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Mario Cuomo Isn’t Your Daddy

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

By Michael Sandel

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 417 pages.

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain teaches in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and is the author of Democracy on Trial.

Michael Sandel has written a challenging book, which argues that the prevailing political agenda leaves too many people in limbo. He is on target in tying their anxiety to “the loss of self-government and the erosion of community.” But where did self-government historically come from in the United States? What were the sites of civic formation? For most — and Tocqueville hits this one squarely on the head — it was congregations, “intense sectarian commitments,” and they helped fuel the penchant for political liberty. Sandel pays too little attention to the religious sources of American democracy.

Sandel’s account of the forces that changed the scope, shape, and scale of American life forever is compelling but incomplete. He stresses the political-economic dimensions of this process, emphasizing the shift from a producer-based economy to a consumer-based one. If Sandel is right that a consumer culture doesn’t cultivate the “qualities of character necessary to self-government,” then we are in rather big trouble. And there is trouble aplenty in Democracy’s Discontent. One basic and seemingly insurmountable dilemma is that the source of many political-economic troubles lies beyond the purview of national governments. If one follows this line of thinking, it leads to the conclusion that we must have some kind of world government. Such a “solution” is not only implausible, it is unacceptable for a variety of political and moral reasons. How could civic formation possibly proceed if it is cast on such an immense scale that individual human beings, from their concrete places and sites, cannot really attach themselves to it? If Sandel’s procedural republic “cannot secure the liberty it promises because it cannot inspire the moral and civic engagement self-government requires,” the trouble is compounded many times over as one moves to structures beyond nation-states. If a kind of mega-republic is the only “solution” to at least some of our woes, we are in the soup. For the structures that cultivate civic virtues — including possibilities for solidarity (or solidarities) — are the many associations of civil society. Restoring robustness to these formative institutions, or some version of them, is the way to chasten the consumer identity and the chimera of the sovereign self. If this does not happen, we will see ever greater concentrations of power even more comprehensively change citizens into consumers.

Given the sheer complexity and scope of the problem, Sandel’s short list of exemplary civic efforts seems too little, too late. Community development corporations, fights against mega-malls, and community organizing are discussed briefly. Certainly one applauds such efforts, but these pages in Sandel’s book are a let-down, in part because it’s difficult to extend the civic purview of the efforts Sandel notes beyond certain reasonable limits. In calling them “mediating institutions,” as Sandel does, as do we all, a question occurs: What exactly are they mediating? Mediation means connecting together somehow. It is far easier to see the points of mediation between congregations and town meetings — both local — or between town meetings and, say, state government than it is to see how local associations can forge connections to government beyond the local or perhaps state level.

Sandel notes Mario Cuomo’s metaphor of the nation as a family at the Democratic national convention in 1984. Let’s grant the decent intent behind the turn to familial metaphors. But to call a modern nation-state a family, in the interest of connecting us to one another, should be faulted because it too easily transforms citizens into Big Children. Government, in this scenario, becomes a benevolent, sometimes chiding caretaker and protector. The consumer identity Sandel laments has gone hand-in-hand with a therapeutic mentality that sees us all as needy and dysfunctional, whether we know it or not. Look at how cuddly and caring both parties tried to appear at their recent conventions. We long ago crossed the line demarcating the appropriate display of compassion and human complexity in public settings and have descended instead into bathos.

What we are seeing in this childmindedness, this domestication of political imagery, is the reversal of the old standard in loco parentis. That rule was straightforward. For those not yet fully adult, other adults (or, as the law would have it, the state) played the temporary role of guardians, arbiters, and perhaps disciplinarians. The situation now is almost completely reversed — parents are to follow the therapy-state’s tutelage, or they are bad parents. In the areas of mental health, sexuality, and values, we are all at sea, it seems, until others have clarified matters for us. Because children, by definition, are not citizens, the deepening depiction of us as kids in a big family depletes citizenship, undermines legitimate democratic authority — which relies on the idea that people grow up and can be held accountable — and ultimately demeans us all.

What this adds up to is that Sandel should have paid more attention to the cultural forces at work undermining our identity as citizens.

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