The Republican Left. What Liberals Can Learn From Civic Republicans, Frank Pasquale (1996)

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Ever since state socialist regimes started failing dramatically, voices on the left have been groping for a new vision of political engagement to replace the "failed god" of communism. Identity politics has animated some of the most persuasive visions; yet as often as not, it has contributed to a politics of withdrawal. Without a more comprehensive vision, aspirant progressive coalitions lack a common understanding and basis for social action.

The growing "civil society" movement among progressives has only obscured this pressing need. Ranging from communitarians like Michael Walzer to critical theorists like Jean Cohen, "civil society" advocates have emphasized the cultivation of that region between market and state in which voluntary associations flourish. Churches, PTAs, families, coffeehouses, and political parties are all praised as the new grounds for the improvement of common life. Older "grand theory" is discarded like so much utopian baggage; Cohen, for instance, scoffs at "radical...projects focusing on...the democratization of all political inputs into the decisions of a unified state-society." Recalling the resigned Voltaire at the close of Candide, the civil society theorists urge us to "cultivate our gardens."

Even in the 1920s, John Dewey realized that the civil society project was untenable for one simple reason--if the state does not take some hand in determining which associations fail and which succeed, the only environment determining these results will be the market. The results often aren't pretty. As Mary Pipher's brilliant In the Shelter of Each Other demonstrates, the high-tech seductions of television and the internet have replaced parental guidance as the prime means of socialization of today's youth. What holds for the sacred abode of family life is even more true for the slighter, more tenuous associations that the civil society theorists find so attractive. Perhaps we can take heart in the slight growth in Americans' affiliations with neighborhood organizations and church groups in the 1990s. But we should realize that the parts of "civil society" that are calling the shots in America today are those that play by the rules of the market. In large, bureaucratic groups like the NRA or the American Association for Retired Persons, "political participation" is virtually nonexistent for members (who merely send in donations) and nearly criminal for organizers (who bribe legislators with campaign contributions).

The implications of such examples are clear. If civil associations are to provide a blueprint for the creation of a more just, democratic, and rational society, they must be situated within friendly political and economic environments. But how can we discuss such social engineering without falling back into the failed totalism of the Marxists?

The Call of Civic Republicanism

One answer increasingly prevalent among political theorists recently has been the advancement of democracy as an ideal in and of itself. If we can't agree on any comprehensive theory to guide the operation of social institutions, perhaps we can still commit ourselves, as a people, to the practice of collectively deciding their direction and principles. Of course, this civic republican ideal is a comprehensive theory itself, and has usually only seemed plausible for small and homogeneous communities. But perhaps it is sufficiently flexible and egalitarian to create a new way of solving social problems.

This, in a nutshell, is the case made by Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent. Sandel's work ambitiously aspires to articulate a civic republican "public philosophy" for the United States by reviving a variety of political justification evident in earlier American political thought. Sandel believes that America needs this new public philosophy because the "liberal" standard for governmental decision-making, which tries to maximize "respect for the rights of freely choosing selves," is too indeterminate a guide for social action. When he rails against "liberalism" throughout the book, he isn't criticizing progressives--he's critiquing a philosophical conception of self and society that has provided the terms in which political arguments are cast. Echoing Mary Ann Glendon's charges in Rights Talk, Sandel claims that America's most prominent politicians and judges have neglected serious social problems while crafting a "procedural republic" in liberal terms. While "liberals" on the left promise an idealized welfare state, and those on the right clamor for a laissez-faire utopia, neither can deliver on their promises of personal self-fulfillment. Since citizens in the "procedural republic" have no concrete vision of human virtue or common good to aim for, they are left adrift in anomie, unable to unify behind common political endeavors, and buffeted by social forces beyond their control. Thus Sandel claims that the traditional liberal ideal of liberty--protecting individual choice and self-realization in the widest possible range of circumstances--is misconceived.

Certainly, Sandel sometimes overstates his case, blaming economic inequality, crime, and just about every other social pathology one can think of on the liberal "procedural republic." But he develops a positive counter-ideal that might be able to mitigate these problems. In place of the subjective sovereignty elevated by liberal theorists on both left and right, Sandel suggest that we are only free when we are participating members of self-governing communities. As opposed to the personal autonomy prized by liberals, this collective autonomy is understood by Sandel as a "consequence of self-government;" one is "free insofar as [one is] a member of a political community that controls its own fate."

On its face, this conception of freedom may seem absurd. Even the most ambitious "joiners" among us find few of our deepest hopes and pleasures in civic association. As John Stuart Mill once stated, "citizenship fills only a small place in modern life, and does not come near the daily habits or into most sentiments." Furthermore, as a guide to constitutional theory, civic republicanism can advance not only progressive, but also reactionary programs. Examining its role in clarifying progressive arguments, while serving as a handmaiden for conservatives, can illuminate its deeper strengths and weaknesses.

The Ambivalence of Constitutional Theory

As a principle of constitutional interpretation, Sandel's civic republicanism offers both promise and danger. There is a great deal of confusion among "liberal" constitutional theorists about the implications of the Bill of Rights for a number of important issues. Led by the American Civil Liberties Union, many groups have defended such unsavory characters as big campaign contributors, pornographers, and Ku Klux Klan members on First Amendment grounds. Perhaps they'd think twice about this wasteful advocacy if they distanced themselves from the roughly relativist conception of negative liberty they currently hold and took positive theories of freedom like Sandel's more seriously.

Yet civic republicanism, if taken alone, also lacks the theoretical resources to prevent such unsavory outcomes. For instance, in a recent campaign finance case (Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce) in which a majority of the court approved state restrictions on "corporate speech," Justice Scalia dissented in an opinion laced with civic rhetoric. Quoting Tocqueville on the place of an aristocratic elite in preserving democratic freedoms, Scalia argued that corporations, "occupying the `lofty platform' that they do within the economic life of the state," must have a special opportunity to inform citizens "that the election of a particular candidate is important to their prosperity." Nothing in Sandel's understanding of the "civic strand of freedom" would prevent Scalia's roughly feudal vision of democratic will formation from framing our electoral process. Only egalitarian principles external to Sandel's civic republicanism can demonstrate the glaring unfairness of a viewpoint like Scalia's.

Post-Materialist Values and Character Formation

But thoughtful progressives ought to find Sandel's work instructive on many levels, if not for exactly the same reasons as its author. Once we try to guarantee all citizens the opportunity for effective enjoyment of rights to political participation, a theory like Sandel's can provide some promising results. While articulating a republicanism that aspires to replace America's present "procedural republic," Sandel actually lays out the ideological concerns that need to be addressed by progressives within it.

The most important task facing not only progressives, but also other political theorists today, is to specify the way in which society can advance toward the social changes they prescribe. The most daring and encouraging parts of Sandel's book come when he offers a theory of the "multiple sites of citizenship" necessary for the success of the republican project. Critiques of Sandel's previous work have invariably pointed out that civic republicanism does not specify what level of community individuals are to cultivate fundamental attachments to. Certainly a person engaged in local associations is more "civically engaged" than her couch potato neighbor--but what if the neighborhood groupie neglects her obligations to national politics? And even if Sandel's' "formative project" succeeded in turning out exemplary American citizens, how "virtuous" would they ultimately be if they ignored the gross disparities in standards of living between regions of the globe?

Sandel ultimately claims that only when "citizenship is dispersed across multiple sites of civic engagement" can these shortcomings be addressed. Drawing on Vaclav Havel's arguments for a "citizen's Europe" as opposed to a "businessman's Europe," Sandel warns against letting global "economic power...go unchecked by democratically sanctioned political power." Democracy presents a sophisticated conception of democracy in which international and national sovereignty complement instead of conflict with one another. Thus Sandel's public philosophy prescribes citizen engagement on multiple levels--as members of local communities, as concerned participants in state and national politics, and as active followers of international affairs.

More cynical observers might call these reflections a needless elaboration of the old environmentalist dictum "think globally, act locally." Certainly one often wishes that Democracy's Discontent pursued the practical implications of such an insight in more detail. But Sandel's main contribution is simply to insist that progressives address the "formative project" necessary to produce citizens capable of upholding these expectations. Bidding Americans to avoid both the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of self-indulgent apathy, Sandel prescribes patience with the "ambiguity associated with divided sovereignty and multiply encumbered selves." Only a general willingness among citizens to learn about the ambitions of others and take an interest in the direction of their common life can preserve us from the social and cultural anarchy loosed by the sovereignty of the market.

This isn't alien to the liberal tradition that Sandel attacks. John Stuart Mill's thought, for instance, is based on an ideal of human excellence grounded in humane toleration, public concern, and self-discipline. Only recently have egalitarian liberals like John Rawls, even as they have made great contributions to the theory of distributive justice, largely ignored Mill's project in order to make their liberalism more plausible amidst increasing pluralism. What Sandel reminds us is that the creation of the ideal social structures prescribed by Rawls, including economic and political institutions combining rough social equality with respect and equal opportunity for all individuals, is a group project. Its realization requires that all citizens have certain virtues, the qualities of mind and character not too unlike Mill's vision of human perfection.

Thus before progressives once again criticize blatant prejudice, or the gross economic inequalities produced by our economic system, or all the other injustices that so disturb us, we need to ask why our fellow citizens often don't see these problems. Certainly, social structures such as concentration of ownership in the media may keep us from even getting our message out to the general public. But it is individuals who ignore the call to political and social action. Progressives must develop new strategies for education that will ingrain a sense of public concern into students, making the call of civic engagement impossible to spurn. And to avoid merely writing off the present generation of civic dropouts, we need to develop new strategies in electoral reform and broadcast regulation that make national politics a more personal concern for all.

The tone of these arguments will sound eerily right-wing to some progressives, and we do well to suspect Democracy's Discontent as a guide for action when it has been endorsed by the likes of George Will. The most reactionary forces in American politics have appropriated the language of "values" and "virtue," wrapping self-serving cant in the mantle of moral concern. But if we don't develop our own sense of progressive virtues and of the positive necessity of political engagement, we cede the most effective language and means of social change to our enemies on the right. 

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