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.

According to 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."

Sandel's book, 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 private opportunity.

While liberalism 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 community-mindedness.

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.

Another 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 self-government" (p.208).

The dominant 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.

To replace 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 organizing.

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 organizations).

Many readers 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.

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