America is a democratic republic. But today, any mention of the republican nature of our democracy has all but disappeared from the public square. Indeed the very idea of a republic has fallen into disrepute.
The roots of republican philosophy lie in self-government; but self-government suggests self-restraint. After all, one cannot govern oneself without knowing how one is to behave. And the “how” assumes there is an ideal to pursue, which used to be referred to as “republican virtue.” In a word, republicanism puts a demand upon the citizen to lead a life of virtue. This notion, which animated millennia of classical political philosophy, was upheld by the leading founders of our democratic republic.
But we have undergone a profound political and philosophical transformation. For many, if not most, Americans today, the term “virtue” is at best a foreign concept, and at worst one worthy of rejection. This outlook reflects the change from a republican mindset to a democratic one.
Contrary to the republican notion that we should seek virtue, the term “democrat” conveys a sense of liberation. It neither encourages virtue nor discourages vice, as it releases us from the burden of pursuing the former and avoiding the latter. “Live and let live — so long as you harm nobody else.” With no “good life” in sight, the only idea “democracy” promotes is that there is no idea worthy of promotion.
This is all very well, unless one takes a less than benevolent view of human nature. Once we recognize our ability to corrupt ourselves, then the “democratic” idea becomes a dangerous one. As Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Washington, and other Founding Fathers understood: absent restraint, the individual sacrifices himself on the altars of self-debasement, indolence, entitlement and narcissism.
Fearing such a state of affairs, John Adams warned, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Chief Justice John Marshall likewise cautioned that, “between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”
This view lasted through the 19th century. Affirming the founding spirit, renowned theologian Philip Schaff wrote:
True national freedom, in the American view, rests upon a moral groundwork, upon the virtue of self-possession and self-control in individual citizens. He alone is worthy of this great blessing and capable of enjoying it, who holds his passions in check [emphasis added].
These words ring hollow to us today. As Irving Kristol noted, our change in mindset has been long and gradual. But it began decades ago, when it became widely accepted that we should bend our cultural institutions to the American people, rather than the reverse. Once this mentality became widely adopted, Kristol argued:
The history of the United States came to be written as the progressive liberation of the American people from all sorts of prior restraints which our rather narrow-minded ancestors insisted on establishing for the people’s own good.
Perhaps nothing better reveals our democratic habit of mind than our declining view of George Washington. Washington, who was revered by his contemporaries as the embodiment of republican virtue, was once studied by every school child. No longer is this the case. College graduates today know virtually nothing about the life of our greatest founder. “Greatest,” after all, defies our standard that there is no standard for virtuous behavior. “Presidents’ Day” better mollifies our democratic sensitivity.
But the relevant question today, as Kristol asked, is whether we have indeed achieved “progress.” Economically, there is no question that we have improved our lot by leaps and bounds. Our richest ancestors could scarcely have dreamed of the lives lower-class Americans lead, much less those of our middle- and upper-classes.
But this is far less clear culturally and morally. After all, the current ideology renders us powerless to object to any disagreeable personal choice, no matter how self-destructive. This may be considered “progress” to the modern mind, but students of history will discover that it has collapsed every democracy in human history. Our remaining republican roots are all that stand in its way.