Michael Sandel: Elitist in Democrat's Clothing

REVIEW: ‘Democracy’s Discontent: A New Edition for Our Perilous Times’ by Michael J. Sandel

Michael Sandel (Getty Images)
January 29, 2023

In 1996 Harvard government professor Michael Sandel, now a chairholder whose online course on "Justice" has reportedly been viewed by tens of millions worldwide, published Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, to widespread acclaim. Sandel’s theme was the "anxiety and frustration" with which American politics was beset, despite our triumph in the Cold War, "unprecedented affluence," and "greater social justice for women and minorities." Sandel attributed that anxiety to Americans’ fear that they were "losing control" of their lives to outside forces, while simultaneously experiencing the "unraveling" of the "moral fabric of community" at the levels of family, neighborhood, and nation.

Sandel lamented the failure of the "prevailing political agenda" to address such concerns. The failure resulted, he maintained, from the dominance of "neutralist" liberalism (shared by self-described liberals and conservatives alike), which identified government’s goal as securing citizens’ freedom "to choose our ends" or "values" without interference or restraint, beyond what was required to preserve others’ right to do likewise. He contrasted this understanding of freedom (expressed in the right to the "pursuit of happiness" guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence) with the "republican" conception of liberty that entails "sharing in self-government" or political liberty. While that view is not incompatible with "liberal freedom," it requires that government inculcate in citizens certain "civic virtues," rather than remaining neutral toward their ends or ways of life.

In the revised edition of Democracy’s Discontent, whose subtitle refers to the "Perilous Times" in which Americans now live, Sandel makes the following changes. First, he drops the entire first part of the first edition, which addressed the American constitutional tradition and the manner in which it evolved toward moral neutralism. He now focuses on the history of economic debates, hoping thereby to illuminate the sources of our present crisis. Second, beyond a brief preface and an introduction highlighting "democracy’s peril," along with a new chapter on "The Political Economy of Citizenship," Sandel adds a lengthy epilogue titled "What Went Wrong: Capitalism and Democracy Since the 1990s."

In between the short new chapter and the epilogue Sandel simply reproduces the last five chapters plus the conclusion from the previous edition without (so far as I have been able to ascertain) altering a word. (Evidence of this lack of change can be seen in his repeated citation of a 1972 book by Mark Green on the supposedly narrow extent of stock ownership among Americans that was already 24 years old, outdated and inaccurate at the time of the first edition.)

In his new introduction, Sandel lists as evidence of America’s civic decay the January 6 attack on the Capitol; continued disputes not only about the 2000 election but also regarding masks and vaccines adopted in response to COVID; "public outrage at police killings of unarmed Black men"; and the widespread enactment of state laws allegedly making it harder to vote. According to Sandel these controversies "did not begin with Trump" nor end with his defeat, since his original election was already "a symptom of frayed social bonds and a damaged democratic condition."

Sandel identifies the source of the foregoing ills as the deepening "divide between winners and losers" engendered by the "neoliberal globalization project" of "governing elites" starting in the 1980s that produced "massive gains for those at the top but job loss and stagnant wages for most working people." While globalization’s advocates promised that the winners’ gains could be used to compensate its "losers," "the compensation never arrived." Instead, the winners used their wealth to seize control of government, ending its function as "a counterweight to concentrated economic power."

Earning bipartisan congressional support for deregulation of Wall Street through their campaign contributions, the financial titans then induced government to respond to the resultant financial crisis by "bail[ing] out the banks" while leaving "ordinary homeowners" unable to maintain their mortgage payments "to fend for themselves." According to Sandel, the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, Bernie Sanders’s "surprisingly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016," and anger among Trump supporters can all be traced to "four decades of neoliberal governance." This, in turn, engendered "inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s," the decline of labor unions, a continuing reduction in the share that workers received from increasing productivity, and the direction of investment toward "speculative activity" rather than in "new productive enterprises." (The reader may wonder how productivity kept increasing without investment being directed toward it and may note that the decline in union membership aside from public employees began well before the 1980s.)

Sandel cites his previous forecast that "to the extent that contemporary politics puts sovereign states … in question," it might "provoke reactions" from people who would advocate "harden[ing] the distinction between insiders and outsiders" and seek to "take back our culture" and country "with a vengeance." But that "vengeful backlash" failed to alleviate "democracy’s discontent," as "the scale of economic life" exceeded "democratic control," and civic bonds weakened as "the credentialed elites who flourished in the new economy were discovering they had more in common with their fellow entrepreneurs, innovators, and professionals around the world than with their fellow citizens."

In 1996 Sandel had foreseen that "important transnational projects—environmental accords, human rights conventions," and the European Union "would founder for their failure to cultivate the shared identities and civic engagement necessary to sustain them." (Were such "identities" ever possible, on Sandel’s own grounds, even leaving aside the EU’s well-known "democratic deficit"?) Hence both Trump’s promised border wall and Brexit "symbolized a backlash against a market-driven, technocratic mode of governing that had produced job loss, wage stagnation, rising inequality, and the galling sense among working people that elites looked down on them."

To "revitalize American democracy," Sandel contends, we must "debate" how to "reconfigure the economy" so as to subject it to democratic control, and how to "reconstruct our social life" to reduce polarization and enable Americans to "think of themselves as participants in a shared public life." Even though he implausibly contends that our reliance on "big pharma" raises the cost of lifesaving drugs (only big pharmaceutical companies have the capacity for the research that generates such drugs), while "having just a few big airlines means paying more to fly to Cincinnati" (the Carter administration’s airline deregulation has long been recognized to have lowered the cost of air travel), the greater problem of what Louis Brandeis called "the curse of bigness" is that it "obstructs our capacity for self-government."

Sandel’s chapter on "the political economy of citizenship" reiterates his distinction between "voluntarist" liberalism, focused on individual freedom, and "republican theory," which identifies liberty with "sharing in self-government." While granting that the two conceptions have historically coexisted, Sandel maintains that "since the mid-twentieth century, the civic or formative aspect of our politics has largely given way to a liberalism that insists on neutrality toward competing conceptions of the good life," a conception that "lacks the civic resources to sustain self-government."

Here, a correction is in order. It is certainly true that beginning in the mid-20th century an erosion has occurred in the notion that free government presupposes the inculcation of certain moral virtues (justice, honor, patriotism, compassion, for instance). But the erosion did not originate with greedy capitalists. The belief that government must be neutral as between religion and irreligion, or the encouragement (through its policies) of marriage over single-parent childbearing, the redefinition of marriage to include single-sex couplings, and the invention of a constitutional right to abortion, originated rather in the academy, in tandem with the Supreme Court.

Once the Court began in the 1950s to "incorporate" the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment’s "due process" and "equal protection" clauses so as to apply it against the states, it not only (laudably) outlawed racial segregation in schools and other public facilities, but read the First Amendment’s religion clauses so as to ban the posting of the Ten Commandments outside a courtroom, as well as the recitation of a (nondenominational) prayer at a middle-school graduation, and interpreted the freedom of speech and the press to cover pornography, along with the right to burn the flag. It also imposed new rules regarding state police procedures, including the "exclusionary rule," which obstructed local decisions regarding law enforcement and encouraged popular resentment at seeing criminals go free thanks to legal technicalities. In all these respects, citizens were indeed made to feel that local government’s capacity to support the moral preconditions of self-government had been eroded.

Strangely, none of the remaining six chapters that Sandel copies from his first edition addresses these issues. Instead, he is exclusively concerned with the history of debates over the relative moral consequences of agrarian and commercial/manufacturing ways of life during the early decades of the republic, followed by the endeavor of progressives to rein in the power of large corporations in order, ostensibly, to protect the common people.

In his account of the earlier debate, Sandel freely borrows from the arguments of agrarian defenders of "civic virtue" against the corruption supposedly engendered by commerce including Jefferson, John Taylor, Jackson, and even Calhoun, downplaying the fact that they were slaveowners aiming largely to protect their own freedom, while resenting the Northern bankers from whom they were compelled to borrow. Nor does he adequately consider all the opportunities for advancement that commerce and industry made available to free laborers in the Northern and Midwestern states, drawing tens of millions of immigrants. Nor, finally, does Sandel take account of the vast improvements in living standards, including health and longevity, that commercial and industrial expansion have brought to the American people as a whole. Is he implying that the immigrant workers who helped engender those improvements lacked civic virtue?

It is undeniable that the growth of large-scale banking, commerce, and industry called for enhanced national regulation to protect Americans against fraud, pollution, the sale of unhealthful foods and medicines, and unsafe working conditions. But no such reasons can justify the vast increase in the number of federal cabinet departments that has greatly increased our tax burden, or the unchecked regulatory expansion made possible by a largely inattentive Congress, over the past century. It is the removal of the people’s capacity to regulate their lives from the local level to unaccountable judges and bureaucrats, far more than the political influence of large corporations, that has encouraged extremists on both left and right to express alienation from our country’s political system.

Sandel’s epilogue is deficient in several ways. First, although the book went to press late in 2022, its narrative on "what went wrong" since the 1990s essentially concludes with Joe Biden’s election and his initial legislative triumphs—not their consequences. Instead, Sandel treats as the ultimate proof of the failure of globalization the economic crisis of 2008-09, brought on by the collapse of the housing market, followed by government bailouts of Goldman Sachs and General Motors. While Sandel applauds Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package and his $1 trillion "infrastructure" bill, he says nothing about the runaway inflation that resulted, depleting the retirement savings of those ordinary folks that Sandel professes to care about, while enlarging the class of nonworkers who prefer lives of dependency.

In fact, Sandel praises Biden’s distrust of economists, whom Biden blames for subordinating politics to economics, rather than the other way around. Both parties had plenty of blame for the 2008-09 market collapse, but it was precisely political pressures aimed at currying favor with certain voting blocs that were the proximate cause: the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which compelled banks to lower their home-lending standards, followed by further legislation with the same intent enacted in 1992-93 and championed by Democratic representative Barney Frank, who expressed the wish to "roll the dice" with the mortgage market. (See John Allison’s The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure.)

In other respects as well, Sandel exhibits a lamentable disregard for economic facts. For instance, he repeats assertions about how free enterprise and globalization have depressed workers’ wages for decades. As noted earlier, he relies on a 1972 claim by politician Mark Green regarding the narrow scope of stock ownership, even though only four years later the noted management consultant and economic analyst Peter Drucker published The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America, addressing the widespread ownership of business corporations by pension funds. As of April 25, 2017, according to State Street Global Advisers, institutions (pension funds, mutual funds, colleges and universities) owned about 78 percent of the market value of the U.S. Russell 3000 stock index, and 80 percent of the large-cap S&P 500 index. As for the tales Sandel endorses regarding the stagnation of wages and growing economic inequality, these are thoroughly refuted by three distinguished economists, including ex-senator Phil Gramm, in The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate.

Most problematically, echoing the theme of a previous book, Sandel concludes by denouncing the inequality that results from "meritocracy." Here he does not merely mock the pretensions of pseudo-meritocrats like Hillary Clinton, who thinks that her degrees from Wellesley and Yale entitle her to disparage those who wouldn’t vote for her as "deplorables." (Obama, of course, similarly disparaged his nonsupporters as racists who "cling to guns or religion" owing to their lack of intellectual sophistication.)

Instead, echoing the theme of his last-published book, Sandel denounces actual meritocracy, i.e., the rise of the most talented individuals to positions of prominence and power, since "encouraging people to believe that their success (or failure) is their own doing generates hubris among the winners and humiliation among those left behind." What better way could be found to discourage those born to lower economic and social status from striving to improve their lot than teach them that success in America is the result of "structural inequalities" that can be overcome only by political activity aimed at income redistribution, rather than through effort and (developed) talent?

To the extent that Democracy’s Discontent influences readers, including Sandel’s "privileged" students, to adopt his views, it will only exacerbate ordinary Americans’ discontent, including their resentment of highfalutin Harvard professors telling them what to think and how to live.

Democracy’s Discontent: A New Edition for Our Perilous Times
by Michael J. Sandel
Belknap Press, 384 pp., $24.95

David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.

Published under: Book reviews