Civic Republicanism and Civic Pluralism: The Silent Struggle of Michael Sandel

William E. Connolly

in Debating Democracy's Discontent

Published in print October 1998 | ISBN: 9780198294962
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191598708 | DOI:
 Civic Republicanism and Civic Pluralism: The Silent Struggle of Michael Sandel

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Abstractly drawn to William Bennett’s invocation of national unity, civic virtues, and the reformation of mediating institutions, Sandel skates too lightly over the connection between Bennett’s quest to reinstate old unities and his conversion of republican virtues into contemporary weapons of cultural war in the domains of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality. If Sandel, in the early pages of Democracy’s Discontent, pursued pluralist reservations about the republican vision he expresses in the last chapter, he would be required to rework significantly his history of the republican impulse in America. Sandel concedes that the court’s civic concerns for the welfare of the family and heterosexual normality previously functioned to criminalize homosexuality, but a voluntarist defense of legalization, as Sandel reads it, supports sexual freedom in private without interrogating the larger cultural tendency to demean homosexual unions. Contemporary civic pluralism needs citizens who affirm comparative elements of contingency and contestability in those identities–those “encumbrances”–that define them most dramatically; who establish relations of agonistic respect with faiths, even those of a philosophic and non-theistic bent, that challenge their own sources of moral inspiration; who cultivate critical responsiveness to surprising social movements that propel new identities into being out of old injuries, differences, and energies; and who acknowledge the state to be but one site of political identification among several others in the late-modern age. The silent struggle of Michael Sandel between civic republicanism and civic pluralism is more fundamental than the explicit debate he stages between republicanism and voluntarism, for the most urgent task of political thought today is to pursue the agenda Sandel belatedly sets in the last chapter: to articulate a vision of civic pluralism appropriate to the distinct conditions of contemporary life.

Keywords: agonistic; Bennett; William; contestability; critical; demean; homosexuality; pluralism; respect; unity; weapons

Chapter.  3076 words. 

Subjects: Political Theory

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