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The “R” Word

With the exception of Marxism, republicanism might be the most abused, misused, and misunderstood of all the political traditions produced by the West.  In recent decades, the concept has been selectively appropriated by ideologists from across the political spectrum in service of whatever dismal policy agenda they happen to be flogging at the moment — it’s like the Zelig of political theory.  Still, in spite of the relentless shape-shifting a common theme emerges.  Regardless of the specific form “republicanism” takes when deployed by Irving Kristol, Michael Tomasky, or the ever-pitiable David Brooks, these various deployments of the concept share the same fundamental purpose: providing intellectual justification for the destruction of the welfare state and the retreat from redistributive politics.

If “the era of big government is over,” as Bill Clinton declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, then the Democratic party needed some sort of ideological vehicle to make its embrace of neoliberalism seem continuous with its previous (and rather limited) commitment to social welfare.  Luckily for them, one was already at hand — “communitarianism,” or alternately “civic republicanism.”  Academics such as Robert Putnam, Benjamin Barber, Amitai Etzioni, and popularizers such as the previously mentioned Tomasky selectively appropriated the language of classical republicanism to extol the virtues of “civil society” and “social capital” over the supposedly enervating interventions of the welfare state.  Class struggle was out, the “common good” was in.  Why start a fight over inequality when you can create midnight basketball programs and community gardens?  It’s cheaper and much less of a hassle.  Here was a ready-made device for providing a patina of intellectual seriousness and moral righteousness to the Democrats’ abandonment of the working class and the poor.  As the late Robert Fitch put it, this turn was a prime example of bad faith in action:

Civic republicanism, the new vision for the new Democrats, is egregiously ideological in just this centrist sense.  It’s neither republican nor civic nor even particularly Democratic.  The civic republicans’ notion of the common good resembles Herbert Hoover’s concept of “public interest” much more than the Roosevelt-Truman emphasis on the interests of “the little guy.”  And for all its emphasis on the need to put values first, it’s essentially amoral.  In Sartrian terms, it’s less of a philosophy than ideological exercise in bad faith. . . .  Generally speaking, bad faith means a willful blindness to the defining aspects of a situation.  Selective vision enables the actor to avoid choice.  Having it both ways confers a material advantage, which the actor ignores, assuming a dubious moral posture.  In the civic republican version of bad faith, the gradual abandonment of liberal commitments to the disfavored is transformed into the virtue of gradualism.  The simple reality that a harsh struggle is going on between haves and have-nots is transmuted into the notion that we’re all in one boat — or community.  And a rising tide lifts them all.

The center-right version of “republicanism” may have different emphases, but the conclusion is roughly the same.  In a truly breathtaking example of ideology in its worst sense, David Brooks laments “The Politics of Solipsism” and yearns for a time when republican “public spiritedness” trumps democratic selfishness.  One may reasonably ask what this solipsism consists of.  Well, it looks something like this:

Despite growing concerns about the country’s long-term fiscal problems and an intensifying debate in Washington about how to deal with them, Americans strongly oppose some of the major remedies under consideration, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.  The survey finds that Americans prefer to keep Medicare just the way it is.  Most also oppose cuts in Medicaid and the defense budget.  More than half say they are against small, across-the-board tax increases combined with modest reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits.  Only President Obama’s call to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans enjoys solid support.

Yes, that’s right.  The U.S. public is selfish because it wants to protect social programs by taxing the rich and rejects the deficit hysteria stoked by the punditry and the political class.  Anyone who rejects Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a multi-billion dollar giveaway to the private insurance industry is a tribalistic solipsist desperately in need of a dose of “republican virtue” — which in David Brooks’ world equals the imposition of austerity on the people by undemocratic means.  As Salon‘s Joan Walsh put it in her response to Brooks, “As always in the GOP universe, it seems the only people who should practice self-restraint are unions, working people and low-income families who depend on social services,” while the masters of the universe emerge from the economic crisis they caused with barely a slap on the wrist.

Ideologues on both the center-left and center-right do violence to the republican political tradition in order to further their own agendas.  But republican politics, properly understood, could provide a useful guide for those of us who seek to beat back the drive to austerity and build a society that really does serve the common good.  In the essay linked to above, Robert Fitch usefully defends the republicanism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Madison from the contortions of the Democratic “civic republicans.”  I’d like to suggest the rehabilitation of another famous classical republican — Machiavelli.  Far from being the evil courtier of popular imagination, in The Discourses Machiavelli emerges a theorist of class struggle and democratic control of the elites.  As the political theorist John McCormick describes him:

Machiavelli excoriates previous writers for denigrating popular judgment and participation, and for extolling the supposedly superior governing capacities of princes and patricians.  Departing from the opinion of these writers, Machiavelli argues that well-ordered republics structure themselves such that common people contain, contest and control the behavior of political and economic elites, and they place ultimate judgment over legislation and political punishment in the hands of the many and not the few.  More specifically, like Rome, they establish magistracies for which wealthy and prominent citizens are ineligible, like the tribunes of the plebs, and they empower the people to veto public policies and indict individuals that threaten the common good — a common good unabashedly determined from the perspective of the people and not the elite.

As Machiavelli reminds us, “the few always act in favor of the few.”  Keep this maxim in mind the next time you hear someone use the “r” word.


Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter.  He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn.  This article was first published in The Activist 10 May 2011 under a Creative Commons license.


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