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Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy

3.9 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674197459
ISBN-10: 0674197453
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Editorial Reviews


In times of trouble men and women ransack their past and their traditions. In Democracy's Discontent...Michael Sandel...has raided that great American attic and returned with a bold narrative of the ancestors and the civic tradition they bequeathed...Sandel gives us one of the most powerful works of public philosophy to appear in recent years...[and] weaves a seamless web between the American present and the American past...[A] brilliant diagnosis. (Fouad Ajami U.S. News & World Report)

Distinctive merits of Sandel's Democracy's Discontent include its admirable combination of conceptual analysis and historical investigation, and the impression throughout of a genuinely thoughtful mind and generous spirit. (Hilliard Aronovitch Canadian Journal of Philosophy)

American political discourse has become thin gruel because of a deliberate deflation of American ideals. So says Michael Sandel in a wonderful new book, Democracy's Discontent...Sandel's book will help produce what he desires--a quickened sense of the moral consequences of political practices and economic arrangements...Sandel is right to regret the missing moral dimension of public discourse. Or he was until recently. Suddenly politics has reacquired a decidedly Sandelean dimension. Political debate is reconnecting with the concerns Sandel so lucidly examines...Statecraft is again soulcraft, and the citizens who will participate best, and with most zest, will be the fortunate readers of Sandel's splendid expansion of our rich political tradition. (George F. Will Newsweek)

It is the great achievement of Democracy's Discontent to weave around...lofty abstractions a detailed, coherent and marvelously illuminating narrative of American political and legal history. Recounting the debates over ratifying the Constitution, chartering a national bank, abolishing slavery, the spread of wage labor, Progressive Era reforms and the New Deal, Sandel skillfully highlights the presence (and, increasingly, absence) of republican ideology, the shift from a 'political economy of citizenship' to a political economy of growth. (George Scialabba Boston Globe)

A provocative new book...Democracy's Discontent argues that modern democracies will not be able to sustain themselves unless they can find ways of contending with the global economy, while also giving expression to their people's distinctive identities. (Thomas L. Friedman New York Times)

On 'public philosophy' of the most philosophical kind I recommend Michael J. Sandel's Democracy's Discontent...Sandel is delightfully non- or bipartisan in his probes, chastisings and recommendations. Among those asking for a civil civic voice and a re-engagement with the grand themes of citizenship and the common life, he is a leader. (Martin E. Marty Christian Century)

This thoughtful book offers a mirror which reflects the complex organization of our political souls...Sandel assiduously draws upon the republican vision to recover forgotten dimensions of American history. He shows the importance of that tradition to the founding of America and, at least until very recently, to constitutional law. He focuses on the history of judicial involvement in those institutions such as religion, family, and public speech that set the stage for democratic citizenship; and he records how in these areas the Supreme Court has shifted from a concern to protect the cultural conditions of citizenship toward a voluntarist doctrine of the rights of the unencumbered individual...These pages, full of reflective argument and vivid examples, will repay attention by anyone seeking to come to terms with the contemporary state of American politics. (William Connolly Raritan)

[Through] detailed historical analysis and eloquent prose, Sandel tells the story of the republican tradition in the United States that demonstrates the central importance character formation and civic virtue once had in American government. (James F. Louckes III Canadian Review of American Studies)

Michael Sandel...has written an important book about the meaning of liberty. Sandel argues that over the last century, Americans have abandoned an earlier communitarian view of liberty, rooted in participation in self-government, for a narrower, individualistic definition, based on the power of personal choice. That has led to the great paradox of American politics: Just as Americans have become freer in the conduct of their personal lives, they have become more constrained in their public lives. The strength of Sandel's book is his account of how this definition of liberty has changed over the last 200 years. He argues persuasively that the new definition reinforces undesirable trends in court decisions and public policy...Sandel argues brilliantly that the change in this definition of liberty took place after the Civil War and was based primarily on economic change...His analysis is superb...By revealing the shallowness of liberal and conservative views of democracy, [this book] inspires us to reevaluate what American politics is really about. (John B. Judis Washington Post Book World)

Democracy's Discontent...is a good guide to the awkward questions we need to ask as we lurch into the next century, as unsure as ever about how to make the democracy of the twenty-first century a shade less disconnected--or at least less pointlessly disconnected--than today's...Indeed, this may well be one of those particularly valuable books that do more good to their skeptical readers than to their fans. The...former will have to think quite hard. (Alan Ryan Dissent)

Democracy's Discontent valuably traces the historical origins and development of what Sandel names the 'procedural republic', the political model within which the unencumbered self reigns supreme...The strengths of [the book] lie in Sandel's lucid exposition and analysis; more importantly, he is concerned with illuminating basic issues in political thought by actual historical examples and situations. In making full use of Supreme Court decisions, Sandel is acknowledging that much of the most vital American political thought is to be found in constitutional debates rather than academic treatises. (Richard H. King Political Studies)

I found an absorbing read in Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent...The United States produces much of the best thinking about how politics is to relate, in an era of alienation, to the civil society it purports to represent...The debate is as relevant on this as on the other side of the Atlantic. (Michael Fry Glasgow Herald)

A bold and compelling critique of American liberalism that challenges us to reassess some basic assumptions about our public life and its dilemmas. It is a remarkable fusion of philosophical and historical scholarship, and it confirms Sandel's reputation as one of America's most important political theorists. (Alan Brinkley, Columbia University)

An impressive work. It consolidates Sandel's position as the leading American republican-communitarian critic of rights-based liberalism...A major figure in the world of political theory has written a major book. (George Kateb, Princeton University)

Beautifully and mildly argued...Mr. Sandel conveys ideas with patient lucidity...The book's strength is historical...Mr. Sandel's philosophical take on history, however, does more than nudge us out of our contemporaneity. He shows, through close readings of Supreme Court decisions, how philosophical conceptions of the person changed--from a premise that an American will inherit a belief in God, for example, to one in which Americans are viewed as people whose religious faith is chosen like desserts at a restaurant...American history is, in Mr. Sandel's telling, a story of the tragic loss of civic republicanism--the notion that liberty is not about freedom from government, but about the capacity for self-government, which alone makes the practice of freedom possible. (Andrew Sullivan New York Times Book Review)

Among liberalism's critics, few have been more influential or insightful than Michael Sandel, a proponent of what has come to be called the `communitarian' alternative...In Democracy's Discontent, Sandel...offer[s] a full historical account of the evolution of liberalism in the United States...This carefully argued, consistently thought-provoking book is grounded in a sophisticated understanding of past and present political debates. Democracy's Discontent is well worth reading as we near yet another presidential election in which soundbites and poll-generated slogans substitute for reasoned debate about the nation's future. (Eric Foner The Nation)

Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent is an inspired and deeply disturbing polemic about citizenship...The last two-thirds of [the book]...explore with great historical acumen just how [liberalism and republicanism] have become manifest in the real world of labour, class and capitalist development. Sandel earns his theory by this history. (Richard Sennett Times Literary Supplement)

A rich and beautifully written account of American jurisprudence and political history, one which...is always informative and thought-provoking. (Michael Rosen Times Literary Supplement)

Sandel's latest contribution...is notable for its seriousness, its intelligence and its illuminating excursions into constitutional law...His brand of soulcraft is not about soul-engineering, but about protecting social environments that are conducive to the development of the habits and the virtues upon which all liberal welfare states finally depend. (Mary Ann Glendon New Republic)

A profound contribution to our understanding of the present discontents. (Paul A. Rahe Wall Street Journal)

A wide-ranging critique of American liberalism that, unlike many other current books on the matter, seeks its restoration as a guiding political ethic...A book rich in ideas. (Kirkus Reviews)

From the Back Cover

Despite the success of American life in the last half-century - unprecedented affluence, greater social justice for women and minorities, the end of the Cold War - our politics is rife with discontent. Americans are frustrated with government. We fear we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives, and that the moral fabric of community - from neighborhood to nation - is unraveling around us. What ails democracy in America today, and what can be done about it? Democracy's Discontent traces our political predicament to a defect in the public philosophy by which we live. In a searching account of current controversies over the role of government, the scope of rights and entitlements, and the place of morality in politics, Michael Sandel identifies the dominant public philosophy of our time and finds it flawed. The defect, Sandel maintains, lies in the impoverished vision of citizenship and community shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. American politics has lost its civic voice, leaving both liberals and conservatives unable to inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that self-government requires. In search of a public philosophy adequate to our time, Sandel ranges across the American political experience, recalling the arguments of Jefferson and Hamilton, Lincoln and Douglas, Holmes and Brandeis, FDR and Reagan. He relates epic debates over slavery and industrial capitalism to contemporary controversies over the welfare state, religion, abortion, gay rights, and hate speech.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: The Belknap Press (February 6, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674197453
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674197459
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #491,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Had to read this book for class and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was surprised to see Sandal acknowledge that the Bill of Rights was intended to limit the federal government, not the states. Academics, historians, politicians and media have done a good job of burying this fact, and aside from constitutionalists, libertarians and Ron Paul supporters, you almost never find somebody who understands how the Bill of Rights is supposed to work in the federated republic.

Sandel presents interesting ideas in this book that hearken back to a Rousseau. To ensure the survival of the American Republic, Sandel recommends a return to community and self-government that has not been practiced in the United States for a long time.
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Never have I cited a book more in all my life as this book when in conversation with friends, family or just on Facebook. This book really gets to the bottom of our uneasiness toward our elected leaders and civilized American society in general. At the crux of the discussion is a fundamental argument that there is a tension between what is best for the common good versus what is best for the individual's interest. It has existed since the foundation of the United States and continues to this day with common good consistently loosing ground for the individual's self-interest gaining ground conceded by actions in society benefiting the common good.

Dr. Sandel explores history through the prism of political philosophy and he has held a great many talks and lectures (BBC Reith Lectures at Harvard University chief among them) on the topic (you can search for him on YouTube). They are always engaging and intriguing should you have a moment to watch. I would pick up this book again in a heartbeat. I highly recommend you do the same.
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First, if you are new to moral philosophy, you should first read Sandel's, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009). This book is a real pleasure to read and covers the basic issues, although it's more about personal behavior rather than political philosophy.

Second, there is a very enlightening exchange between dyed-in-the-wool Rawlsian liberal Thomas Nagel and Michael Sandel in the New York Review of Books. Nagel bitterly critiques Democracy's Discontent in "Progressive But Not Liberal (NYRB May 25, 2006), and Sandel replies in The Case For Liberalism: An Exchange (NYRB October 5, 2006). I found Democracy's Discontent well worth reading, but somewhat long-winded, with several tedious exegeses on legal issues, and the main points attacked tangentially with Sandel's argument spread out over many chapters and with little attempt to deal with obvious objections to his thesis. The exchange with Nagel illuminates both his theory and its relation to contemporary liberalism.

The meat of this book was written and delivered at Northwestern University School of Law in 1989, and the book was published in 1996. Because Sandel presents his argument as a reaction to the tenor of political debate some two decades ago, some of his arguments do not sound exactly right today. "The loss of self-government," he asserts (p. 3), " and the erosion of community together define the anxiety of the age." I do not perceive these as problems in American life at all. Yes, people are much less satisfied with their government than they were in the peaceful 1950's, but that was a very special period of lull in political conflict. As for loss of community, that appears to me to be just wrong.
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By NikNik on February 9, 2015
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Interesting read
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Sandel provides a clear and enjoyable presentation of the communitarian version of republican political philosophy. Unfortunately, rather than offer a positive method by which the tradition of civic republicanism can be revived, this book merely presents a criticism of modern liberalism.

I recommend as a companion read: Debating Democracy's Discontent: Essays on American Politics, Law, and Public Philosophy
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