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


Sandel Michael J. 1996. Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Belknap Press; English Language edition.
Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy


“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

“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

“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

“A profound contribution to our understanding of the present discontents.”—Paul A. Rahe, Wall Street Journal

“The publication of Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent is a long-awaited and important event in political and constitutional theory.  In 1982, through his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Sandel emerged as a leading communitarian or civic republican critic of liberalism…. What is distinctive about his new book is its application of the critique to an analysis of the competing liberal and republican strands of the American political and constitutional tradition.” – James E. Fleming & Linda C. McClain, Texas Law Review

Democracy’s Discontent is a wonderful example of immanent social criticism, which is to say, of social criticism as it ought to be written.  It criticizes a certain tendency in American life, and at the same time claims to find in that same American life a different possibility, a better expression of our political culture….  Sandel gives us a double narrative, part constitutional, part socio-economic, with a single message: that a certain kind of procedural liberalism has supplanted a more substantive republicanism, with effects that we ought to regret, and that it is still possible to turn back, to recapture important elements of republican America.”

-- Michael Walzer, in Debating Democracy’s Discontent (edited by Anita L. Allen and Milton C. Regan, Jr.)

“Sandel is a republican thinker in the classic sense, which means that he is just as much concerned with civic virtue as he is with liberty.  Like Thomas Jefferson, he understands the fate of the two to be intertwined.  Liberty, understood as the effective control of one’s destiny, is something that can only be realized through the exercise of self-government.” – R. Bruce Douglas, Commonweal

“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

“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

“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, chastenings 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.… 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

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

“Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent is by far the most ambitious recent attempt to make the civic republican tradition relevant to current dilemmas. It is entirely appropriate, then, that it has elicited…responses by many of the leading political and constitutional theorists of our time.” – Ronald S. Beiner, in Debating Democracy’s Discontent (edited by Anita L. Allen and Milton C. Regan, Jr.)

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

“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…. Michael Sandel’s is the most compelling…account I have read of how citizens might draw on the energies of everyday life and the ties of civil society to reinvigorate the public realm.”—Richard Sennett, Times Literary Supplement

“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

 “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

“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

“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

“Out of step with many of his colleagues in the political science trade, Michael Sandel takes ideas and ideals seriously…. According to historians such as Louis Hartz, individualistic liberalism has long been the public philosophy of every major contender in the American political debate…. Contradicting this claim, other historians—notably Gordon Wood—find in American political thought since the founding a powerful communitarian current, which they call ‘republicanism.’ Where Sandel breaks new ground is in his claim that republicanism was in fact dominant throughout most of America’s history, and that only recently has it been superseded by individualistic liberalism.” – Samuel H. Beer, Wilson Quarterly

Democracy’s Discontent is clear, readable, and important…. The meticulous historico-philosophical analysis of key Supreme Court decisions, showing the historical transition from the republicanism of the past to the liberalism of today, is ingenious and enlightening.” – Joseph Tusa, Cross Currents

“Sandel here examines virtually the entire sweep of American history, searching assiduously for the wrong choices and missed opportunities that have led us into our present discontent.  The result is a work of impressive scope and ambition, and one which has already won praise from readers across the political spectrum.” – Wilfred McClay, Commentary

“In Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Sandel, the most widely cited political theorist of his generation, portrays contemporary Americans as discontented…. He traces [the discontent] to two concerns: a sense of ‘loss of self-government’ and a sense of ‘the erosion of community’…. The questions that motivate Sandel’s book and his answers to them are tremendously important.” – Rogers M. Smith, Critical Review

Last updated on 08/16/2016