The Philadelphia story

Democracy's Discontent

October 4, 1996

Writing in the spirit of a radical conservative, Michael Sandel, one of America's most prominent political thinkers, is preoccupied in his new work with a giant task: to retrieve and defend the founding principles of the American revolution. His philosophical return to the revolution emphasises how, for the first time in human history, it created a two-tiered, federated system of republican government elected by and responsible to its citizens. This new "compound republic" (James Madison) stressed the need for a written constitution, based ultimately on the consent of citizens, who were obliged to accept government on condition that they enjoy such entitlements as liberty of the press, the right to vote, and (twisting Hobbes's maxim that covenants unprotected by the sword are worthless) the right to bear arms.

Especially from the time of the Articles of Confederation in 1778, the revolutionaries cut a path into the unknown by insisting that Americans could only become citizens through split loyalties - that they needed to think of themselves as subdivided citizens of a subdivided polity which, by clearly delimiting the jurisdiction of the two tiers of government, would help tame the arrogance of elected representatives, thus ensuring that those who govern do not stand above the law, violate the rights of citizens, or suffocate the public spirit of the commonweal.

The Philadelphia model was especially big on public virtue, as Sandel shows. It insisted that freedom is not freewheeling individualism, that it is rather the unhindered ability of (male) citizens to act in concert with others and so to govern themselves within a written constitutional framework. This idea of freedom as self-government implied the need to restrain citizens' selfishness and the shabby morals of politicians and men of wealth, who should not be allowed to manipulate the laws to grind down the poor - or to own slaves. Republican principles must be stretched into the sphere of economic life; property and its corresponding "liberal" values of private property, competition and moneymaking must be subject to the principles of civic virtue. Few republicans thought that public spirit could or should eliminate disparities of wealth. And (as Sandel admits) the question of slavery remained a permanent embarrassment. But most were agreed that the citizenship rights enjoyed by adult, white, male citizens, not just to property owners, would ensure ongoing public discussion about how to divide the divisible - and thus guarantee that the existing patterns of wealth and inequality would not be seen as natural, as reflecting the will of God, or as a brutal product of "market forces".

Sandel's spirited defence of Philadelphian republicanism is helped by the fact that in contemporary America the topic of public spirit still attracts strong support. Especially during the pomp of parades and picnics and public ceremonies, talk of public virtue and the common good still moves people to tears and stirs up heated political disputes, sometimes to boiling point. This is especially so within the ranks of the so-called communitarians - a ragged coalition of New Deal Democrats, community organisers, academics, city officials, along with those from the right, such as Pat Buchanan, who speak for new forms of public regulation of the economy and who dislike "liberalism" and its image of the unencumbered self.

According to Sandel, who is the standardbearer of communitarian thinking, Reaganite/Thatcherite "liberalism" is on balance foul political thinking. Although its appeal to the image of the free and independent self is seductive - who could be opposed to the principle that we should respect persons as persons, and that we should strive accordingly to secure their equal right to live the lives they choose within a framework of government and laws that are neutral with respect to competing moral values? - it ignores the elementary fact that people are regularly attached to others through bonds of love and affection, workplace and neighbourhood solidarity, familial and religious duty. Such "civic obligations", Sandel insists, are normally not freely chosen on a contractual basis. "Liberalism" is self-contradictory. It cannot see that the kind of civic engagement that liberty requires is actually not thinkable within the "liberal" language of individual rights. The flipside of this point is that "liberalism" is slowly corroding the Philadelphian conception of the good life. "Liberalism" is effecting a "moral void" within the American polity. Now, more than ever, the republic needs republicanism - the old Philadelphian spirit of active citizenship, public spirit, and solidarity in the face of adversity.

In practical terms, Sandel comes out in support of "the politics of soulcraft". He describes and justifies a range of centre-left, Mario Cuomo-style policies designed to forge a new common sense of citizenship among the American population. Community development corporations, citizens' opposition to supermarket-driven sprawl, federal spending on job training and education, stress on the character-forming role of families, neighbourhoods, and churches: these, argues Sandel, must be among the ingredients of the uphill struggle to defend and extend the Philadelphia model of liberty against its "liberal" enemies.

How convincing is Sandel's case? Is his republicanism anything more than post-revolutionary nostalgia or merely a cool fin-de-si cle perspective that keeps the academic conference circuit talking? Or does it have real intellectual and political potential?

Sandel's case appeals to significant parts of America precisely because it correctly protests against such facts of American life as crass commercialism, the degradation of urban areas, and the disempowerment of citizens. It rightly cries out against the maltreatment of ethnic minorities, government corruption, and the rundown of the public infrastructure. It persuasively traces these ailments in the body politic to the abusive exercises of power by selfish oligarchs - thus keeping alive the old republican presumption that power, understood as the exercise of dominion by some men over the lives of others, is a permanent temptation in human affairs, and that, consequently, the wielders of power must be subject to effective checks by apportioning and monitoring it, thereby ensuring its responsible exercise.

The call for vigilance in the presence of power is as pertinent today as it was during the 18th century. Yet - the caveat is important - the intellectual confidence with which Sandel objects to American "liberal" decadence seem to blind him to the dangers of a republican fundamentalism that dogmatically presumes that the basics of the Philadelphia model remain intact over two centuries after its birth.

The book's most obvious silence concerns 18th-century republicanism's treatment of women. It certainly criticised old-fashioned patriarchalism and championed the resistance of adult men to what Jefferson and others dubbed the "fatherly" government of monarchy. But republicanism stopped short of questioning the power of "fathers" by preserving the conventional imagery of women as (potentially) seductive, fickle prostitutes. Women were seen as creatures marred by their unvirtuous disregard for reason and hence fit for the "private" realm of family life - a presumption that is still alive and well and serves to constrain and frustrate, even physically exhaust many American women, whose complicated daily lives of juggling partners, children, friends and relatives, employment, entertainment and civic involvements are hopelessly at odds with the symbolic association of "women" with "home".

Another point against republican orthodoxy is equally obvious: in an era of growing awareness of multicultural and other differences, Sandel's appeal to knowledge of a "good which we can know in common" and his corresponding call for straitjacketing everyone within this "common good" seems moralising at best, potentially authoritarian at worst.

Sandel tries to deal with the objection that the principle of the common good is undemocratic by emphasising, correctly in my view, the political importance of cultivating civil society. That move, in effect trying to "modernise" the Philadelphian ideals, just as Tocqueville's Democracy in America attempted to do by praising local associations of citizens as the best way of resisting tyrannies of both public opinion and government, spells trouble for the old republican belief in an ultimately unified polity in which citizens can happily disagree exactly because they agree about the political basics.

Sandel's move also highlights two other difficulties, which need further discussion. One concerns the old republican defense of the right of men to bear arms. The Second Amendment states: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." In practice, this strange republican premise has proved to be devilish. It cavorts with the enemies of civility. Sandel warns that civic solidarity is today at breaking point, yet he appears not to see that the traditional republican formula for dealing with state violence - arming citizens - contradicts the latterday call for their nonviolent empowerment. The problem is compounded by the fact that actually existing civil societies breed indifference. A growing proportion of citizens' everyday contacts are contacts with strangers, that is, with people with whom we expect never again to deal. Neighbourliness suffers. Republicanism is intellectually unhelpful in coming to terms with these various trends, and the harsh but honest implication should be drawn: the republican defense of liberty today necessitates not only fundamental moral and legal objections to the republican Second Amendment but also active policies of gun control, including new efforts to police the dramatic spread of private police forces masquerading as the right to bear arms.

Sandel might retort that the Philadelphia model of politics bravely tried to conquer incivility by stressing citizens' duties towards the public. That meant not only being civil towards others but also being committed to a nonviolent public sphere of reasoned debate and information, circulated among citizens by the printing press. The principle was summarised in the famous words of Thomas Jefferson in 1787: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

How viable is this old republican ideal of a unifying public sphere, whose purpose is to monitor the power of government and so prevent it falling into the arms of violent corruption? Sandel has surprisingly little to say about the communications media, but the ideal certainly stands behind his mistrust of commercialised media, television infotainment in particular, and his corresponding call for "converting networks of communication into a public life worth affirming".

The fact is that the old hegemony of state-structured, territorially-bound public life mediated by radio, television, newspapers and books is crumbling. This contemporary fragmentation and deterritorialisation of public life spells trouble for the old Philadelphian ideal of a unified public sphere in which a republic of citizens strive to produce "public opinion" and to live up to some "public good". The ideal is badly in need of amendment, if only because continuing talk of "the public sphere" has potentially undemocratic consequences.

Sandel does not see that the old republican assumption that all power disputes can ultimately be sited at the level of the nation state is obsolete. It is a remnant from the era of revolutions against empires and nation-state building and the corresponding struggles of states' inhabitants to widen the franchise - and, hence, to direct public controversies primarily at the operations of the sovereign state itself. Our times are obviously different, and not only because of the "scattering" of political power, commerce and communication below and beyond the reach of many nation states. As a result of this trend, the act of opinion-making and voting in periodic general elections is gradually losing its power to determine things. Unlike the Philadelphians, we live in the era of the universal franchise; the issue of who is entitled to vote has largely been settled and it follows that a central issue for freedom-loving politics of citizenship is no longer who votes but where people vote.

John Keane is professor of politics and director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.

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

Author - Michael J. Sandel
ISBN - 0 674 19744 5
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 417

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