideas. Doing our damnedest to not block the path of inquiry.