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Thinking Out Loud

Republican Values

by User Not Found | Sep 13, 2011

This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

I knew something didn’t feel exactly right.

I was watching television coverage of a town hall meeting somewhere, ages ago. Peoples’ faces were contorted in fury as they shouted down an elected official. It was impossible to hear anything approaching intelligible from either side through the cacophony and the din. A commentator on one channel lauded the meeting as a confrontation between “the people” and “a career politician.” And while, as I recall, I didn’t agree with the position of this particular elected official, I remember feeling very uneasy.

My uneasiness only increased over the summer as our elected leaders attempted to address the serious issue of our nation’s debt ceiling. This uneasiness led me to reflect.

A decade ago, my wife, Deborah, and I co-authored a book, The Character of Leadership: Political Realism and Public Virtue in Nonprofit Organizations, in which we asked the question, “Are you in a principality or a republic?” We took our cue from the Renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli. Specifically, we took our cue from the surprisingly different approach Machiavelli took when writing a book on the early Roman Republic over-against his approach to writing an instruction manual for a prince.[1] We characterized principalities as aristocratic institutions that respect the vesting of power in structures of command and control. Principalities commonly reflect the personality of a single prince, we observed, perhaps the founder of the organization or a successor of that founder (see Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, for a recent example). Principalities often express their power in anomalies of rank and privilege enjoyed by certain members of the organization. They understand respect as something acquired by birth or marriage into certain bloodlines, never as something that you earn. In a principality, authority belongs to those who are related by birth or descent or some other exclusive property. Principalities generally have the power to make the lives of members socially comfortable or socially unbearable either by extending affiliation with the aristocracy or by withholding affiliation – and the favors that come with affiliation. Principalities often demonstrate strong regional affiliations.

In our book, we contrasted principalities with republics. We observed the philosophical commitment to equality and fraternity that lie at the heart of republicanism, noting also that republics function through a complex set of social conventions and laws which seek to ensure that the voices of a wide variety of group members will be accorded a respectful hearing, and that such hearings may lead to meaningful, but tempered, changes over time in the institution. Republics generally favor meritocracy over aristocracy. Those who have nothing to commend them but hard work, skill, talent, diligence, and persistence are the natural leaders in a republic. Power is more widely distributed in a republic than in a principality. Instead of asking the question, “I wonder if this will please the prince,” republicans ask more routinely, “I wonder if this is a good thing to do” or “I wonder if this will work.”

But here is why I reflected on all of these matters in light of viewing the television coverage of the town hall meeting and the debt ceiling debates. Debbie and I left something vital out of our study of leadership. What we did not do was contrast republics with democracies. It occurs to me now that this was a serious failing on our part.

Two essays from last spring illustrate why it is so important to understand the difference between the two, though many people today simply see them as synonymous.

The first essay appeared on April 23, 2011, in The Economist under the title, “Direct Democracy: Vox populi or hoi polloi?” Surveying the emergence of democratic movements in many parts of the globe – not least in the Middle East – the journal comments on democracy in Switzerland. It says: “The Alpine federation’s political system, in which citizens may vote 30-plus times a year in a mixture of local and national polls, is proving seductive for politicians and voters of all stripes. Some Swiss votes are ordered by politicians, yet many, known as ‘initiatives,’ are binding votes on national legislation triggered by citizens’ petition. In recent years these have widened state health-insurance to cover alternative medicine; enforced deportation of foreigners guilty of serious crimes and benefit fraud; and banned the building of mosques with minarets.” The journal goes on to observe that while many political leaders are keen to garner support for new laws, “few want to allow voters to write them: that would be not so much democracy, they say, as ochlocracy – mob rule.”[2]

The warning sounded generally about democracy in The Economist was given much keener focus in an essay by David Brooks in The New York Times.[3] Those who are fervent democrats (i.e., fans of what The Economist called “direct democracy”), Brooks says, “have unlimited faith in the character and judgment of the people and believe that political institutions should be responsive to their desires. The believers in a republic have large but limited faith in the character and judgment of the people and erect institutions and barriers to improve that character and guide that judgment.”

Now, this is interesting, especially given the fact that many of the people today who are the most vocal supporters of “pure democracy,” an almost knee-jerk reactivity to “the will of the people,” so often bring up the founders of the American Republic as their exemplars. In fact, as Brooks notes, “The first citizens of this country erected institutions to protect themselves from their own shortcomings.” In addition to the institutional “checks and balances” of the Republic, however, are what Brooks refers to as “a system of habits and attitudes that would check egotism and self-indulgence.” Brooks quotes Irving Kristol’s 1974 essay, “Republican Virtue vs. Servile Institutions” as follows: “The common man is not a fool, and the proof is that he has such modest faith in himself.” To be “public spirited,” according to such Republican values, did not mean that one pressed upon the public one’s own “passionate opinions about public matters.” It “meant curbing one’s passions and moderating one’s opinions in order to achieve a large consensus that will ensure domestic tranquility.” Brooks comments: “Instead of self-expression, it meant self-restraint.”

What I wish Debbie and I had clarified in our study of leadership in the church, in schools, and in various nonprofit organizations and charities, is that republicanism encourages a quality of lively, creative, and fair social life that is often squelched in principalities, but it does this by encouraging reflective leadership through institutions, not by stoking the kind of culture of reactivity that is the bane and lifeblood of pure democracies. There is, of course, a theological issue at stake here. Republics assume that if left to my own passions, I will almost inevitably seek my own interests at the expense of others. Republics have a high theology (and take a low view) of original sin. Consequently, republics seek institutional safeguards against self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and self-interest. Republics erect buffers against reactivity.

Republics also value negotiation and compromise. Both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United States of America see themselves constitutionally as republics, of course, and not as democracies. And these days, there are a lot of folks – in church and society at large – who believe that negotiation demonstrates a lack of commitment to your ideals, and compromise is the language of the devil. I would encourage these folks to take seriously the social and political (as well as theological) dimensions of John Calvin’s wise counsel: “In all of life, we are negotiating with God.” To negotiate with God in all of life, means that we listen to others and that we grow in light of what we learn from the perspectives of others.

Leadership might almost be defined as the process of moving an organization, a group or a nation forward amid the challenges facing us through the negotiation of conflicting and competing interests and values. Good leadership is certainly accountable to the people. But good leadership requires the willingness to learn and to educate. Good leadership does not leave a people emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually where it finds them. It provides a larger vision, and sometimes (often!) that larger vision will not reflect our private interests or our individual preconceptions about the world.


[1] Most people are only familiar with Machiavelli’s The Prince, but are unfamiliar with his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, an essay on the early Roman Republic. A good critical edition of The Prince is the Cambridge University Press edition (1988) edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price; I recommend the Penguin Books edition of The Discourses edited, with an excellent introduction, by Bernard Crick (1970).

[2] The Economist,Direct Democracy: Vox populi or hoi polloi?” April 23, 2011, 62.

[3] David Brooks, “The Politics of Solipsism,” The New York Times, May 6, 2011. A25.

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