Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy
by Ted Rueter
What do Circuit
City stores, leaf blowers, adult bookstores, and baseball players spitting at umpires
have to do with Constitutional law and political theory? Plenty, according to a
provocative new book by Harvard political scientist Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's
Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.
Sandel, "democracy's discontent" has resulted because "individually
and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives," and
because of the sense that, "from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral
fabric of community is unraveling around us."
which has been reviewed widely, is an attack on the dominant American ideology of
"liberalism," rights-based individualism, and property rights. In Sandel's
view, "procedural liberalism" has no public goal beyond the maximization of
supports "rights," Sandel's "communitarianism" stresses the public
good. Liberals favor "interests" and "procedures"; communitarians
favor virtue and goals. Sandel believes that private life is increasingly taking
precedence over public virtue, and that individualism is triumphing over
And what are
the consequences of economic and social individualism? One is that the forces of
capitalism go unfettered, resulting in monopolies, economic stratification, corporate
downsizing, and the squeezing out of independent businesses. Walmarts, K-Marts, and
PetSmarts dot the landscape.
consequence of rights-based individualism is the loss of community. Sandel, along
with John Dewey, believes that "the loss of community was not simply the loss of
communal sentiments, such as fraternity and fellow feeling. It was also the loss of
the common identity and shared public life necessary to
California landscape is conducive to individualism and privatism rather than
communitarianism. Many car-loving Californians live in gated communities and shop
at factory-outlet strip malls, without bothering to vote, belong to civic
organizations, or know their neighbors.
If there is
no sense of community, there is no social obligation--with a consequent decline in
public manners. Surly jack-rabbit drivers cut into your lane, ghetto-blasters pierce
the airwaves at the beaches, Don Imus makes lewd remarks at President Clinton's expense
while he's in the audience, and landscaping services feel free to disturb the peace
with idiotic leaf blowers.
these patterns, Sandel proposes "civic republicanism." Communitarians extol
citizen participation, and seek to empower communities at the expense of both big
business and big government. Sandel's specific policy prescriptions include
anti-chain store legislation, community-friendly architecture,
"sprawl-busting," community development organizations, and community
There is growing
support for Sandel's call for civic virtue. Sandel himself is involved with the
Institute for Civil Society, intended to promote good citizenship, close communities, and
an atmosphere of respect. The National Commission on Civic Renewal (headed by William
Bennett and Sam Nunn), the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal (headed
by Lamar Alexander), and the Penn Commission on Society, Culture, and Community
(organized by the University of Pennsylvania) are all seeking to strengthen "civil
society" (families, schools, religious institutions, and volunteer
sympathetic to Sandel's anti-corporate attitudes might disagree with his views on
Constitutional law. Sandel is no fan of the American Civil Liberties Union's absolutist
position on individual rights and free speech. Sandel's emphasis on the public good
rather than absolute individual rights leads him to support the efforts of Skokie,
Illinois to restrict Nazi marches, as well as the efforts of Indianapolis to declare
that pornography is an unconstitutional affront to women's rights.
Published in Hopedance Journal, February, 1997.