I. The American Republic Can Save American Democracy
Restoration of the American Republic is vital now more than ever. For it is the qualities of the republic and the republican ideal that can save America’s democratic values from the looming threat of authoritarianism.
This essay is not an extended academic comparison and contrast of republics and democracies. That is for college political history textbooks. Rather it is an explication of the factors that have characterized republics since ancient Rome and that carried forward through the era of the Enlightenment into the learned minds of America’s Founders.
Those Founders chose the language and concepts of republicanism congenial to their historic creative process. A few of them, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton most notably, eschewed the notion of “democracy,” thinking of it primarily in terms of dangerous mobs in the streets and the French Revolution.
12 The American Republic Can Save American Democracy After more than two centuries since our founding, it is nothing less than amazing that political discourse in America employs democratic language almost exclusively, and outside the academy few can be found, even among educated Americans, who can provide a brief, cogent description of a republic, this even though we salute the American flag and “the Republic for which it stands.”
The case to be made here is that authoritarian forces are out to undermine and subvert the principles of democratic government, and the best defense of democracy is to be found, as our Founders knew, in the pillars of republican principles and ideals.
Although democracy has survived in America for more than 240 years, not always elegantly, the rise of populist nationalism here and in Europe and its increasing synchronization across the waters are evidence of potent threats that highlight democracy’s vulnerability. The culprits are uniformly held to be globalization and its unfair distribution of benefits, increased distance between a small wealthy elite (Davos man) and middle-class wage earners, mass migrations south to north, stagnation of opportunity, alienation of everyday citizens from the political class, the consequent rise of the right, a tilt toward authoritarianism, and much else.
The rise of populist nationalism and its erosion of democracy is increasingly well documented but with little suggestion of how to save democracy.
Here, the confusion over whether America is a democracy or a Republic, or both, may offer a path. Earlier this year the New York Times reported on a squabble in Michigan over whether the United States was a republic or a democracy. Of course, it took Thomas Jefferson to coin the phrase “a democratic republic.”
Our Founders proclaimed the new nation a Republic but one with a democratic form of government. It is timely to consider whether the former may save the latter.
II. The Qualities and Virtues of Republics
Whereas democracies focus on equality, justice, and other rights, the qualities of republics throughout history include popular sovereignty, a sense of the 14 The American Republic Can Save American Democracy common good, resistance to corruption, and civic virtue.
We assume centers of power, and therefore political authority, to be in both Washington, D.C., politically, and New York, financially. Media power used to be centered in New York as well, at least until the advent of social media, which now seems centered in Silicon Valley.
Instead, in a Republic such as ours power is not located in these places. It is dispersed throughout the country. It belongs to us, the people, who are sovereign in this Republic. In this democracy we do routinely select representatives to promote and protect our individual and national interests. But they are ultimately accountable to us who are the sovereigns.
The greatest affirmation of popular sovereignty is found in the opening clause of our Constitution: “We the people….”
Autocracy, the denial of popular sovereignty, coalesces executive and legislative power in the hands of an individual who, including in our system, may also have the power to dictate those responsible for the judicial system. In the past few years, we have witnessed this dangerous trend.
Our sense of the common good wanes in ordinary times and waxes when we are threatened from abroad or our economy becomes depressed at home. Too many Americans have to be told about our intricate national security systems, interstate transportation systems, public lands and resources, research laboratories, monetary protections, and a very long list of institutions that belong to all of us and that keep our country interconnected.
In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes: “It is not the pursuit of individual good but of the common good that makes cities great, and it is beyond doubt that the common good is never considered except in republics” (quoted in Liberty Before Liberalism, Quentin Skinner, Cambridge University Press, 1998).
And civic virtue, the duty we all owe our Republic to participate in self-government at all levels, is perennially moribund. Complaints about our democracy are abundant. Efforts to make it better are faint.
In Democracy’s Discontents, Professor Michael Sandel argues that the “first right” in a republic, above all those in the First Amendment, is “the right to govern ourselves.” That requires civility, engagement, mutual respect, integrity, reason, and maturity. With- 16 The American Republic Can Save American Democracy out performance of the right of civic participation, all other rights are jeopardized.
Our failure to exercise our sovereign powers through protection of the common good—always threatened by persistent conservative efforts to privatize it—and through the exercise of civic virtue or civic engagement, starting always with the vote, weakens our resistance to corruption, the plague of republics throughout history.
Historians of the republic define corruption as placing special or personal interests ahead of the common good. Our national, state, and local governments are hotbeds of special pleadings and thus corrupt by this classical definition in ways much broader than bribery.
The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case made this massive corruption legal. The “golden rule” is now enshrined: he who has the most gold, rules. Arguably now the United States is well down the dangerous path that has corrupted all republics throughout history.
All citizens are accountable for the protection of their Republic whose flag we salute. Our Founders saw their newly created Republic as a bulwark against external threat and internal tyranny as well. James Madison, in Federalist 51, wrote: “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but also to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Imagine a reformation in which citizens began to exercise their sovereignty on a daily basis by demanding regular accounts of the health of the commonwealth, all those things we hold together and in trust for future generations. Imagine those same citizens taking an evening off from television to attend a city council or county commission meeting, a school board meeting, a parent-teacher evening, a candidate town hall speech, or even listening to a podcast on an issue of the day.
The republican ideal of a society closely knitted by a common history and a common good was reflected by the philosopher Charles Taylor, among many others: “Functioning republics are like families in this crucial respect, that part of what binds people together is their common history. Family ties or old friendships are deep because of what we have lived 18 The American Republic Can Save American Democracy through together, and republics are bonded by time and climactic transitions” (Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press, 1995).
The effect of these duties of republican citizenship would drive the lobbyists and money changers in our halls of government into hiding. Broadly based citizen participation would do much to restrain the single-issue politics now dominating the public square and would greatly restore the standard of the national interest to legislative debate.
The movement politics in the twentieth century, for civil rights, equality for women, enlightened environmentalism, nuclear arms control, and increasingly to reverse climate destruction, are instances of citizens taking charge of public agendas and proof of popular sovereignty in action.
Demands for transparency and openness would substantially restore integrity to all levels of government in our Republic.
But they would also do much more to save democracy, our form of government.
Democracies protect rights. Republics promote duties.
In a word, we must protect our rights by performance of our duties. And despite the recent wholesale abandonment of traditional norms in government and politics, there are humanitarian efforts undertaken by civic-minded Americans at many levels. Consider the religious and private humanitarian efforts underway at our fraught southern border to aid separated families and children in need. Share Our Strength provides tens of millions of meals to hungry children. City Year, now AmeriCorps, for years has established urban projects for young people who receive education financing in return. First Book provides books to children whose homes have no books.
As a long-time advocate of public service for young people, particularly but not exclusively, much more should be done on behalf of democracy’s flourishing to encourage young people after completing their education to consider a year or more of service in one or more levels of government, in community projects, as volunteers in nonprofit organizations or in humanitarian projects. The same observation includes retirees with time on their hands.
Such service responds to our Founders’ use of the phrase “civic virtue,” the contribution of time and energy to the common good locally, statewide, 20 The American Republic Can Save American Democracy or nationally. Such public service makes a citizen of any age more aware of belonging to a community and a nation. It widens horizons beyond the commercial and money-making side of life.
For those in government service, at any level, public service shows what governments actually do day to day and the crucial functions career public servants perform for all the people. That experience also defeats the cynicism that prevails in many circles, including elements of the media, toward those who provide vital and important public services on a daily basis.
It would be beneficial if every generation of Americans heard a leader say, “Ask what you can do for your country.”
These and many other projects like them are instances of civic engagement and civic virtue. They also do much to repair the damage done to our democracy by the selfish and unconcerned. But private charity and activism can never totally replace a democratic government committed to equality and justice for all.
Much public discontent and suppressed anger is due to the perception, and too often the reality, that laws are passed and high court rulings enacted to legitimize undemocratic systems at war with our Republic’s principles and values. The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, giving corporations First Amendment speech protection (namely, unlimited campaign contributions) stands as one of the worst examples of this trend.
Restoration of the early American republican ideal will by no means cure all the ills afflicting this democracy. America’s geographic and demographic sweep, our massive internal mobility, the fragmentation of authority from the national to the city level all mitigate against the establishment of the stable, interconnected, mutually dependent polis identified with republics throughout the ages.
Indeed, it required Montesquieu to provide our Founders the solution to the issue of scope and scale the new nation faced in creating a truly national Republic. His solution: federation. A series of republics, each containing the historic republican attributes, could federate nationally while pursuing the republican ideal locally.
Still, democracy’s discontents afflict our entire nation, and it is argued here that application of republican principles to those discontents offer the 22 The American Republic Can Save American Democracy best hope of revitalizing and restoring a true national democratic Republic.
The links all trace to the citizen and the qualities of citizenship. As Rousseau observed: “There can be no patriotism without liberty, no liberty without virtue, no virtue without citizens.”
The restoration of democracy through republican virtues leaves only unpleasant alternatives. The contemporary Italian republican theorist Maurizio Viroli writes this: “Republicanism has the historical and moral resources to revive or indeed engender civic enthusiasm, without a revelation of faith and without a dogmatic belief in history or in a leader. Either we shall find a way to reinforce republican politics and culture, or we shall have to resign ourselves to living in nations whose governments are controlled by the cunning and the arrogant” (Republicanism, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).
–Senator Gary Hart, The American Republic Can Save American Democracy, 2022