Book #46: Democracy’s Discontent, by Michael Sandel

I took awhile finishing Michael Sandel’s “Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy” because I believe the argument it presents is critical to the future shape of progressive liberalism. As a consequence, I read it fairly slowly, with frequent asides for footnotes and chasing down referenced articles, etc. This was fairly rewarding, because it led to rethinking some of the assumptions I’d previously had about how to defend the progressive project within the overall framework of liberalism. Such a defense is sorely needed, as we all recognize. Jeffrey Issac’s “The Poverty of Progressivism” advances a persuasive argument for how progressivism has declined in stature as public philosophy, but Issac takes for granted the version of liberal political philosophy which underlies both progressive and conservative varieties of liberalism today. Sandel reaches deeper into our history, and shows how the civic republicanism of the Founding era evolved into the liberal neutrality of the modern, “procedural” republic.

Sandel writes from what might best be described as a “progressive communitarian” perspective, or better yet as a defender of self-government within a civic republic which has adopted progressive ends as its public philosophy. In this sense, his critique of how “rights-oriented” liberalism has proven hollow and unsatisfying, even as it succeeded in guaranteeing rights for minorities, women, and the disadvantaged, is an important one.

I’ve said this many times, but I’m not yet fully ready to write about how I view Sandel’s critique of “rights-oriented” liberalism. I’ve started reading review and response articles to Sandel by William Galston, Eldon Eisenach, and Mark Tushnet, among others. Once through these critical reviews, I’ll post again with more thoughts on this important book.

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