Commentary Magazine

Democracy's Discontent by Michael J. Sandel

The Higher Liberalism

Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy
by Michael J. Sandel
Harvard. 417 pp. $24.95.

One should not confuse the rapidly changing fortunes of the political battlefield with the slow, subterranean process by which ideas are formed and changed. Whoever becomes our next President, and whichever party controls Congress, the deeper evolution of public attitudes is likely to continue its now three-decade-long movement away from the regnant forms of American liberalism.

This is likely to be the case even among liberals themselves. Indeed, one sign of internal dissatisfaction is the rise in some liberal circles of a movement, communitarianism, which attempts to harness positions usually regarded as conservative, especially in the areas of personal and civic virtue, to the cart of a political philosophy that has relentlessly subordinated considerations of the common good to the sovereign liberty of rights-bearing individuals. In the work of Amitai Etzioni, Robert Bellah, and William Galston, the last-named of whom served for a time as Bill Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser, one sees an effort, however vague and tentative (or opportunistic), to put some distance between today’s liberals and today’s liberalism.

In Democracy’s Discontent, Michael J. Sandel, who teaches political science at Harvard, has given us one of the most accessible and thoughtful explorations of the communitarian alternative yet to appear. Long a critic of rights-based liberalism, Sandel here examines virtually the entire sweep of American history, searching assiduously for the wrong choices and missed opportunities that have led us into our present discontent. The result is a work of impressive scope and ambition, and one which has already won praise from readers across the political spectrum.

Sandel defines today’s liberalism as that of “die procedural republic”: a liberalism that makes government die referee of fair procedure and the guarantor of individual rights, while simultaneously insisting that government maintain a scrupulous neutrality as to the substantive ends individuals elect to pursue. This is the liberalism of what Richard John Neuhaus has called “the naked public square.” By failing to inculcate die civic virtues and qualities of character necessary to sustain liberty and self-governance, it has, Sandel asserts, proved inadequate to the needs of a democratic republic.

Like other communitarians, Sandel looks to a revitalized conception of citizenship as a starting place for a better public philosophy. But he differs from them in turning for inspiration to the republican political theory that greatly influenced the generation of the American Founders. Today’s liberalism, he writes, does not represent the only possible elaboration of American political ideals; in fact, it is a dramatic and relatively recent departure. For most of the 19th century, liberal conceptions of the freely choosing, unconditioned, unencumbered, and autonomous individual were balanced against republican ideas that exalted public life, involvement in the process of localized self-rule, and deliberation with one’s fellow citizens on matters of the common good.

The story of America’s evolving public philosophy, then, as Sandel tells it, is a tale of two traditions, liberal and republican, and of how the former has “gradually crowded out” the latter in legal, social, economic, and political thought, and eventually in the very texture of our lives. Sandel devotes most of Democracy’s Discontent to a detailed historical reconstruction of this process, showing how, in nearly every important sector, the normative standard of public life was once very different from what we find today. In conceptions of the economy, the family, church-state relations, free speech, constitutional law, privacy, productive labor, consumerism—to name a few of the topics Sandel explores—there was once an assumption that the polity had a formative, prescriptive, “soulcraft” function to perform, an assumption that has been so completely undone by the procedural republic that we have forgotten it was ever there.



Given the breadth of Sandel’s historical account, one turns in high hopes to his practical recommendations. But in this respect his book falls disappointingly short. Indeed, there is nothing here that most standard-issue liberals would not enthusiastically endorse: community-development corporations in the inner cities; anti-Wal-Mart crusades in the suburbs; new planned towns like Seaside, Florida; the schemes for social and economic organizing touted by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by the radical activist Saul Alinsky.

This is pretty familiar, near-beer stuff—unlikely, if implemented, to make much of a difference in addressing the underlying problem Sandel has identified. Nor does he go so far as to endorse recent Republican efforts in the areas of renewed federalism and decentralization, even though these certainly represent the most obvious, concrete, and feasible direction to be taken from his argument. There is thus a striking disparity between the devastating severity of this book’s historical indictment and the mild, speculative, let’s-not-be-in-a-hurry about-any-of-this tone of its suggestions for reform. In this, Sandel would seem to be the quintessential New Democrat: willing to lament the ill effects of liberalism, capable of formulating problems in fresh, uncanonical ways, but unable or unwilling seriously to entertain uncanonical solutions.

Nor is this the only problem in Democracy’s Discontent. How much of the republican idea can, in fact, be salvaged for use today? Part of the attraction of republicanism for communitarians lies in the fact that it seems to provide a purely social and secular way of reimagining a more cohesive community, one that does not require an explicit moral and religious consensus. Like many who are alarmed about the culture wars of contemporary America, Sandel wants to find a way to heal some of the polarization in our society, without imposing any ideological conformity on the participants. A laudable goal; but it is hard to see how the all-consuming demands of the republican idea can be reconciled with a high degree of moral and religious pluralism—or, for that matter, with mass democracy on a national scale.

Sandel is right to assert, for example, that the proscription of religious speech from the public square has actually served to alienate and harden the perspectives of many religious conservatives, while impoverishing life by removing the consideration of ultimate ends from public discussion. But it does not follow that the profound differences we see today can be addressed merely by letting everyone have a turn at the podium. On issues like abortion, euthanasia, and sexual ethics, we are, as a nation, very far apart, and perhaps becoming more so all the time. Communitarians sometimes seem to think that, if only we could recreate the appropriate conditions for fully functioning communities, healthy deliberation and working agreement would follow. But that is at best only partly true. To a considerable extent, in order to have a community we have to agree first.



This may seem to lead us back to the quintessentially liberal notion of the social contract, by means of which a political body is constituted through mutual consent. But it should equally call to mind the morally richer idea of the covenant, a foundational element in American political thought which Sandel ignores completely in his analysis but which is central to one of the greatest communitarian documents in American history: John Winthrop’s 1630 speech, “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Perhaps best known for its figure of New England as a “City Upon a Hill,” the speech also offers a vivid understanding of political life very different from either the republican or the liberal one, even as it too works powerfully against the notion of the unencumbered self.

“We are entered into Covenant with [God] for this work,” declares Winthrop, and the terms of that covenant indicate exactly how “encumbered” is this particular vision of community:

[W]e must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain one another in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities . . . delight in one another, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission. . . .

Strange, that a professor employed by a venerable institution that was founded in Winthrop’s colony only six years after the above words were spoken, and that was formed explicitly by the intense religious aspirations of Puritan culture, should neglect these sources of American political thought and culture. But it is not just Puritan ideals that Sandel ignores. He seems to have excluded the entire tradition of Protestant Christianity from his analysis of American history.

To be sure, there is a lot wrong with the Protestant tradition; it has always struggled with its antinomian and individualistic tendencies, and in our time those tendencies have nearly destroyed it. But at its best it has balanced respect for the dignity of the individual against a sense of divinely ordained obligation to others, a balance that is, in many ways, more attractive than the compulsory socialization demanded by pure republicanism. What could be a better warrant against unencumbered selves, and more conducive to social cohesion, than faithful observance of the Ten Commandments ?



Not only does Sandel take too little account of the religious dimension in America’s formative tradition, he also assigns too great a role in that tradition to the concept of republicanism. He is not the only scholar recently to have done so: a number of historians have tried to find in republicanism a homegrown social (but secular) alternative to liberalism. But as any reader of The Federalist knows, even the Framers of the Constitution did not use the word “republican” in quite the same sense that Sandel and others have done. John Adams’s quip, made in 1807, still stands: “there is not a more unintelligible word in the English language than republicanism.”

Finally, and wonderfully complicating all these matters, is the fact that, in the American context, there is nothing more deeply rooted than a certain stubborn, ornery commitment to separateness—minding one’s own business, staying in one’s own space, sticking to one’s last—as the precondition for felicitous and noncoercive relations with others. Good fences, in this view, make good neighbors. I will not venture to say whether this trait comes out of Protestantism, liberalism, republicanism, or (as seems most likely) some peculiar combination of the three, along with the sheer territoriality of human nature. But the trait I am talking about is beautifully illustrated in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, “Mending Wall,” with its uncanny grasp of the melancholy fact that in a fallen world, sometimes the best way to love your neighbor as yourself is to maintain the wall between your property and his.

The rethinking of liberalism, to which republican-communitarian thought is such a valuable contributor, should not, in its rush to combat the hypertrophy of the modern self, forget about this instinctive American sense of the dignity of self-sufficiency, of separateness and solitude. Such dignity is not incompatible with some elements of the republican tradition, particularly as Sandel understands it. But it derives its real strength from something quite different: a classical-liberal insistence upon the limits of public life. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that this notion itself cannot be sustained for long without the powerful checks provided by other formative moral influences. The fading away of such checks in our time, due to the weakening influence of family life and religious tradition, goes a long way toward explaining our predicament, and the revival of the republican idea will not be enough to restore them.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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