“…and to the Republic for which it stands”
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands.” Thus begins the pledge of allegiance. Almost everyone can describe the flag of the United States, but almost no one can describe the Republic for which it stands. Indeed, are we a republic anymore? The question matters because the qualities of a true republic are needed to help America meet its most important 21st-century challenges.
America today is basically a democracy of rights. But as students of the republic from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Jefferson have known, rights must be earned by performance of duties. A republic is based upon civic duty, sovereignty of the people, resistance to corruption, and freedom from domination. Civic virtue is the sense that we are all in this together and must participate in public affairs to promote the public interest. Without citizen participation, special interests corrupt the republic.
Originally created more than 2500 years ago in ancient Greece as an alternative to monarchy and autocratic rule, the classic republic was a city-state. With the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of its empire, the ideal of republican government retreated to the shadows until it was resurrected during the Renaissance by Machiavelli and then fully restored by America’s founders. Uniformly they believed and taught that they were reinventing the ancient republican ideal on a grand scale.
Critics of the American experiment said it would never work because citizens could not exercise their sovereignty by participating in a large-scale republic. The founders’ solution to this conundrum was to create a federation of State republics and to provide a Constitutional guarantee of a republican form of government to the States. But for many, then and now, State governments were also too remote for direct citizen participation; they were, like the federal government, based on representation. Jefferson’s solution to this quandary, devised well after the adoption of the Constitution, was to create a public space for direct citizen participation. He called this level of government the ward or elementary republic patterned after the New England town meeting. It has never been recognized in the Constitution.
Twenty-first century America, a mass democracy of rights, is characterized by low voter turnout, even lower citizen participation in public affairs, the sovereignty of wealth and power, and corruption in the classic sense of special interests having priority over the national interest. Could Jefferson’s ideal possibly work today?
There are many arguments why it should not. But there are some profound ways in which this ideal might be plausible. Take public education, originally intended by Jefferson and others to be a local prerogative in keeping with the republican ideal, but now overwhelmed by federal dominance, eroded by private and parochial systems, and suffering from lack of local support. Or social welfare–since the New Deal overwhelming assumed to be a nationally administered obligation. Or local security–up until 9.11 massively subordinated to Cold War concerns and international conflicts. Perhaps nothing illustrates the need for a republican restoration more than the new reliance of the United States on the citizen-soldier for the security of our homeland.
In each case, and in many others as well, there can and must be continued federal commitment to equality of treatment and willingness to distribute national resources to achieve that equality. But even under that federal regime, local republics in which concerned citizens can and should participate could be given the flexibility to experiment in management of their own schools, to devise new ways to administer their own welfare programs, and to participate as the earliest republicans did in their own security as citizen-soldiers. We don’t need to sacrifice popular sovereignty and citizen participation in the name of national fairness.
Big R Republican chortling can be heard at this point. “This is what we’ve been advocating for decades,” they are saying. I don’t think so. They have been advocating less government, not citizen government, and certainly not active local government dedicated to administering programs to achieve national objectives of fairness and equality and demanding citizen participation. There is a huge gap between “leave me alone” and “we’re all in this together.” There is a profound difference between “I demand my rights” and “I must earn my rights.”
And this is precisely the point. From the libertarian Right’s demand for individual autonomy to the liberal Left’s insistence on ever more precisely calibrated group rights, both political ideologies are dominated by forces more concerned with what’s theirs than what’s ours. There is a definable national interest that is greater than a mere collection of special interests. There is a quantifiable public interest above and beyond the narrow personal interest. In the mad rush to get “what’s mine”, we and our political leaders have all lost sight of the national interest and the public interest.
Perhaps the Jeffersonian notion of the elementary republic could resurrect a lost sense of duty, responsibility, and obligation, of civic virtue not just private virtue, of popular sovereignty and citizen control, and of resistance to corruption. Most of all it would restore the Republic for which our flag stands.
30 October 2002