Republicanism And Conservatism

     Your humble author has often pointed out that many on the rights seemed inclined to tear down institutions, and even mores, in a quest to stop elites from being a threat, if not outright seek to “hear the lamentations of their women”. Dan McLaughlin, provides an illuminating history of what he refers to as “republicanism”, and how this republicanism in an American vein could easily find itself into a more anti-American/European style of “republicanism”.

     So, what is this “republicanism”?

“Among all of these values, republicanism may sound the least relevant to today, when monarchy is out of fashion in most of the world, and scarcely anybody in the Western world still professes faith in the underlying assumption that governing power is divinely ordained to be handed down by hereditary birthright rather than earned through some form of popular sovereignty or proven merit. But to early Americans, republicanism as an ideological concept meant something broader than ‘no more kings.’

“What it meant was an end to the entire mindset of formal and informal aristocratic privilege and social deference to the highborn. In a truly republican society, no man had a hereditary position, and no man needed to give way before his ‘betters.’ All would never be equal in natural talents or inherited wealth, but everyone started with at least a theoretically equal position of opportunity for advancement and for earning the respect of his fellow man. This was distinct from republics of the past — the Roman republic, the Venetian republic — that had no king and some representative institutions, but were still run by an aristocratic or oligarchic elite.”

     After many historical examples in America, Mr. McLaughlin asks what does that mean now, and how can something so seemingly needed go awry?

“There is much to be said for the new republicanism, but there are two major hazards to be avoided, and it is not at all clear how that will be accomplished without dissipating the forces behind the movement.

“The first is that attacks on expert and intellectual elites can easily devolve into a populist orgy of anti-intellectual assaults on expertise and knowledge themselves. There is nothing anti-intellectual, or even anti-expertise or anti-elite, about republicanism. To the contrary, a genuinely republican society is one in which informed, independent citizens have a duty to do their own learning and inform themselves from the best experts and the best minds in society. But populist rage at experts who misuse their position and authority can easily break loose from its moorings.

“The second hazard is the flip side of the first: that populism married to republicanism will lead only to tearing down institutions that have arrogated themselves too much neo-aristocratic privilege, while doing nothing to replace them. Properly understood, republicanism requires what Yuval Levin calls ‘civic republicanism’: the tending of institutions that instill civic virtue and informed citizenship in ordinary people, so that they can fill the void left by aristocratic elites and the noblesse oblige they are supposed to embody. If the few are unworthy to rule, their replacement by an equally unworthy many is not an improvement.

“The roots of American republicanism run deep. The tradition is one worth recovering, if we intend to govern ourselves once again. But doing so reminds us why the fathers of conservatism saw the republicanism of their own day as a menace.”

     It is easy to say that best thing in life is “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women”, but that satisfaction is a heavy price to pay if you have not planned for the aftermath.


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