Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

“A Republic, Madam…If You Can Keep It”

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As it usually does, David Brooks’ column caught my attention this week.  Examining the nature of democracy, Brooks concludes that the most recent battles over the debt and deficit in Washington will not yield fruitful outcomes absent a reversion to republican (small-r) politics. Brooks expounds upon this by labeling our current democracy the “politics of solipsism.” “The [current] political culture encourages politicians and activists to imagine that the country’s problems would be solved if other people’s interests and values magically disappeared.” Instead, he says, we need a true leadership class, of the kind that existed “as late as the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations,” to balance interests and passions.

Similar concerns run through history. For instance, the influence of the New Left in the 1970s and its call for complete participatory democracy prompted those now labeled as Neoconservatives—Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, and Nathan Glazer—to hearken back to founding, republican principles. Likewise, Leo Strauss’ Natural Rights and History marks a profound concern for the threat to liberty from participatory democracy and the “tyranny of the majority” or “mobacracy.” (Strauss also evinces a concern for moral relativism and radical historicism in this book.) Again today, Brooks concerns himself with the influence of the Tea Party and its political strategy of populist conservatism. Indeed, one of the ironies of the Tea Party movement is its contradictory endorsement of both founding principles and populism.

Disinterestedness, an enlightened and virtuous ruling class, and the checks and balances of factions characterized our Madisonian republic in the early days. Although our government has a popular base—the House of Representatives—there are also undemocratic or unpopular bodies to check institutions that may be overly responsive to the passions of the people. We may think here of the Senate or other checks and balances, which prevent us from our own shortcomings or ephemeral passions and interests. Hence, the enlightened ruling class ought to represent the interests, not the passions, of the people. The Founders appropriated the thought of Edmund Burke, who once said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Although the importance of an enlightened ruling class who favored long-term interests over catering to passions is undeniable, equally as important for the Founders was a “public spiritedness” that permeated the populace. Ancient Greek politics also placed a premium on spiritedness. Indeed, Plato calls it thumos, which translates roughly into “spiritedness” or “animation,” one of the three parts of the human soul—it also happens to be the most politically oriented part of the soul. Today, we label somebody as spirited if he or she possesses an impressive array of political knowledge or displays a strong, unwavering opinion. The Founders meant something quite different by “spiritedness,” however. In fact, spiritedness found its apotheosis in George Washington, a man characterized foremost by his moderation and self-restraint—the mark of a gentleman. The Founders hoped that public spiritedness, acting as a restraint on the selfish pursuit of interests, would be a central feature of the republican elite.

On the contrary, both parties think that compromise is tantamount to capitulation in the era of party polarization. Gone are the days of self-restraint, where compromise on differences was the mark of a gentleman or gentlewoman. “The democratic triumph,” Brooks says, “has created a nation that runs up huge debt and is increasingly incapable of finding a balance between competing interests.”

As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and reportedly asked, “Mr. Franklin, what have you designed for us in there?” Franklin retorted, “A republic madam…if you can keep it.” The political solipsism in which we find ourselves today indicates the death of republicanism and the attendant virtues we need so direly, according to Brooks—a pity.


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