Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophyby Michael J. Sandel. Harvard University Press, 417 pp., $24.95.

Printer friendly version |

One of the most resonant phrases in everyday American speech is “Its a free country” -- frequently accompanied, especially among misbehaving urchins of my generation, by the gleeful taunt “And I’ll do what I like!” Beneath this schoolyard prattle may be glimpsed what we (and most of our adult contemporaries) assumed freedom and democracy meant: the right to do pretty much as one pleased, without interference by the government or anyone else. In Democracy’s Discontent Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel goes behind this and similar commonplaces to reveal a vast scaffolding of philosophical and historical argument. Doing as one likes is, it turns out, only half of what America is all about.

Broadly speaking, Sandel claims, America’s public philosophy or civic creed has evolved in the two hundred years of our national existence from “republican liberalism” to “procedural liberalism.” The former emphasizes self-rule, dispersed power, an engaged citizenry, and the common good, pursued through collective deliberation. The latter emphasizes individual rights against the majority, defined and defended by the courts. Republican liberalism requires above all solidarity and character (or, as our forebears used to say and Sandel is fond of repeating, “virtue”) on the part of citizens. Procedural liberalism requires above all neutrality or fairness on the part of the state. These two ideals are not logically incompatible, but as Sandel demonstrates, they have importantly different political implications.

The older, republican creed made the moral character of citizens and their beliefs about the nature of the good life a matter of public concern. For without wise and virtuous citizens, self-government fails. In the contemporary “procedural republic,” however, the character and beliefs of citizens are emphatically none of the government’s business. All moral views are equal before the law, i.e., equally irrelevant; government must be “neutral among competing visions of the good life.”

It is the great achievement of Democracy’s Discontent to weave around these lofty abstractions a detailed, coherent, and marvelously illuminating narrative of American political and legal history. Recounting the debates over ratifying the Constitution, chartering a national bank, abolishing slavery, the spread of wage labor, Progressive Era reforms, and the New Deal, Sandel skillfully highlights the presence (and, increasingly, absence) of republican ideology, the shift from a “political economy of citizenship” to a political economy of growth. Similarly, through the thickets of jurisprudence about privacy, sexuality, religion, and free speech he traces the growing dominance of neutrality as a principle of constitutional interpretation. In the process, large tracts of intellectual landscape become intelligible. Considered merely as historical exposition, Democracy’s Discontent is superb.

But Sandel also hopes to put this analysis to contemporary use. American politics today, he writes, is “beset with anxiety and frustration.” Two fears underlie democracy’s discontent: that “individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives”; and that “from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.” Procedural liberalism, concerned primarily with safeguarding individual rights, cannot address these fears. The free market, concerned solely with economic efficiency narrowly defined, frequently exacerbates them.

Sandel believes we need a “formative politics,” one which “cultivates in citizens the qualities of character self-government requires.” This is also what our forebears believed. When Jefferson opposed the spread of manufacturing, Jackson opposed a centralized financial system, Lincoln criticized wage labor, the Progressives criticized the trusts, and numerous states tried to halt the spread of chain stores, they did so not only for reasons of distributive justice, but even more from a desire to preserve the material conditions of self-rule and civic virtue. To many generations of American democrats, economic growth-- our panacea-- was morally suspect. Their political economy was meant to produce staunch, self-reliant citizens with deep local roots and commitments, not satisfied consumers or even highly-paid workers.

This sets republicans apart from both conservatives and liberals. It was mass production, the factory system, and the concentration of capital and credit -- in a word, big business -- that vanquished the political economy of citizenship. Big government was a flawed effort to mitigate the worst effects of that triumph. Both forms of bigness confront the individual with impersonal, uncontrollable forces. Both generate large inequalities of wealth and power. Both subordinate the traditional virtues to newer skills of corporate gamesmanship and bureaucratic maneuvering. Both make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to realize the republican ideal.

For better or worse, bigness is apparently here to stay. Can the republican ideal be adapted? Democracy’s Discontent is a little vague on this score. Sandel writes eloquently but does not quite grasp the nettle. “Republican politics,” he exhorts us, “requires public spaces that gather citizens together, enable them to interpret their condition, and cultivate solidarity and civic engagement. …It requires a knowledge of public affairs and also a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, and a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake.”

Yes, yes; but like everything else, it requires first of all time and money. Money dominates American politics. No political sermon, however eloquent, which does not begin with this brute fact -- and hammer away at it for a considerable time-- can be of much use. It is tempting, and probably not too gross an exaggeration, to say that if we take care of public campaign financing, public virtue will take care of itself.

And if that is an exaggeration, it’s largely because campaigning is not the only aspect of politics that takes money. Nowadays, formulating an agenda-- or, as Sandel would say, “deliberating about the public good” -- requires information, organization, and publicity; and all these things require vast amounts of cash (as well as, for private citizens, spare time). Only one “interest group,” business, can routinely deploy vast amounts of cash, and it simply hires other people’s (experts’, lobbyists’, publicists’) time.

The sine qua non of republican politics is an active, self- assertive, sovereign citizenry. So it’s a pity that Sandel fails to hold up for our emulation the two most significant examples of such a politics in American history since the Civil War: Populism and Naderism. Whatever their shortcomings, both movements energized and educated large numbers of ordinary people; both challenged unaccountable business and government power; and-- a measure of their seriousness -- both provoked corporate hostility and retaliation. These are the achievements that the newly emerging “communitarian” politics, of which Sandel is now perhaps the leading exponent, must match. Otherwise it will turn out to have been just another politics of easy virtue.


Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba