An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2013

American Democracy & the Common Good

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How do we renew confidence in America’s institutions and strengthen public engagement in civic life? The Spring 2013 issue of Dædalus suggests ways in which government, corporations, nonprofits, the judiciary, and the media can inspire greater confidence in our democratic system and a renewed commitment to civil discourse.

In the face of increasing polarization and considerable stress on the American polity, this issue of Dædalus begins a much-needed public conversation about how individuals and institutions can work together to strengthen democracy and promote the common good.

Sears Roebuck employees on strike against unfair labor practices, March 15, 1967. Unknown photographer. The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in the ILR School at Cornell University. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
Sears workers on strike 1967
Sears Roebuck employees on strike against unfair labor practices, March 15, 1967. Unknown photographer. The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in the ILR School at Cornell University. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).


The essays in this volume focus primarily on contemporary institutions and their relationship to the common good. They were written at a time of considerable stress in the American polity. Some of that stress flows from the anti-institutional, anti-leadership populism that often emerges during times of economic hardship. At the moment, no institution in America is held in high regard by Americans, with the exception of the military (and even the military, in the midst of individual miscreance and allegations of scandal, is in a less secure position). This distrust for institutions and leaders has been amplified by the sharp levels of ideological and partisan polarization that characterize American politics, especially but not exclusively at the national level.

The Common Good: Theoretical Content, Practical Utility

Despite skepticism about the common good, the idea has both theoretical content and practical utility. It rests on important features of human life, such as inherently social goods, social linkages,and joint occupation of various commons. It reflects the outcome for bargaining for mutual advantage,subject to a fairness test. And it is particularized through a community’s adherence to certain goods as objects of joint endeavor. In the context of the United States, these goods are set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution – in general language, subject to political contestation, for a people who have agreed to live together in a united political community. While the Preamble states the ends of the union, the body of the Constitution establishes the institutional means for achieving them. So these institutions are part of the common good as well. These are the enduring commonalities – the elements of a shared good – that ceaseless democratic conflict often obscures but that reemerge in times of crisis and civic ritual.

Finding the Common Good in an Era of Dysfunctional Governance

The framers designed a constitutional system in which the government would play a vigorous role in securing the liberty and well-being of a large and diverse population. They built a political system around a number of key elements, including debate and deliberation, divided powers competing with one another, regular order in the legislative process, and avenues to limit and punish corruption. America in recent years has struggled to adhere to each of these principles, leading to a crisis of governability and legitimacy. The roots of this problem are twofold. The first is a serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as polarized and vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a separation-of-powers governing system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. The second is the asymmetric character of the polarization. The Republican Party has become a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. Securing the common good in the face of these developments will require structural changes but also an informed and strategically focused citizenry.

Can the Judicial Branch be a Steward in a Polarized Democracy?

At the beginning of his first term as Chief Justice, John Roberts pledged to try to persuade his colleagues to consider the bipartisan legitimacy of the Court rather than their own ideological agendas. Roberts had mixed success during his first years on the bench, as the Court handed down a series of high-profile decisions by polarized, 5-4 votes. In the health care decision, however, Roberts did precisely what he said he would do, casting a tie-breaking vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act because he thought the bipartisan legitimacy of the Court required it. But the reaction to the health care decision – which Democrats approved and Republicans did not – suggests that Roberts’s task of preserving the Court’s bipartisan legitimacy is more complicated than he may have imagined, and that his success in the future will depend on the willingness of his colleagues to embrace his vision. Given the Court’s declining approval ratings, an increase in partisan attacks on the Court, and a growing perception that the Court decides cases based on politics rather than law, the Chief Justice’s vision of the Court as a bipartisan steward is more difficult – and also more urgently needed – than ever.

Author Jeffrey Rosen

The Supreme Court in the 21st Century

How does the Supreme Court serve the “common good”? What is the Court’s responsibility, as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution, in our constitutional system of government? This essay explores that question with an eye on the recent performance of the Court in highly controversial and divisive cases. What explains the Court’s decisions in cases involving such issues as campaign finance regulation, gun control, abortion, affirmative action, health care reform, voting rights, and even the 2000 presidential election? This essay argues that there is a right and a wrong way for the Supreme Court to interpret and apply the Constitution; and whereas the Warren Court properly understood its responsibilities, the Court in more recent decades has adopted a less legitimate and more troubling mode of constitutional interpretation

“Self-Interest Well Understood”: The Origins & Lessons of Public Confidence in the Military

In recent decades, the U.S. military has enjoyed high levels of public confidence. We argue that the rise (and sustainment) of public confidence in the military reflects two phenomena. First, the public has a high regard for the military and its mission, arising from a shift to a professional (nonconscript) force that is perceived to be competent, fair, and accountable. Second, the public has little fear of military abuses in the domestic arena, owing chiefly to the reduced domestic presence of the military in the post–World War II era, with less emphasis on the physical defense of the homeland; and to the military’s careful cultivation of an apolitical culture since Vietnam. We conclude with a brief discussion of the military’s efforts to develop and encourage public-mindedness among its members, and the challenges to replicating the military approach in other institutional settings.

Authors Andrew A. Hill, Leonard Wong, and Stephen J. Gerras

The Challenges Facing Civic Education

This essay explores the value and state of civics education in the United States and identifies five challenges facing those seeking to improve its quality and accessibility: 1) ensuring that the quality of civics education is high is not a state or federal priority; 2) social studies textbooks do not facilitate the development of needed civic skills; 3) upper-income students are better served by our schools than are lower-income individuals; 4) cutbacks in funds available to schools make implementing changes in civics education difficult; and 5) reform efforts are complicated by the fact that civics education has become a pawn in a polarized debate among partisans.

The Case for Transcending Partisanship

Even if most of us can agree on a definition of the “common good” (not a simple matter), there are substantial barriers to establishing public policies in accord with that agreement. The “democratic” element in our political system – the right of voters to choose the men and women who will create our laws–depends on the views of those voters being given considerable weight in determining eventual policy outcomes. Unfortunately, we have developed a political system – both in our elections and in the governing process – that gives disproportionate influence to relatively small numbers of voters (who are also the most partisan) and allows political parties through their closed procedures to limit the choices available to general election voters. Coupled with legislative rules that allow partisans to determine the makeup of legislative committees, the resulting process leaves the common good, however defined, a secondary consideration at best.

Citizens United: Robbing America of Its Democratic Idealism

The 2010 Citizens United ruling has been widely reviewed from the lens of legal precedent. In this critique, the author suggests the need to examine the logic and effects of the ruling from a historical, philosophical, and linguistic perspective. He challenges the Court’s basis for providing inanimate entities First Amendment protection to “invest” in politics by equating corporations with individuals and money with speech. He holds that Citizens United employs parallel logic to the syllogism embedded in the most repugnant ruling the Court ever made, the 1857 Dred Scott decision. To justify slavery, the Court in Dred Scott defined a class of human beings as private property. To magnify corporate power a century-and-a-half later, it defines a class of private property (corporations) as people. The effect is to undercut the democratic basis of American governance.

The American Corporation

The United States from its earliest years led the world in making the corporate form of business organization widely available to entrepreneurs. Starting in the 1790s, corporations became key institutions of the American economy, contributing greatly to its remarkable growth. This essay reviews the evolution of corporations across several eras of the country’s history. The most recent era is marked by a shift away from a stakeholder view of corporate interests and purposes to one dominated by profit and shareholder value maximization. We strongly question whether this shift has been beneficial to the country as a whole. If our assessment is correct, there is a need to find ways of inducing corporations to act in ways that produce better societal outcomes. We therefore explore ways – including some suggested by the history of U.S. corporations – in which corporate interests and the public interest might become better aligned.

Unions & Civic Engagement: How the Assault on Labor Endangers Civil Society

Abstract: American trade unions are a crucial segment of civil society that enriches our democracy. Union members are stewards of the public good, empowering the individual through collective action and solidarity. While union density has declined, the U.S. labor movement remains a substantial political and economic force. But the relentless attacks by the political right and its corporate allies could lead to an erosion of civic engagement, further economic inequality, and a political imbalance of power that can undermine society. The extreme assault on unions waged by Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan,and at a national level must be countered by a revitalized labor movement and by those who understand that unions are positive civil actors who bring together individuals who alone have little power.Unions need both structural reform and greater boldness; there are moments in which direct action and dramatic militancy can bring about positive social change. The current assault on labor can be rebuffed,and unions can expand their role as stewards for the public good and as defenders of efforts by the 99 percent to reduce inequality and protect democracy.

Author Andy Stern

Philanthropy, the Nonprofit Sector & the Democratic Dilemma

The central dilemma of American democracy is the tension between “voice” and “equality”: between the Constitution’s unconditional guarantees of citizens’ expressive, associational, and property rights and the legal and political equality that is the foundation of majoritarian decision-making. Philanthropy and nonprofit organizations – which enable citizens to give money and time to support causes in which they believe – have posed this dilemma with unusual force, allowing moneyed minorities to oppose and sometimes overwhelm the popular will. In the past, these assertions of private power have inevitably aroused popular opposition producing legislative and regulatory outcomes that have maintained a balance between voice and equality. Today, with unprecedented accumulations of wealth and legal changes permitting the unrestricted use of wealth in politics, the unchallenged exercise of private power through philanthropy and the nonprofit sector poses grave threats to the democratic process.

Author Peter Dobkin Hall

Reluctant Stewards: Journalism in a Democratic Society

Journalists are reluctant stewards for democracy because they believe that democracy makes citizens their own stewards. They resist donning the mantle of moral guides on behalf of those who are authorized to guide themselves. Yet sometimes journalists do exercise responsibility for the public good in ways that are not subsumed under their professional duty to be nonpartisan, accurate, and fair-minded. Examining some of these exceptions, this essay argues that journalistic stewardship should be loosely defined, decentralized, multiform, and open to invention. In fact, today’s economic crisis in journalism (and the identity crisis it stimulated) has launched a new set of initiatives – from fact-checking to organized crowd-sourcing – that have each sought to address a specific problem of democracy, truthseeking, or the public good. Pluralism, pragmatism, and decentralized invention may do better at stewarding democracy than a coherent philosophy of moral guardianship ever could.

The Argument Culture

Agonism – taking a warlike stance in contexts that are not literally war – pervades our public and private discourse, leading us to approach issues and each other in an adversarial spirit. The resulting “argument culture” makes it more difficult to solve problems and is corrosive to the human spirit. While examples from the intertwined domains of politics and the press may seem beyond individuals’ power to change, the domain of private interactions – where equally destructive effects of the argument culture are felt – is one in which individuals have power to make quotidian yet revolutionary contributions to the common good.

Valuing Compromise for the Common Good

Pursuing the common good in a pluralist democracy is not possible without making compromises.Yet the spirit of compromise is in short supply in contemporary American politics. The permanent campaign has made compromise more difficult to achieve, as the uncompromising mindset suitable for campaigning has come to dominate the task of governing. To begin to make compromise more feasible and the common good more attainable, we need to appreciate the distinctive value of compromise and recognize the misconceptions that stand in its way. A common mistake is to assume that compromise requires finding the common ground on which all can agree. That undermines more realistic efforts to seek classic compromises, in which each party gains by sacrificing something valuable to the other, and together they serve the common good by improving upon the status quo. Institutional reforms are desirable, but they, too, cannot get off the ground without the support of leaders and citizens who learn how and when to adopt a compromising mindset.

Reestablishing the Commons for the Common Good

For individuals living in a small community, the notion of “common good” seems almost natural; it can be thought of simply as neighborly morality. However, in a complex modern society, it is far more challenging for individuals to define and agree upon what is the common good. Nonetheless, two contemporary roles would benefit from embracing a broader sense of the good: 1) membership in a profession; and 2) membership in a polity. Drawing on findings from the GoodWork Project, I describe how the common good can become a guiding value in the professional and civic realms; discuss threats to such guiding values; and suggest some ways to promote the common good in contemporary American society.

The Democratic Spirit

There is a famous paradox about democracy: most forms of participation make no obvious difference to political outcomes and yet people act anyway. I argue that they are more likely to act politically if they have certain attitudes and commitments; and that productive attitudes of the right kind can be sustained by a culture in which two kinds of honor are central. One kind of honor is collective: it is the honor of nations, which is the concern of the patriot. Another is the honor of citizens, who are worthy of respect because they contribute to the practices that serve the republic. I suggest some practices we Americans might want to take up and honor for the sake of our own republic today, drawing attention to two discoveries in social psychology that could be productively brought to bear in our political life: namely, the Ben Franklin effect and the Contact Hypothesis.