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Are We a Republic? | Focus

The concept of republicanism, flattened by rhetoric and partisanship, deserves a revival.

At the height of the 2020 presidential election, Utah Senator Mike Lee—a Republican—made some waves on social media with a tweet that read simply:

He followed that with another the next day, asserting that:

This stirred up further controversy, but Lee—or his staff—doubled (tripled?) down, publishing a lengthy statement on his official website that claimed, among other things, that the United States is a republic, not a democracy.

This is a fairly well-worn conservative talking point; for all the backlash, Lee was nowhere near the first to utter it and won't be the last. At a superficial level, the argument or claim is straightforward. As it goes, pure majority rule is a threat to the possibility of human flourishing, hence the need for anti- or counter-majoritarian institutions.

Liberals and progressives tend to reply to these kinds of claims in a few ways. One common response is to suggest that in most cases what conservatives mean by this is that people of color and people in cities constitute some kind of threat to the ‘true’ American regime. They might also disagree with the argument, believing that democracy, in fact, tends to be a necessary precondition of liberty, peace, and prosperity, rather than the other way around.

But there’s a third kind of response, in which liberals and progressives either attempt to suggest that “republicanism” and “democracy” are the same thing, or accept the idea that they are at odds and say what the country actually needs is less “republic” and more “democracy.” The practical upshot of these responses is effectively the same—the banishing of any unique concept of “republicanism” from political discourse.

The problem with this approach is that “republicanism” and “democracy” do, in fact, mean different things, and are not necessarily at odds. Moreover, the unique, contested meanings of “republic” and “republicanism” might be fruitful entry points for a reinvigorated debate about the future of  the American regime.

“Democracy” has a clear meaning, shared more or less by academic experts and the general public: the rule of the people, usually by majority. In the context of modernity and mass society, nearly everyone agrees that democracy requires the delegation of political power to elected representatives, rather than governance through popular referenda. When we say “democracy” today, we usually mean liberal democracy, or democracy supplemented by a bundle of rights, the rule of law, and guaranteed political equality. The important thing to note is that the basic definition of democracy enjoys widespread shared understandings, even if different arrangements (parliamentary vs. presidential systems, first-past-the-post vs. proportional representation, etc.) mark each “democracy” as distinct.

“Republicanism” enjoys no such clearly shared meanings. The dictionary offers a few definitions, including non-hereditary rule and a political arrangement in which power rests with the people but is delegated to elected representatives. The former nominally distinguishes a country like the US from the still-technically-monarchic United Kingdom, but not in any practical sense. The latter is barely different from our modern definition of democracy, rendering the word essentially useless.

Once a word replete with meaning for politicians and philosophers, today “republicanism” feels somewhat empty, a rhetorical tool used to justify rule by a minority or a vestige easily replaced by other terms. That dictionary definitions leave what’s useful about the concept of republicanism outside of our reach does not, however, mean that the concept is worthless. We’ve only lost sight of its utility.

Instead, it makes sense to hone in on one particular phrase in Senator Lee’s tweets: “We want the human condition to flourish.” As will become clear, even as various philosophers and politicians have embraced differing definitions of republicanism throughout the past several centuries, most viewed it as more than just a set of institutional arrangements. Indeed, republicans throughout history believed that any republican form of government should be oriented toward the cultivation of human flourishing.

The most well known republican thinkers of early modernity agreed on popular sovereignty as a necessary starting point, but as to what end there was limited accord. In The Prince and his Discourses on Livy, the Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli defended republicanism primarily on the basis of two features—first, that the people were more “decent” in their desires than the nobility, and second, that by mixing monarchy, aristocracy, and mass democracy (in the form of a chief executive and a senate accountable to the public), republicanism accomplished the best of all worlds. For Machiavelli, republics had the potential to be more stable than the warring polities of late feudal Europe, while also generating ambition and a kind of civic virtue through shared rule (and its associated tensions) between the nobility and the people. Republicanism, then, was not a mere set of institutional arrangements for Machiavelli; it was a way of orienting human political life to the best possible ends and effectively prodding people toward their attainment.

The American Founding Fathers introduced liberalism to the republican project. For them, the end of republicanism was the preservation of the natural rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Though there’s plenty of room for debate over the extent to which the founders felt it would be appropriate for a political minority to constrain or even rule over a majority, Senator Lee is not entirely wrong to assert that they feared that unconditional popular rule would be corrosive to natural rights. Hence the purpose of republicanism—in contrast to “pure” democracy, as James Madison puts it in Federalist No. 10—is to maintain a delicate balance between liberalism and democracy in order that citizens can live free and full lives, provided that they don’t interfere with the freedom of others.

It’s worth pausing to note that the introduction of rights marks the founders’ republicanism as different from Machiavelli’s. Though both saw republicanism as a form of government designed to orient society toward some crucial good, the founders diverged by viewing the good life as one defined principally by an absence of government interference, rather than the attainment of some particular set of virtues.

Across the Atlantic around the same time as the American revolution, however, another entirely different conception of republicanism was developing. The Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, concerned that mere “negative” liberties—like the right to private property—had the potential to develop into new tyrannies, went beyond both Machiavelli and the founders. His republicanism was marked by a much more assertive egalitarianism than that of the founders and a more robust conception of the obligations owed by human beings to one another. For Rousseau, only through a complete emancipation from all forms of domination and an entirely democratic social compact could humans come to fully flourish in civil society.

This kind of republicanism, which helped pave the road to the French Revolution, was more radical and egalitarian than either Machiavelli’s or the founders’. Although it became reconciled with private property and industrialization through political pragmatism over the course of the 19th century, Rousseau’s thought lost its purchase as the twentieth century wore on.

One might reasonably wonder the point of all this seemingly arcane intellectual history. The past is littered with dead ideologies, and the mere fact that history’s republican thinkers conceived of the concept in different ways is not in itself significant. Indeed, over time the world’s democratic republics largely found some level of consensus both within themselves and between each other about these disagreements. Though some of Rousseau’s thought has survived to some effect in the world, for the most part the American liberal vision of republicanism succeeded.

What is significant, however, is that liberal democracy today finds itself under significant strain, in large part as a result of the resurrection of these socially existential disagreements over what political and economic arrangements lead to human flourishing, or even what constitutes human flourishing at all. Once again we find ourselves at odds over what it means to be (or not to be) a republic.

Rather than shying away from debates over “republicanism,” then, it is in fact crucial that we return to them. Precisely because the meaning of the term is so open to interpretation, so varied in its employment throughout history, but simultaneously so meaningful to the American political project, it could help stimulate renewed deliberation over the country’s future.

Of course, the meanings of republicanism are heady, and opening the discursive floodgates has its risks. Republicanism is compatible with liberal democracy, but it’s also compatible with illiberalism. But the threat of illiberalism has already arrived in the United States, with many of its adherents already diving into the discussion of what kind of republic we are or ought to be. Formulating a robust response to these ideas with the help of our republican intellectual tradition is essential to avoiding this critical conversation being captured and dominated by the voices of illiberalism. The answer to “America is a republic, not a democracy,” isn’t to wave the challenge away, but to embrace it as an opportunity to clarify just what kind of country we are.

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