Democracy's Discontents Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When the United States of America emerged from its eighteenth century crucible to become the world’s first modern constitutional republic, its public philosophy was composed of two competing strands. One was classical liberalism, the doctrine which emphasized the rights of the individual and the dependence of legitimate government on the consent of the governed—consent that the governed were free to withdraw at their pleasure. Political obligations, that is to say, are by nature “voluntarist.” They are chosen by the free will of those who submit to this or that government to protect their interests—their “rights”—and not because government necessarily merits obedience. This is the substance of what, famously, Thomas Jefferson, writing as representative of an entire revolutionary generation, set down in the Declaration of Independence: “all Men are . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, . . . That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”

This liberal strand, whose foundation rested on the idea of the uncoerced consent of the free individual, was, however, not the only element of the new American republic’s philosophical self-conception. A second strand was classical republicanism, inherited from ancient Greece and Rome. This republican philosophy entered the American world both directly, through such authors as Aristotle and the Roman statesmen Cato the Elder and Cicero, and, indirectly, through modern apostles of republicanism such as the Florentine diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli, Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and French aristocrat Baron de Montesquieu, among others.

Republicanism differed markedly from its fraternal twin liberalism in its fundamental assumptions and consequently in its moral emphasis. Rather than rights, it emphasized the obligations of republican citizens, for republicanism is concerned, above all, with the well-being of the common political enterprise that the republic represents. Rather than the pursuit of individual private happiness, republicanism places its greatest regard upon the common good and the public happiness of those who live among their fellows and see themselves primarily as members.

Republicanism looks to a political enterprise that is not so much chosen as born into, part of what one ineluctably is. It looks to communal solidarity, springing naturally from common experience and common identity, as a moral guidepost, teaching men and women that their fate and happiness depend primarily on the common good. Above all, if the grand shared civic enterprise is to flourish, the common good must take precedence in citizens’ lives.

Indeed, the republican tradition, looking back to the revered figure of the Roman republican citizen-soldier Cincinnatus, who left the safety of family and farm to defend his country, teaches citizens that sacrifice of the private to the public good is sometimes required. Such devoted sacrifice is the highest ideal of republican citizenship. It is civic virtue epitomized, a natural and inescapable part of self-government.

The story of the American nation from its eighteenth century roots to the twenty-first century can be interpreted as the history of the tension between and fate of these two orientations—private or public; rights or obligations; individual separateness or the solidarity of membership; individually chosen ends or the purposes set forth by a public philosophy which sets limits to individual liberty and marks out the space within which choices may be made.

Michael J. Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University, has undertaken just such an interpretation of American public life, the explicit public philosophy of its most prominent leaders and jurists, and the ideas implicit in the principal features of its political and constitutional history. In doing so he has written a compelling, sensitive, and learned, if sometimes troubling book that is at once provocative and profoundly engaging for those concerned with the difficult present and future well- being of American democracy. His work has implications, too, beyond American shores, for democracy as practiced in the West, which is to say liberal democracy.

Sandel’s argument is that while the tension between the two strands of American public philosophy was maintained in the nineteenth century, in the century that followed, it was broken decisively, and unwisely, in favor of the notion of sovereign individual “selves” exercising their wills to pursue private happiness. This occurred with the triumph of what the author terms the liberal “procedural republic” over civic republicanism. The orientations of these two strands of American political ideas are very different. The liberalism of the procedural republic safeguards the liberties of each individual through the rule of law, backed by the courts’ power of judicial review, declaring null and void laws they find contrary to the U.S. Constitution. American...

(The entire section is 2059 words.)