The Common Good
July-August 1996

Democracy Derailed

by Brett Grainger | July-August 1996

The joys and limits of freedom.

Boy, oh boy. The apologies are coming in fast and furious these days. Aware that things have gone woefully awry on the Left, thinkers and activists everywhere are stumbling over themselves to be the first to acknowledge the failure of progressives to inspire renewal and generate new political vision after the Cold War.

In his new book, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars, journalist and sociologist Todd Gitlin joins the club, arguing that the current failure of Americans to dream common dreams rests on the shoulders of the splintered and misdirected New Left which, after the civil rights movement of the ’60s, took a road less traveled until then—the “aggrandizement of difference.” According to Gitlin, such a path has made all the difference, bringing an originally unified vision to a dead end in the myriad and mired footpaths of “identity politics,” with none leading back to the center.

While the New Left spent its time in the woods perfecting identities and mistrusting majorities, Gitlin argues, the Right marched down the yellow brick road to the White House. In the process, the latter succeeded in hijacking the banner of universal values that until then had flown over the progressive camp.

In large part, he blames universities for becoming increasingly cynical toward democratic structures while channeling great amounts of energy into the “micro-politics” of the campus, deconstructing reason, and reducing questions of political and communal good to group membership. (He writes, “University culture in particular encourages this sort of rivalry for the crown of thorns.”) This gave a new shot at the belt to the Right, which historically had represented the real special interest groups: aristocracy and the business class. “The idea of a common America,” he writes, “if there was to be one at all, was ceded, by default, to the Right.”

Far from assuring the victory of the market, Gitlin claims that the collapse of communism actually escalated a cultural arms race in the West. He describes the results in terms of “centrifugal forces.” But unlike the twister cutting a swath through movie-going audiences this summer, this storm blew in from behind the Iron Curtain. After the Cold War, Gitlin writes, “America the centrifugal was left to itself (or its selves). We fell, and what we fell into were culture wars.” You’re in Bob Dole’s Kansas now, Toto.

Gitlin possesses many fine insights into the crisis confronting progressive forces, and offers up a dazzling historical landscape behind his analysis. His writing is accessible and, at times, even gorgeous. He writes:

If there is to be any transcendence of our present broken condition, it is going to have to be a creation, not a recovery. We know too much to rest on the premise that once, before we were lost, we were found; that once, before we were uprooted, we were firmly planted. In many ways, a centrifuge has taken the place of the whole because the whole had already failed, and the news keeps arriving late, like the light from a dead star.

WHAT THE TWILIGHT of Common Dreams displays in historical aptitude and literary ability, Michael Sandel’s recent work possesses in clarity and integrity of thought. His book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, is a rewarding, if demanding, read. While Gitlin preoccupies himself with the resuscitation of the Enlightenment ideals that gave rise to the Left, Sandel’s approach is to search out the deeper malaise afflicting the body politic. In doing so, he points to flaws and inconsistencies in the undergirding structure that both Left and Right currently assume—the “procedural republic”—and questions its ability to sustain a vibrant democratic culture.

Sandel argues that underneath all the heated debate about welfare reform and the size of government are two central fears of our time, which these debates can approach only in limited ways: the loss of self-government and the erosion of community.

Because we don’t all agree about God and the ethical life, we have given up on the idea that government should cultivate virtue in its citizens, but rather leave individuals free to choose their vision of the good. This triumph of a neutral framework of rights Sandel describes as the procedural republic.

Fine. No one wants the Inquisition back, and freedom’s a good thing, right? But Sandel persuasively argues that when we displace all discussion of the good from the public to the private sphere, we not only encourage people to pursue their ends outside of politics, but we ultimately produce a political culture incapable of generating support for the kind of freedom it purports to provide. “The procedural republic cannot secure the liberty it promises, because it cannot sustain the kind of political community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”

In contrast to the arid wasteland of the procedural republic, Sandel offers us the wisdom of the “republican” tradition, which enjoyed a rich history in an earlier America. Participation in self- government, so it goes, isn’t just a good commensurate with other goods but is necessary for full freedom, defined by one’s ability to participate in democratic and civic structures rather than by open-ended license. If self-government is a good that we can agree on, then there is a contradiction in affirming that the state must be neutral toward it; rather, it is obliged to cultivate dispositions and attitudes in its citizens conducive to the preservation of self-government and full freedom.

Sandel may well be guilty of “polis envy,” a condition afflicting philosophers who idealize the ancient Greek model of direct democratic rule. No doubt such a model of government is improper if not impossible for the diversified economy of a modern nation-state.

But Sandel’s insight into the dangers of unquestioned neutrality drive us to ask whether perhaps we cannot do better than we have to engender genuine participation in our political and democratic life. Part of the problem is surely that we have allowed ourselves to become spectators of a political process that seems to be stuck in a high-speed chase we regard with both fascination and disgust. As Todd Gitlin writes:

When Americans think of the res publica, the public sector, they tend to think of unsafe streets and bad schools....Observing the state’s incapacity, resentful of those worse off than themselves, people blame the government, refuse to vote, hate taxes, doubt democratic institutions. Political parties are hollow shells for the convenience of contributors. People withdraw from public life altogether.

The challenge to democratic institutions in the 21st century will be to convince people to put down the remote and renew our membership in the civic arena.

Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars. By Todd Gitlin (Metropolitan Books, 1995); and Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Policy. By Michael J. Sandel (Harvard Universtiy Press, 1996).

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