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

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674197459
ISBN-10: 0674197453
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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A wide-ranging critique of American liberalism that, unlike many other current books on the matter, seeks its restoration as a guiding political ethic. ``Despite the achievements of American life in the last half-century,'' political theorist Sandel (Harvard) writes, ``our politics is beset with anxiety and frustration.'' He suggests that the growing public mistrust in the federal government, whose manifestations range from the conservative sweep of Congress in the last election to the Oklahoma City bombing, can be addressed only by reevaluating the liberal assumption that ``government should be neutral on the question of the good life,'' and by putting in its place a social-democratic concern for the spiritual well-being of the citizenry. The ``utilitarian calculus'' of the past has helped preserve individual liberties, Sandel observes, but it finds little room for weighing the finer questions of morality in recommending action. (For instance, Sandel remarks, minimalist liberalism of the sort that is practiced today could scarcely find room for the antislavery arguments of the abolitionists a century and a half ago, relying as those arguments did on ``appeals to comprehensive moral ideals.'') This indifference to the character of the citizenry, Sandel adds, is not the province of liberalism alone; where liberals have defended abortion rights on the grounds that government has no place in moral issues, conservatives have likewise argued for laissez-faire economic policies, claiming ``government should be neutral toward the outcomes'' of a market economy. Sandel is strong on tracking the history of this value-neutralization of government; he is less successful in identifying the particulars of a practical yet value-laden ethic that can ``repair the civic life on which democracy depends'' while not trampling on anyone's liberties--one of the thorny dilemmas of current reformist politics. A book rich in ideas, if not in blueprints for action. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: The Belknap Press (February 6, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674197453
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674197459
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #402,065 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By B.M. Allan on January 9, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In "Democracy's Discotent," the brilliant political philosopher Michael Sandel provides an overview of American legal history, jurisprudence, visions of citizenship, and economic policymaking through the lens of civic republicanism.

In fact, Sandel argues, civic republicanism represents much more than a mere strand among many woven into the philosophical fabric of America's founding and perpetuation: civic republican traditions (like cultivating the virtue of citizens, seeking economic justice, and making substantive judgments on controversial moral and political issues) are at the *heart* of our republic, and were prominently so until only very recently.

Sandel traces the emergence of liberalism as the dominant American public philosophy to a cluster of recent Supreme Court decisions and market-based economic policies. In explaining how liberalism has come to define and dominate the terms of the debate in articulating an American public philosophy, Sandel is cogent and persuasive. His brand of civic republicanism is as insightful as his criticisms of Rawlsian liberalism in "Liberalism and the Limits of Justice" but with greater so-called "real world" applicability.

Sandel is a public intellectual of the first order and this is a fine book of American legal, economic, and philosophical history. Highly recommended for students of political science.

Other terrific books about the American founding and civic republicanism: "
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23 of 32 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 2, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I found this book to be an interesting exploration of the evolution of American political values. Sandel argues that, over time, American political values have moved away from the political philosophy embedded in the Constitution. To illustrate his thesis, Sandel uses legal instances sucha as laws and legal judgements. This book was written by a lawyer, not a political scientist, so the methodology is different than in many books of a similar nature. It's prose is well written and accessable, without being over simplified. Overall, I found it to be interesting and informative.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Arnold on January 9, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on September 27, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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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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