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Discontented Democrat

Michael Gough reviews Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy by Michael J. Sandel.

Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard, has made his reputation as a vehement critic of the school of Anglo-American liberal thought emanating from John Rawls’s seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971). Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1983), along with two critical articles the following year – The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self and Morality and the Liberal Ideal – led commentators to incorporate him into the so-called ‘communitarian’ tradition. The tradition is unusual not least in that none of its prominent spokesmen – others are Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Roberto Unger – either call themselves communitarian or appear to take much pleasure in having the term attributed to them. Nevertheless, those who find such labels useful will be pleased to note that Sandel’s convictions remain unchanged in spite of the voluminous critical literature which has grown up in the aftermath of his previous writings.

Democracy’s Discontent is, however, certainly more than a restatement of Sandel’s position. A welldocumented shortcoming of the communitarian theorising of the 1980s was that it contented itself with the rejection of a liberal account of justice which it perceived as placing too great an emphasis on the themes of individualism and rationality, while failing to provide a genuine alternative model of political morality. Society, we were told, is more than a collection of isolated individuals: an adequate account of community is required. But what are the policy implications of this? On this point communitarians, including Sandel, were curiously reticent. The nineties have witnessed several attempts by communitarians to develop theories with positive policy proposals, of which Democracy’s Discontent is the latest and perhaps the most significant example.

Sandel offers us not merely a diagnosis of America’s present ills as he sees them, but an account, based largely on Supreme Court decisions, of their origins. The USA has, for the last half-century, been suffering the debilitating consequences of procedural republicanism, the principle that “government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views its citizens espouse”(p.4), and must refrain from enshrining in law any particular vision of the good life. The result: “…the fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives”and “…the sense that, from family to neighbourhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unravelling around us”(p.3). A public philosophy is an elusive phenomenon. Normally, it goes unnoticed; only in times of crisis – such as the present – are we provoked to examine the principles upon which it rests, and to reflect on the impoverished state of our system of beliefs.

To highlight the shortcomings of contemporary liberal culture is very much Sandel’s stock in trade; to trace their historical source is a relatively new departure. Identifying the birth of philosophical phenomena is a notoriously difficult enterprise, and the procedural republic is hardly exceptional in this respect. Yet the ease with which Sandel pinpoints the decisive turning point is striking. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a school regulation requiring the salute of the American flag, reversing the decision of Minersville School District v. Gobitis of three years earlier, on the grounds that patriotic sentiment should be regarded as an act of voluntary choice rather than a natural expression of solidarity to one’s fellow citizens. At this landmark in American constitutional history, claims Sandel in all seriousness, “the procedural republic had arrived” (p.54). In the midst of the present crisis, the image of the state as neutral arbiter is so deeply entrenched that the existence of an alternative conception of the not so distant past scarcely survives in the collective consciousness.

Illuminating as this interpretation of American judicial history might appear, its contribution to Sandel’s argument is highly questionable. Not even in the USA, it would be reasonable to assume, does the highest judicial body possess such influence that its decisions may singlehandedly destroy the populace’s sense of common purpose, and such independence that its members are able to totally insulate themselves from public opinion. The most scrupulous Supreme Court judge, interpreting the Constitution in the most ‘objective’ fashion, although hardly the typical citizen, is a citizen nevertheless, replete with the particular moral values and visions of the public good which that status implies. Reluctant as they may often be to admit it, the Justices view cases before them at least partially in the light of the prevailing moral standards of their fellows. Is it not possible that the Court, far from inventing procedural republicanism, was merely giving expression to a way of viewing the relationship between state and citizen whose coming was far more uncertain and whose origins much more diffuse?

There’s an incoherence in communitarian thinking, which Sandel commits as readily as any other. Communitarians combine a touching faith in the capacity of the average citizen to view herself as part of a shared communal enterprise, with a stubborn insistence that the state must urgently intervene because people are selfish, self-interested individuals with little or no interest in their fellow men. This confusion appears with the utmost clarity in the book’s conclusion. What will the utopian society of the communal future be like? Which revolutions in social policy will be required if we are to escape from the contemporary moral malaise? Somewhat puzzlingly, measures which are already in place and, in some cases, have been for a considerable time. Community Development Corporations (nonprofit organisations governed by boards of local residents and business leaders for the purpose of regional regeneration) (p.333) may well, one might think, succeed in promoting a sense of collective empowerment for the disadvantaged. That they have been in existence since the mid 1960s and, on Sandel’s own admission, have enjoyed reasonable success, apparently does not strike him as evidence that the current crisis might not be so severe as he would have us believe. Similarly, the Industrial Areas Foundation (p.336), a movement dedicated to teaching residents of poor communities to engage in effective political activity, traces its origins to the 1940s, and its consistent expansion over the last fifty years might, on balance, suggest that the procedural republic’s theoretical bark is worse than its bite. Living there never quite presents as daunting or humanly frustrating a prospect as the best insights of academia can describe.

George F. Will, reviewing Democracy’s Discontent, has described it as “the thinking person’s guide to the current rethinking of the role of government in America”. The thinking person may indeed find himself in agreement with Sandel that America, or indeed anywhere else, can learn important lessons from its past, and that the importance of a network of meaningful communal attachments can hardly be denied. Yet he may well find himself diverging on the origins of the procedural republic, its pervasiveness and its threat. Before we become too critical of the modern age, we might recall an era before liberal neutrality took hold. Slavery and the oppression of women, to name but two processes of which humans have become gradually more ashamed, have historically been opposed not on the grounds that they violated the community’s moral standards – generally, of course the problem was precisely that they reflected those standards – but due to their violation of the demands of procedural equality before the law. Occasionally, the line between the community’s moral code and a collective and ill-founded prejudice is a fine one, too fine to be easily located by the slightly sentimental longing for togetherness of Sandel and his cohorts. Doubtless Democracy’s Discontent will confirm Sandel’s position as the leading communitarian critic of the liberal political philosophy and will become required reading for anyone interested in the liberalcommunitarian debate, but those Americans who genuinely are ‘in search of a public philosophy’ may be well advised to look elsewhere.

© Michael Gough 1997

Michael J. Sandel Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Harvard University Press 1996) £15.95 hardback ISBN 0-674-19744-5

Michael Gough is a part-time teacher and PhD student in politics at the University of East Anglia

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