BRIAN LAMB, HOST:
Michael Sandel, author of "Democracy's Discontent." At the very end of your
book, the last paragraph, you say the following. `Since human beings are
story telling beings, we are bound to rebel against the drift to
storylessness.' What did you mean there?
Professor MICHAEL SANDEL, AUTHOR, "DEMOCRACY'S DISCONTENT": `Storylessness,'
`the drift to storylessness,' the tendency in our culture and in our public
life for everything to be fragmented: for political discourse, political
argument to be fragmented; for people to be dislocated; for communities that
give people a sense of place in the world to be eroded, from families to
neighborhoods, schools, congregations, nations. People aren't anchored in a
way that they once were anchored in the world, and they can't tell convincing
stories about who they are, where they are, where we are as a people, and
that's a makes for an unstable politics.
LAMB:You say in that same paragraph, `some in their hunger for story will be
drawn to the vacant, vicarious fare of confessional talk shows, celebrity
scandals and sensational trials.' Did you have anything specific in mind?
Prof. SANDEL: The fare of an ordinary day's television programming, for
example. I think one of the reasons that our public discourse and our
political discourse are so impoverished and so bound up with the confessional
and the scandalous and the sensational and the titillating is that, at the
core of our political discourse, our political debate, there's a kind of
emptiness, a void of substantive moral argument. People want public life to
be a place where they can argue about serious moral and political questions.
And when politics doesn't address that yearning, that aspiration, these
aspirations, I think, become distorted in the forms of the fare of
confessional talk shows and the rest. And so I think it's a symptom of
our of a certain emptiness in our political debate.
LAMB:Do you ever watch any of those confessional talk shows?
Prof. SANDEL: I hear about them. No, occasionally I've taken a look,
but mostly I just watch C SPAN.
LAMB:Do you ever...
Prof. SANDEL: That's refuge.
LAMB:Do you pay attention to the celebrity scandals?
Prof. SANDEL: Only I don't read the whole story, but I notice what is in
the headlines. I notice what the National Enquirer, when I check out in the
grocery store, is writing about. And I think it's a sign that
there's a certain something missing from the state of our public life.
LAMB:How about the sensational trials? Did -do any of your students
watch any of these things on television?
Prof. SANDEL: The O.J. trial, for example, that kind of thing. Some of
them do, and it becomes a kind of soap opera that's played out before a kind
of national audience, but I think there's I think there's something else
that we should be doing with our time, and that my students should be doing,
and that my kids should be doing, and that all of us should be engaged with as
LAMB:How many children do you have?
Prof. SANDEL: Two two boys.
LAMB:How old are they?
Prof. SANDEL: They're 10 and almost eight.
LAMB:Now do you ever talk about any of this kind of thing with them?
Prof. SANDEL: Mostly we try to keep the television off, except for
nature shows and sports and things like that, as far as the children are
concerned. I think it's a pernicious force if allowed just to
run, and for kids to sit dazed before it.
LAMB:Do they fight you on that? Do they want to watch things that you won't
let them watch?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, for a while we did all right. Recently we've had
a few struggles, but life should be full of other things, and
if the only thing on television were PBS and C SPAN, I would worry less.
LAMB:Where do you live?
Prof. SANDEL: In Brookline, Massachusetts.
LAMB:And where do you work full time?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard University in
the government I teach in the government department. Political philosophy is
what I teach.
Prof. SANDEL: All levels, beginning with first year students all the way up
through PhD students.
LAMB:What do you find your students most interested in talking about in
Prof. SANDEL: Well, students want to have their moral and political
convictions challenged. They want an opportunity to reflect critically and
systematically on their political opinions. The classes I teach, which are in
political philosophy one of the courses I teach is called justice. It's
about different theories of justice by philosophers from Aristotle up through
John Stuart Mill and contemporary political philosophers. What the students
like to do is to see that the views they have on the opinions of the day, on
political controversies and the like, implicate them, commit them to positions
and principles that the great philosophers of the past wrote about, debated,
argued about and that's what we do.
LAMB:How many years have you been doing this?
Prof. SANDEL: I've been doing this now for 15 years.
LAMB:Have you noticed a change over those 15 years in the attitude of the
students, you know, as reflected in the your book here about the discontent?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, not a big change. Students are motivated today
as they ever were before. They want to try to sort out what their moral and
political convictions are. I think if there's a change, I notice it's
that the level of patience may be a bit lower. I think that students
today have been conditioned by the fast pace of contemporary culture, and
there is a kind of pressure to adapt teaching to a more limited attention
span, but that's not a major difficulty, because the sense of
engagement and interest I think is still there.
LAMB:What book is this for you?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, this is the sec...
LAMB:I mean, what number?
Prof. SANDEL: The second book. Well, the firs...
LAMB:What was the first one?
Prof. SANDEL: The first book was a book called "Liberalism & the Limits
of Justice," which was about the philosophy, the moral philosophy, of
contemporary liberal political theory. It was a very abstract book in
philosophy, and this book tries to bring some of the abstract
philosophical debates down to earth, to relate them to contemporary politics,
to contemporary dilemmas of democratic society, and really to the history of
the American political tradition.
LAMB:Eighty two years ago, in 1914, Walter Lippmann you've got a
quote in here said the following. Before I read, who was Walter Lippmann?
Prof. SANDEL: Walter Lippmann was the pre eminent political commentator of
his day, which is to say the early to mid 20th century.
LAMB:OK, 1914, he said this, `We are unsettled to the very roots of our
being. There isn't a human relation' crank the paper here. `There isn't
a human' no `There isn't a human relation, whether of parent and child,
husband and wife, worker and employer, that doesn't move in a
strange situation. We are not used to a complicated civilization. We don't
know how to behave when personal contact and eternal authority have
disappeared. There are no procedures to guide us, no wisdom that wasn't made
for a simpler age. We have changed our environment more quickly than we know
how to change ourselves.' Now couldn't you write that today?
Prof. SANDEL: I think you could write that today.
LAMB:Why did you pick that quote?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I picked that quote because what Walter Lippmann was
noticing about the anxiety and the frustration and the discontent and the
sense of dislocation that Americans confronted early in the 20th century has
really unfolded in our time again. The causes are different, but the
predicament is similar. Back at the early 20th century, when Lippmann wrote,
there was a sense of location because the scale of economic life had suddenly
become national, with the advent of industrial capitalism, national markets
and national economy, but the scale of political community, the places where
people took their bearings and derived their identities, were still local, in
small cities and towns and farms, as they had been from the beginnings of the
republic. And people didn't people felt disempowered. They felt that the
sources of moral authority were unraveling, and that's also the case
We struggled in those 80 years to build up a national government and political
system to rival a national economy, but now we have a parallel problem. The
economy is global, and it has overpowered and really outrun the scale of
political community and government, even at the national level, and so again
politics is beset by a set of frustrations, worries, discontents. I think
too, really, which are also figured in Lippmann's day: One is the sense that
we're less and less in control of the forces that govern our lives, a sense of
disempowerment; and also a second aspect of the discontent is that the moral
fabric of community, from families to neighborhoods to the nation, is
unraveling around us. These two fears, for the loss of self-government, and
for the erosion of community and moral authority, define, it seems to me, the
anxiety of our age, but they were also anxieties that figured at the time that
Walter Lippmann wrote in the early 20th century.
LAMB:Well, what happened over the last 84 years that got us to this point,
and what needs to happen over the next 84 to change things?
Prof. SANDEL: What happened back then in the early 20th century, there was a
debate. The major parties, the major candidates for office,
took the frustrations of the day as the major political question, `How can we
restore democratic self-government in the face of large-scale economic power,
the big trusts, and the monopolies?' Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt in
the election of 1912 debated this question, and there were two answers in
that the two solutions that were proposed. There were those who said we
should decentralize the economy so that local democratic units can control it.
That was the answer of Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis, who, before Wilson
appointed him to the court, was a reformer and a decentralizer, an advocate of
antitrust. Then there was another solution. Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert
Croly, who was a commentator and journalist who agreed with him, who
said, `No, the big economy is here to stay we have to invent, so to speak,
big government, large, centralized political authority to regulate the big
economy, the national economy. And more than that, we have to cultivate a
sense of national citizenship so people think of themselves as Americans
first, not just as members of small towns or cities or states.' And that
was it was really the nationalizing project that was played out. From the
Progressive Era through the New Deal through the Great Society of Lyndon
Johnson, the question was how to build America as a national community to
inspire a sense of national citizenship.
LAMB:In that Brookline home, is there a library?
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:If we went in that library, would we find some of your favorite books
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:Who would be the three or four philosophers sitting up on that shelf
that you'd grab for first, that would be your own personal philosophy to life?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I would say there would be two sections to that library
that we could look to. If we're trying to look for philosophers of the
American political tradition, Jefferson would be there, Lincoln, Brandeis, who
I mentioned. We think of him as a jurist, but he really was onto this
question of political community and self government and citizenship and how it
could be made meaningful. So Brandeis would be there, Franklin Roosevelt, and
in contemporary times, though we don't think of him really as a philosopher,
he was a politician, but he was alive to these themes about the character of
civic life, Robert F. Kennedy.
Now the other section of the library, about philosophers going back at the
time of the Greeks, would include well, Aristotle would, I think, be
prominent among them because Aristotle was really the philosopher of
citizenship. He was the philosopher who invented a long tradition that says
citizenship is more than just voting your own self interest, it's more than
just going to the polls every four years; to be a citizen is really to have a
say in shaping the forces that govern the destiny of the political community,
and that requires citizens who have certain habits and dispositions, certain
civic virtues, and we can't take those for granted. We have to worry about
the way our public life as a whole including the schools, but also what's on
television, what's in the movies, what's the character of our political
debate we have to worry about how public life as a whole shapes the
character, the moral and civic character, of citizens. Unless we cultivate
citizenship, form civic virtue, we can't expect very good results when people
cast their votes at the ballot box.
LAMB:Who else besides Aristotle will be on that other shelf?
Prof. SANDEL: On the other shelf? Well, maybe a surprising answer,
because he's not very often invoked in connection with American politics.
Hegel would be because Hegel came of course, Aristotle was writing in
the days of the Greek city state, and one might ask, `How could that
possibly inform our present politics?' We live in a global society with
enormous nations, not face to face communities, not direct democracy.
And in the enlightenment, in the 18th century, many philosophers said,
`We can't hope we shouldn't even try to really cultivate through politics
virtues in citizens because there's always the risk of coercion. Better that
we should encourage people to think of themselves as individuals capable
of choosing their own values. Government should be neutral.' And then Hegel
came along and said, `Well, Aristotle had a point. Can we connect the idea of
citizenship, belonging, civic identity with an appreciation of respect for
human rights and individual rights?'
LAMB:When you look out at those students, do you ever see their eyes glaze
over when you start to talk about I mean, you're talking about Harvard
students, so I assume they're pretty smart when they get there but do you
ever see them glaze over when you start to talk about Aristotle and Hegel and
Kant and all these people you talk about in your book?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, it depends. There's always the risk and of
the eyes glazing over, and the best way I've found to prevent the eyes glazing
over is, before launching into Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or, for that matter,
even Jefferson, to start with some contemporary issue where students have
opinions and convictions, whether it's about income distribution or
affirmative action or military conscription, whether it's just, or
whether to teach creationism alongside evolution in the public schools some
contemporary controversy that raises philosophical questions, and then that
takes them back to show there's something at stake in what those philosophers
LAMB:OK, let me combine a couple of things. Mrs. Clinton was here a number
of weeks ago, and she talked about, because I asked her, about her time
serving on the Wal-Mart board of directors.
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:You talk in your book, among Aristotle and Kant and all these, about
Prof. SANDEL: Right.
LAMB:...and Louis Brandeis.
Prof. SANDEL: Yeah.
LAMB:Start with Mr. Brandeis, Justice Brandeis, who they have a university
up in Waltham right near Brookline.
Prof. SANDEL: That's right. And I...
LAMB:How did that...
Prof. SANDEL: ...I should say, I'm a graduate of Brandeis University.
LAMB:Well, how who do you know much about him?
Prof. SANDEL: Yes. About Brandeis, you mean?
LAMB:Yeah. How did you get a school named after Louis Brandeis?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, the school was founded in 1948 by the American Jewish
community as a non sectarian liberal arts school, and it was the idea
was to find a figure, an American, an American Jew who embodied the
universalistic values, values associated with education, and also who retained
a strong sense of this identity as a Jew, and who was also very strongly
identified with American democracy and the democratic tradition.
LAMB:Do only Jews go to Brandeis?
Prof. SANDEL: No. It's open to all students from all backgrounds, and
it's been a great success.
LAMB:What would he think of Wal Mart?
Prof. SANDEL: What would Brandeis think of Wal Mart? He would be he would
be sharply critical of Wal Mart. He would see Wal Mart as antithetical to
Prof. SANDEL: Brandeis thought and I think there's a lot in this that
democracy requires an economy of a certain kind. It requires an economy
within which citizens can learn to be active citizens, to be effective
participants in political deliberation about the common good, and but how do
you have such an economy or such a public life? You need it has to be on a
scale where people can argue, can bump into people, where the classes mix.
Take what happens now, shifting to the Wal Mart case, to small downtown
areas in cities across America where there is a mixture of retail outlets, a
local hardware store, maybe a grocery store, a post office, a library, the
city hall, maybe a playground. Traditionally, these are places, gathering
places, where people in the normal course of life bump into each other, people
who are rich and poor and in between, people from different races and classes,
ideally, though often the image of the small town is idealized. When Wal Mart
comes along, the downtown stores can't compete. They're shuttered. They
close down. Downtowns die. People have to get in their cars to drive,
because you can't walk to most Wal Marts. They're off some feeder from
the highway, the interchange. You have to get in your car. It's a kind of
privatized consumer experience. You drive to an enormous place, and you for
the sake of lower consumer prices. Brandeis thought that the that in the
rush to get lower consumer prices, Americans were selling out citizenship and
LAMB:Do you know how long Mr. Brandeis was on the Supreme Court?
Prof. SANDEL: He was I should know. How long was he on?
LAMB:I don't know.
Prof. SANDEL: I'll have to check it.
LAMB:Do you know when he died?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, let's see. He went on the court in 1916, and I don't
know. I'll have to check.
LAMB:Did Felix Frankfurter replace him on the court?
Prof. SANDEL: Yes, yes.
LAMB:And he's also in your book.
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:And how would he what would he think today of all this?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, Frankfurter was influenced by Brandeis' emphasis on
decentralizing democracy. Brandeis emphasized antitrust and
anti monopoly policy, not it's interesting. These days there's still
an antitrust division of the Justice Department that takes on
tremendously important cases, but the rationale has changed. In Brandeis'
day, the whole purpose of antitrust law was not to get lower consumer prices.
It was not because you worried that monopolies would push up the price, given
their monopoly position, to consumers. Brandeis wasn't concerned about
consumers as such. He worried that monopolies were sources of big economic
power that would suffocate democracy, that would overpower democratic
institutions and buy politicians. Nowadays we have antitrust policy, but it
has nothing to do with really decentralizing the economy to make it amenable
to democratic participation or industrial democracy. It has all to do with
preventing monopolists from pushing up prices. So the shift from the
citizenship reason for antitrust Brandeis to the consumerist reason for
antitrust reflects a shift in our politics in the 20th century that's at the
heart of what I take to be democracy's discontent: The shift from
thinking of ourselves as citizens first to, nowadays, thinking of
ourselves as consumers first and citizens second. So that's why Brandeis
wouldn't like Wal Mart.
LAMB:Where was home for you originally?
Prof. SANDEL: Just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Midwest.
LAMB:What was it like growing up?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I lived there till I was 13 years old, and then my
family moved to Los Angeles. So it was is quite a shift, but the I liked
growing up in the Midwest. It was a wholesome place. It was also a
place that had a long tradition of civic concern, both in the local
businesses there and also the Democratic Farm Labor Party, which had a strong
progressive tradition, produced a lot of progressive democratic
politicians, also with a tradition of a kind of civic minded politics.
LAMB:What did your family do?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, my father was in he distributed records, phonograph
records, in the record business.
LAMB:For what company?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, it was he had his own kind of distributing company.
LAMB:And your mom?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, she was she did some teaching for a while of languages,
Spanish and French, and then but for the most part, she was a homemaker.
LAMB:Brothers and sisters?
Prof. SANDEL: Yes, three, a sister and two brothers.
LAMB:And you moved to Los Angeles in what year?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, it was when I was 13, which would have been 1966.
LAMB:And where did you go to high school and then to college?
Prof. SANDEL: I went to Palisades High School in Palisades, California.
It overlooks you can see the Pacific Ocean, the beach from the front
LAMB:Is that San Francisco?
Prof. SANDEL: In no, Los Angeles. Pali High, it's called.
LAMB:Not I'm thinking of Pacific Heights.
Prof. SANDEL: Yeah. It was a public high school, and very in
my it was very sort of competitive academically, but also, you know, the
beach tempted surfers who wanted to go out and cut class, but it was a
great place to go to school. And then I went to Brandeis University, as I
mentioned, for college.
LAMB:But PhD. And master's?
Prof. SANDEL: And then I went for my PhD, I went to Oxford in England.
Prof. SANDEL: Balliol College.
LAMB:You there with anybody we know? I mean, was there any other American
there that has become public?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, let me think. There are a couple of people from
my class who made it to Congress and the Senate, though I was after
the days of Bill Clinton. He was before my day.
LAMB:And what was your PhD in?
Prof. SANDEL: It was in political philosophy, politics and philosophy.
LAMB:And you got that where?
Prof. SANDEL: At Oxford.
LAMB:Oh, you did get that at Oxford.
Prof. SANDEL: Yeah.
LAMB:Do you remember how you ever got interested in writing a treatise on
discontent and democracy?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I in all those years that we've just rehearsed,
growing up as a kid and through college years, I was always interested
in politics and elections and political parties and debates. And
LAMB:Do you know why?
Prof. SANDEL: I don't know why. It just always interested me.
LAMB:Were your parents interested?
Prof. SANDEL: They were, as many educated, informed people are
interested, but not with the kind of passion that somehow I
acquired. And then by the time I finished college, I didn't know what I
wanted to do, whether to be a lawyer or a politician or a journalist or an
academic. Those were the contending possibilities. And then an opportunity
came along to go to Oxford to read and study for a while, and so I did. I
thought I would spend a term or two studying political philosophy, going back
from Plato and Aristotle up through Hobbes and Locke and Kant and John Stuart
Mill, and have that as part of my background. Well, I instead of a term or
two, I became hooked on it. I realized that this was a passion, and
that I hadn't solved all the questions that had led me there. So I wound up
studying and doing a PhD in political philosophy.
LAMB:How long have you been at Harvard?
Prof. SANDEL: For 15 years.
LAMB:And when you teach, how big are your classes?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, they range from a graduate seminar of 10 or 11
students to a big undergraduate course that I teach which is about 800 or 900
LAMB:You the Kirkus Reviews, who they review books, usually ahead of
Prof. SANDEL: Yeah.
LAMB:The first line of the review, `a wide ranging critique of American
liberalism that, unlike many other current books on the matter, seeks its
restoration as a guiding political ethic.' That leads me to want to ask you,
does that make you a liberal, and are you trying to bring back liberalism
in the way you've written about it?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I've been a critic of a certain version of liberalism
the political theory of liberalism that says government should be neutral
with respect to the character of its citizens or with respect to moral and
religious arguments. That version of liberalism, what I call in the book
`procedural liberalism,' is what I'm arguing against. Now many conservatives
argue that government should have more of a role in cultivating virtue and
moral character, and I agree with them up to a point. Where I part company
with them and would not consider myself a conservative is that they don't
address the way they don't go beyond morality and culture to look at the
economy. My argument in the book is that the economy as well as the culture
has traditionally been a place, and should be a place, where we worry about
the civic consequences, the consequences for character of our public
arrangements. But conservatives leave the market as exempt. In my view,
market forces undermine community and citizenship and civic virtue just as
powerfully, sometimes more powerfully, than government does or the culture
LAMB:Your first footnote in the back, first chapter, `Only 20 percent of
Americans believe they can trust the government in Washington to do what is
right most of the time.' This is from February 1994. It goes on, it says,
`Three fourths says they are dissatisfied with the way the political process
is working.' That's from 1992. What's that and that's
gone way down, as you say earlier in the book, from, like, 76 percent...
Prof. SANDEL: Right.
LAMB:...25 years ago.
Prof. SANDEL: Right.
Prof. SANDEL: Back when John Kennedy was president, three fourths of
the people thought government could be trusted to do what's right most of the
time, and they did believe government was concerned with people like
them. And it's now reversed.
LAMB:Let me go back, though. Would it also have been the case in the
Prof. SANDEL: Well, they only began really tracking these in a systematic
way around the around 1960, but I think yes. In the Eisenhower years, such
figures as we have suggest a very high level of trust in government.
LAMB:As you remember, in 1960, Teddy White wrote the "Making of the
President, 1960," and you quote him here on page 295 as saying, "In 1968,
this faith was to be shattered, the myth of American power broken, the
confidence of the American people in their government, their institutions,
their leadership shaken as never before since 1880."
Prof. SANDEL: Yeah.
LAMB:What shook them in 1880? What happened back then that shook
Prof. SANDEL: Well, this was in the wake of reconstruction, and there
was there was a series the politics in the late 19th century was
really trying, beginning to sort out the corruption and also the dislocation
to do with industrial capitalism. The Civil War was over. Reconstruction had
been harsh and severe and difficult. The industrial capitalism seemed
to be undermining democratic possibilities. So it was not a happy time. And
as Theodore White observed, 1968 was a time when the faith that
Americans had that we were the masters of our destiny, that we could exercise
our will in the world, this great faith that was an article of faith
after World War II through the 1950s, suddenly came undone. It came
clattering down. With Vietnam, with the riots in the cities, with the
assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, suddenly there was a
sense that events were spinning out of control, and we were no longer the
masters of our circumstance. Self government seemed the project of
self government. It was unraveling.
LAMB:How old were you in '68?
Prof. SANDEL: I was 15.
LAMB:Can you remember that year?
Prof. SANDEL: I do remember that year. I remember...
LAMB:You were in Los Angeles.
Prof. SANDEL: I was in Los Angeles. I remember waking up in the morning and
learning this was after that night had been the California
primary learning that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. And I remember
also, just prior to that, when Martin Luther King was assassinated the people
telling us, you know, we should stay out of the street. There would be riots
in reaction to this. It was a time of tumult and moral anguish. And
even, you know, as a 15 year old, I think there was a culpable sense of this.
LAMB:You also quote Scotty Reston, former Washington bureau chief of The New
York Times. "Washington is now the symbol of the helplessness of the present
day. The main crisis is not Vietnam itself or in the cities, but in the
feeling that the political system for dealing with these things has broken
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:Now if we were so enamored by government in the early 1960s, what
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I think what happened is that, even in the 1960s, early
'60s, when and in the late '50s when there was this sense of confidence, the
civic resources of American politics were already beginning to wither. In
many ways, we've been stuck in a debate, an obsolete debate, that goes back to
the New Deal in our politics, but the parties' debate is what should be the
role of government in the economy, what should be the scope of the welfare
state? But that doesn't address the sense of disempowerment, the sense of
frustration. It doesn't address the sense the community is unraveling, and
for a while, our politics could coast along on the heady the rising economy
and the heady sense of confidence of the late '50s, early '60s.
But with the succession of events in '68, politics the national
government politics, generally seemed incapable of acting in the world, of
exercising meaningful control over events, and in many ways, we've lived with
that since. We're not out of it. Jimmy Carter, in many ways, reaped the
bitter fruits of this frustration. The hostage taking crisis in Iran summed
up why was it so politically potent? After all, they returned. None of them
was killed. They returned safely in the end. But it summed up and symbolized
this sense of disempowerment for a generation of Americans who had been weaned
on the idea after World War II that we were the masters of our destiny at home
Suddenly, "America Held Hostage" "Nightline" was invented, a nightly program
called "America Held Hostage," this image that we were powerless, after all,
despite what we'd been told. Vietnam ushered in that sense of frustration.
The hostage taking crisis, the gas lines of the '70s, the OPEC oil shortage,
the inflation: Americans no longer felt they were masters of their destiny in
their families, in their jobs, or looking at America's role in the world.
LAMB:OK, bring us to today. If you were to sit down with either the
president or the speaker of the House or just a had a blank piece of paper,
what are the things you would do to bring us back to this civic
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I would begin by trying to change the character of our
political debate, to change the subject, so to speak.
Prof. SANDEL: Well, to make the first question of our political debate is:
What economic arrangements and what political arrangements are conducive to
cultivating good citizens, citizens capable of exercising some
meaningful control over the forces that govern our lives?
LAMB:So in the debates this fall, that'd be your first question of the two
or three, whatever the number of candidates that are standing there?
Prof. SANDEL: It wouldn't be a bad question. It wouldn't be a bad question.
You know, in the through the 19th century and up through the New Deal, that
really was a central question in American political debate: What political
institutions and arrangements and policies will lead to the creation of good
citizens? That's fallen away. Mostly what we debate now is what rights and
entitlements should people have, or what should be the role of the welfare
state how much government, how much for the market economy. And Democrats
take one side and the Republicans take another. But that isn't addressing
people's worry about community and self government and citizenship and the
character of civic life.
LAMB:Explain this sentence in the Loss of Mastery chapter. 1968 year. Civic stirrings, Robert F. Kennedy. “Of all the presidential candidates of recent decades who sought to articulate the inchoate frustrations that beset American politics, the one who offered the most compelling political vision was Robert F. Kennedy.” You didn't mention John F. Kennedy. You think that Robert F. Kennedy was still the most compelling of all the visionaries on politics?
Prof. SANDEL: I think that Robert F. Kennedy was on to this theme about
citizenship and the character of civic life and community. He talked about
familiar issues like crime and like jobs and like welfare issues that we
debate all the time, and still do. But he talked about these issues from the
standpoint of their effect on citizenship, civic responsibility and civic
life. For example, he said the tragedy of crime in the inner city isn't
just the threat to physical safety, which is bad enough; it's also that when
people can't walk the streets of their own neighborhoods, those neighborhoods
are no longer really theirs. And if that isn't the case, they can't take
responsibility and have a sense of civic engagement.
Welfare: We forget easily that Robert Kennedy was a critic of
welfare. You know, conservatives these days argue that welfare dependency
corrupts the independence that citizenship requires. That argument does
harken back to this older civic tradition, going back to Jefferson and up
through Brandeis. But the first person I know of in American politics who
worried about the consequences for character, civic character, of welfare was
not a conservative who wanted to get rid of all programs for
the poor, it was Robert Kennedy, who was at the forefront of concern for the
poor, but he said he made a civic argument. `Welfare,' he said, `is our
greatest domestic political failure because it saps citizenship.' Citizens
are more than people who consume together. The highest the dignity that
comes from having a job is the dignity that allows a person to say, `I'm a
participant in the great public ventures of this political community.' And
welfare, he said, undermined that. It was a civic argument, an argument about
LAMB:Would he be your favorite liberal?
Prof. SANDEL: In recent times, yes. I think he was on to the civic
strand of the American political discourse that's been largely eclipsed in
recent years. He wasn't a defender of a solely kind of rights based,
individualistic kind of politics, but a civic politics.
LAMB:Who's making the same kind of arguments today in politics? Anybody?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, there are two who have made those arguments
effectively. Unfortunately, to my mind, they're both conservatives. They're
people who would not have agreed with much of what Robert Kennedy stood for.
The most effective of recent presidents was in this respect was Ronald
Reagan. Ronald Reagan was held together two different kinds of conservatism.
On the one hand, he was an individualistic, laissez faire, free market
conservative in favor of getting government off people's backs. But at the
same time, and this was a kind of political genius in a way, he was also, and
I think the most resonant part of his politics, was a kind of civic and
communal conservatism. You remember he talked about families and
neighborhoods and religion and patriotism and the small town. A lot of it was
nostalgic. He didn't govern by it. He governed more as a market
conservative. He didn't talk about the way market forces erode community.
But he did speak to that hunger for a sense of community, moral authority,
citizenship and particular forms of community.
LAMB:Who is the other one?
Prof. SANDEL: The other one would be, even worse, to my way of thinking,
Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan, though I don't share his politics for a moment,
was on to the themes of the frustration and discontent that people have,
both about coming unmoored from communities, communities that locate people in
the world, and also the sense of disempowerment that he associated with
downsizing and the effects of the global economy. What I would like to see
would be a democratic politics small D democratic politics or progressive
politics or liberal politics that addressed the same worries and frustrations
Buchanan tapped, but with more promising solutions and a more promising
LAMB:A fellow that you bring up a lot in your book is Aristotle.
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:When did he live?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, he lived in the third century B.C. And I think I've
got that right, though if I have it wrong, I will hear from my students about
LAMB:If he were sitting here today...
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:...and we were having this conversation, and he looked around the
United States, what would he conclude?
Prof. SANDEL: He would ask, `Where is the where do citizens gather? Where
is the assembly?' I think that's what he would ask, `Where is the assembly?'
Because for him, the assembly was at the heart of the city. It was the place
where citizens came to deliberate about the common good. I think he would
look around, and he would see shopping malls. Shopping malls are
really our gathering places today. You spoke of Wal Mart before, but
shopping malls are, sadly, the kind of architectural and civic alternative, in
our day, to the ecclesia, the assembly, which was in the center of the
marketplace, at the heart of the city, in Aristotle's day.
LAMB:Where did he live?
Prof. SANDEL: Where did he live? In Athens.
LAMB:Did he marry?
Prof. SANDEL: I don't believe he did, though, I may also hear from my
students about that. I'll have to look into the...
LAMB:He you say here in your book that he considered women
Prof. SANDEL: Well, what I was trying to acknowledge one criticism that
could be raised against my attempt, or anyone's attempt, to revive the civic
tradition, or what's sometimes called the republican small R civic
republican tradition that Aristotle initiated, one argument against that is:
`Yes, but this strong idea of citizenship has often been invoked to exclude
people to exclude women, to exclude immigrants, to exclude Catholics, to
People say, `No, only citizens who are true members of this community can be
full members.' And that is the dark side of the civic or civic republican
tradition, and I pointed out that Aristotle sanctioned slavery, though it's
complicated whether he himself there's evidence in Aristotle's
writing he saw there was something wrong with slavery, but he defended it.
And he said only men who have a certain kind of wealth can really be
democratic citizens because they're the only ones with the independence, the
leisure, and the ability, really, to deliberate about the common good. It
is it was exclusive back then, and the challenge for republican
politics small R republican, is to have an inclusive politics that's still
concerned with obligation and citizenship.
LAMB:You have this statement in here: `Aristotle held that persons of
moderate means make the best citizens.'
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:What's `moderate' mean?
Prof. SANDEL: It means what, these days, we mean by middle class, roughly
LAMB:You say in here that 1 percent of the population has 42 percent of the
Prof. SANDEL: That's right, in America today.
LAMB:So that 1 percent aren't they're not going to be the moderate they're
not going to be very good citizens.
Prof. SANDEL: Aristotle wouldn't think so. He thought that people if a
society is riven economically by class division, with some very rich and some
very poor, that it's unlikely to be a place where citizenship and democracy
will flourish. And the reason is that, for Aristotle and for the civic
tradition, politics should aim at the common good. Democracy isn't just about
adding up votes or adding up people's interests and going with the majority.
It's actually arguing it out, deliberating what is the common good? And you
can't do that in a society where people live such different lives that they
can't possibly agree on the good for the community as a whole. They'll be too
preoccupied with their own self interest, with luxury and corruption, he
thought, in the case of the rich; and with the scourge of economic necessity
that gives you no time to reflect about politics, in the case of the poor.
LAMB:What do you think Aristotle would think of the Internet?
Prof. SANDEL: What would he think of the Internet?
LAMB:What would he think of CD ROMs? What would he think of
all this, you know, people living their own in their own little worlds?
Prof. SANDEL: He would say that people living in their own little
worlds are not people from whom democratic politics can issue. As for
the Internet, I think he, maybe like some of the rest of us, me included,
would be struggling to try to figure it out and to sort out its political
consequences. In some respects, I suppose you could argue, he would see I
said before he would ask, `Where is the assembly?' Some people today, people
who have great faith in technology, would say would point him to the
LAMB:Do your students use the Internet?
Prof. SANDEL: Some of them do. Some of them do.
LAMB:You ever talk about it in class?
Prof. SANDEL: We haven't really, no. Students want to know if I'll have
office hours via e mail. I haven't resorted to that.
LAMB:And when you talk about Aristotle in class, do the is this something
they like to talk about?
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
Prof. SANDEL: You mean about Aristotle...
Prof. SANDEL: ...and the Internet.
Prof. SANDEL: Aristotle, yes, because I think students many
students, as many citizens, sense that there is something missing from our
democracy, which is really mostly about competing interests. And what's
missing is really something that Aristotle writes about: What are the
conditions what are the preconditions for citizens who are equipped to
deliberate about the common good, to share in self rule?
LAMB:You know, another fellow that you bring up quite a bit in your book, or
at least enough, and we get this in all these books, is Alexis de
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:Now first of all, why did he why has he survived all this time, like
Aristotle? What about his writings are relevant to today?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, he emphasized the role that the New England township
played in shaping citizens. The idea that struck him was that American
politics is decentralized, and this is a great advantage, because where people
can participate, where they can exercise the art of government in
`the small sphere within their reach' that was his phrase then they can
learn the habits and dispositions, the qualities of character that will orient
them to the common good. It will draw them out of their own private
interests, if you give people that opportunity to participate. Now the
challenge in applying Tocqueville to our present situation is we no longer
live in a world of small New England townships; we live in the world of the
Internet and the global economy and big national government.
So how is that relevant today? One way I think it could be relevant is that
Tocqueville didn't want to stop with the small sphere of government
represented by the New England township. His idea was the virtues we learn
there, in small towns or in local communities, can point us outward. If we
start worrying about a toxic waste cleanup in our own backyard, pretty soon
we'll be led to reflect and worry about national environmental policy, and
maybe even ultimately global environmental policy. So the idea is to find
forms of political participation in community that begin, perhaps, locally,
equip citizens with certain skills and a certain commitment to the common
good, but point beyond themselves.
LAMB:You know, on page 248 and 249, you talk about the paradox that
conservatives endorse liberal ideas and vice versa, and you say, `In the name
of economic efficiency, in deference to the market, the Reagan
conservatives defended a policy once championed by Brandeis and Hubert
Humphrey, progressive advocates of small producers and the civic case for
anti trust. In the name of lower consumer prices, liberals and consumer
groups defended the discounting of chain stores once despised by progressives
as destructive of a decentralized economy of independent producers.' What is
a republican and a democrat, what is a small republican I mean a small R
Prof. SANDEL: Right.
LAMB:Define all these terms today.
Prof. SANDEL: OK. Well, let me try. What I've been referring to as the
small R republican tradition, or we could call it the civic republican
tradition, is the one that goes all the way back to Jefferson and up through
Lincoln and Brandeis and, to some extent FDR, that says we should worry
first and foremost about shaping the character of citizens. It's concerned
with civic character, and it says, `You can't keep moral and civic
questions out of politics.'
Now how does that what does that have to do with our contemporary political
debates? These days, mostly, Democrats and Republicans don't argue about the
civic consequences of policy. They mostly argue about what will increase the
gross domestic product, what will bring prosperity, and, to a lesser extent,
what will be fair in to individuals. But what's missing is the civic voice,
the civic strand of economic argument. Some conservatives, like William
Bennett, for example, and, to in some moments, Reagan, have talked about
civic character, moral character, religion, patriotism, and so on. But
they've had a blind eye to the effect, so it seems to me, of market forces,
of large scale economic power in eroding citizenship and virtue and the
moral character that equips us to be citizens. But Democrats haven't been
very good at seizing this civic tradition and trying to direct it to
progressive purposes. I think that's one of the reasons that, up until Bill
Clinton was elected, Democrats had a very difficult time competing at the
level of the presidency with Republicans.
LAMB:If you were in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton, just the two of you,
and he'd say, `I've read your book tell me, just give it to me in straight
doses, how can I improve the situation in this country?' What
would you tell him, besides the economic laying down the economic parameters?
Prof. SANDEL: That we need to find ways and government can't do this of
itself but we need to find ways, even as politics more and more is played out
on a global scale with NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and the role
of the United Nations, humanitarian operations abroad, all of which are
important, global environmental accords; even as politics is being pushed
beyond the nation, we also have to push politics back to levels below the
nation. We have to try to revitalize those institutions of civil society that
stand between the individual, on the one hand, and the nation or the global
economy on the other families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations,
workplace, forms of democracy and participation, social movements. We need to
restore those civic institutions, those institutions of civil society, in
order not to leave people as individuals adrift, disempowered, dislocated,
without a way of effectively controlling those forces unfolding on a global
LAMB:Your two boys are 10 and eight?
Prof. SANDEL: Ten and eight.
LAMB:What are their names?
Prof. SANDEL: Adam and Aaron.
LAMB:Now what kind of prediction do you have for those two guys about the
future? I mean, is their life going to be is this thing, things you write
about, going to come about more civic responsibility?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, the first prediction I have about them is that
they both be playing somewhere in the infield of the Boston Red Sox, which is
the our current emphasis and aspiration. But as for the broader shape of
our political life and public culture, it's very difficult to know. I
would distinguish between hope and optimism, and the book ends on a note of
hope, but not of optimism. The hope is that in the midst of our frustrations
and discontent, we will find ways of recovering the civic aspirations of
American public life. But that's different from optimism because it seems to
me that's no easy task. The forces arrayed against the possibility of
effective, meaningful democratic citizenship are growing more powerful by the
day, and they have especially to do with the shape and momentum of the
global economy that really defies effective democratic control and democratic
LAMB:Are you going to do anything specifically to get them involved in civic
Prof. SANDEL: Well, we've tried to involve them, even in a
small way, when there have been local campaigns for an override a tax
override to provide more funds for public schools and other public events.
We've tried to involve them in that. We every once in a while, though, as I
said before, we try to avoid too much television watching. From time to time,
they are allowed to watch C SPAN and to identify the political candidates and
to say which of the ones seem to make the most sense to them. And then
the involvements that flow from school and synagogue and other kind of
activities are ones that we hope ultimately will build a kind of concern
for a common good which is beyond merely individual
LAMB:I'll probably mispronounce it, but you dedicate this book for Kiku?
Prof. SANDEL: Kiku Kiku Adatto.
LAMB:Who is that?
Prof. SANDEL: Kiku is my wife, and she's a writer. She's right now
writing children's stories, though before that she wrote as a commentator
on American political culture, a book called "Picture Perfect" on political
imagery. She was the one who discovered the shrinking sound bite, which also
fits with the kind of diagnosis I have given here, the fact that in 1968 the
average sound bite on the evening news for a presidential candidate was about
44 seconds when Nixon and Humphrey ran. And in by 1988 it had gone to a to
about nine seconds. In 1992, it had dropped even lower. She discovered this
and wrote it up in a cover story in the New Republic, and it got lots
of a lot of debate about the shrinking sound bite, the withering of
political discourse, which fits with the kind of withering of civic
discourse that I've spoken about here. But now she's turned away from
that to try her hand at children's fiction.
LAMB:How did she find it? What was her what was the impetus for going
after that statistic?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, there was a lot of talk that the evening
newscasts were constraining political discourse candidates never got to
speak, it was all about images and pictures. And so she had some assists.
She had a grant from the Markle Foundation, got some assistance to actually
time all of the evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC in 1968, 1988, so that
for the first time it was possible to document what many people had sensed,
that we no longer really allow candidates, even candidates for president of
the United States, to speak except for eight or nine seconds.
LAMB:Where did you meet her?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, we met at Harvard. She was teaching in the sociology
department at Harvard at the time I had begun teaching in the government
LAMB:And when you put a book like this together, what audience do you have
in mind? Who do you I know The New York Times used a lot of this for their
focus on Dayton and the downsizing series.
Prof. SANDEL: Yes.
LAMB:Did people notice that? I mean, did that help?
Prof. SANDEL: It did. It did because it drew the connection between the
whole range of concerns and frustrations about downsizing and disempowerment
which is a big theme of this book, and the way that economic forces,
as well as cultural forces, contribute to the erosion of community and
citizenship. It was just good fortune that it fit with that, I think,
superb project that Sarah Rimer and a number of others at the
Times wrote. The audience for the book is really intended to be a general
audience of people who are concerned about politics; about the state of
American politics. And it's not a partisan book, but it's a book that
tries to diagnose our present discontent, and also to look back at the
American political tradition to see what possibilities, what lessons there
might be that we could draw upon to revitalize civic life in our time.
LAMB:What's the writing experience for you like?
Prof. SANDEL: Well, I'm a slow writer, and the book took I hate even to
admit it it took over 10 years by the time I had finished reading and
researching and writing. So it's long and it's slow in the writing,
and the hope is that it's because of that, it doesn't make
slow reading, but you're a better judge of that.
LAMB:Do you have a favorite chapter or a favorite premise?
Prof. SANDEL: The it's hard to say after all of after being too
close to it, I suppose, but as far as premise, yes, the idea that our present
politics isn't speaking to the worries and concerns that matter most,
which are basically the loss of self government, sense of disempowerment and
the erosion of community and moral authority. That's the premise that starts
from the present, and then I try to look back and see, how did this arise?
Why did American politics lose its civic voice? When has the civic strand of
American political discourse been stronger? What are some actual concrete
examples from the past? And what hints are there in our present politics that
might be built upon to rejuvenate American democracy?
Prof. SANDEL: Next book, I don't know quite yet. I have some thoughts
in mind, but for the moment, I want to try to sort of finish digesting and
thinking about and recovering from this one.
LAMB:By the way, where's this picture from?
Prof. SANDEL: Do you mean the...
LAMB:On the cover.
Prof. SANDEL: The picture on the cover was one that was designed by the
Harvard University Press. The photo inside was taken by my wife Kiku.
LAMB:And our guest has been Michael J. Sandel. "Democracy's Discontent" is
the title of the book, "America in Search of a Public Philosophy." Thank you
Prof. SANDEL: Thank you, Brian. Thank you.
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