Recovering the Republican Sensibility
It is fashionable now among some observers on the right to blame liberalism for America's problems. Our nation, they argue, was founded on liberal ideas, and we now struggle with the inevitable negative consequences of those ideas. As Notre Dame's Patrick Deneen has written, "[l]iberalism has failed — not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself." Accordingly, some now believe our most pressing challenges require post-liberal responses.
This view overstates the role of liberalism in the American founding and distorts how we think about American institutions and policy. It neglects the tradition that primarily shaped the views of our founding generation, the principles underlying the federal and state constitutions, and the governing practices of subsequent generations. Republicanism — rooted in the ancient world and renewed during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment — was embraced and consciously adapted by America's founders. Today's governing problems are not the result of liberalism's ascendency, but republicanism's decline. Our goal, therefore, shouldn't be to move past liberalism, but to revitalize republicanism.
There is not an agreed-upon definition of "republicanism." Indeed, views on republicanism have evolved over two millennia. It can, however, be generally understood to begin with a sensibility, a way of seeing citizens and public life. Five principles outline this sensibility.
First, citizens of a republic are self-ruling and equal. In a republic, the government's legitimacy flows from its citizens. Republican citizens are on equal footing before the law; they have equal duties and powers to shape the state.
Second, citizens of a republic should demonstrate "republican virtue." When rulers have near-total power, individuals are expected to be passive while their rulers govern; when the people have power, they have a duty to be engaged in matters affecting the community. Active, constructive participation in public life is thus essential to republican government. Citizens must behave in ways that help the community succeed, including acting with honesty and civility, avoiding corruption and self-dealing, and putting public benefit ahead of private gain.
Third, democracy is the primary means of reaching decisions in a republic. Citizens may vote directly on public matters, or they may vote for representatives who in turn vote on such matters. Republicanism allows for non-elected administrators and judges, but these officials exercise the authority delegated to them by the people, and must operate within the rules the people establish.
Fourth, citizens of a republic must advance the common good. Issues affecting the community are public, not private matters. Republicanism does not tolerate nepotism or cronyism; a citizen should never see a community issue as an opportunity to advance his personal interest or the cause of his family or friends. Similarly, community decisions are not the concern of just the elite; all citizens contribute to the community's good. This work is the substance of citizenship and the glue that bonds a community together.
Fifth, republicanism requires an active but limited government. Republicanism intends for the state to play a role in advancing the common good, but the state isn't authorized to do anything and everything. The state can be limited via enumerated powers, individual liberties, and rights to procedures like due process. Republicanism does not emphasize expansive negative rights, but the state cannot rule arbitrarily and cannot dominate individuals or society.
These five pillars do not amount to a formula, or even quite a formal definition. But they describe the contours of republicanism as the founders of the American system of government understood it, and as we might understand it now.
CREATING AMERICAN REPUBLICANISM
Recent discourse has focused on America's ostensibly liberal foundation: As Professor Deneen puts it, America's Constitution is "the 'applied technology' of liberal theory."
Such claims exaggerate the role liberalism played in the founding. Indeed, liberal theory is "incapable of accounting for some of the most visible features" of what Daniel Burns, writing in these pages, calls "liberal practice." Such features include federalism, enumerated powers, a citizen's duty to his community, jury trials, the common law, an independent executive, and a desire for public honor. They aren't found in liberal theory because they are, as Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist No. 9, adaptations of republicanism — or, as discussed below, American-republican practices.
The founders believed their Constitution established a republic. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what type of government the founders were creating, famously answered "a republic, if you can keep it." Hamilton described the government as "wholly and purely republican." In 1776, when asked for advice on how to structure a government, John Adams wrote "there is no good Government but what is Republican."
The emphasis on republicanism over liberalism is reflected in America's founding-era writings. The founders cited the father of liberalism, John Locke, far less than they cited republicans like Montesquieu and William Blackstone. When they did mention Locke, they most often cited not the liberal touchstone The Second Treatise of Government, but An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Furthermore, these references appear almost exclusively in documents written in the time leading up to the revolution; their numbers fall dramatically after the 1770s.
As the founders turned from spearheading a revolution to constructing a government, they looked far more often to republican thinkers. They did so not just out of will, but out of necessity: As the University of Houston's Donald Lutz observes, "Locke is profound when it comes to the bases for establishing a government and for opposing tyranny, but has little to say about institutional design."
The founders' focus on republicanism carried over into the ratification debates. Across all 85 essays in The Federalist, the words "republic" or "republican" appear over 160 times. In the first of these, Hamilton wrote that the essays to follow would discuss the "conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government" and how adopting the Constitution would preserve "that species of government." His co-author James Madison titled Federalist No. 39 "The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles," and wrote therein:
It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the revolution; or with that honourable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.
Of course, the then-dominant theory of republicanism was that republics had to be small. Republicanism is most fitting, it was believed, in a homogeneous city-state. A small population in a compact geography would naturally identify the community's pressing concerns. With a shared history, common customs and beliefs, and interpersonal bonds, citizens would reach a consensus on how to address current problems and advance the longer-term public interest. And with big needs and few hands, the community would offer many ways for citizens to contribute (e.g., by serving in public offices or the military).
America's challenge was making republican principles work in a heterogeneous, continental nation. How can the community as a whole decide what to do when different problems bedevil different regions? How can the community as a whole agree to one common good when the community comprises millions of people with different histories and priorities? How can citizens serve the nation as a whole when the nation's capital is hundreds of miles away?
"As a whole," it turned out, need not be part of every discussion. Republicanism's features can be preserved in a sprawling nation if power and duty are decentralized. There would, of course, be a national interest, national power, and duties associated with national citizenship. But state governments, localities, and voluntary associations would define and pursue the public interest as well, and citizens would discharge their civic duties by serving these varied institutions.
Our first generation of leaders thought in terms of at least four subsidiary-style protected spheres: the federal, the state, the local, and the individual. "The Government of the Union," declared Chief Justice John Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland, "though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action." The 10th Amendment explicitly preserves the sovereignty of states. Madison wrote that "local or municipal authorities form distinct and independent portions of the supremacy, no more subject, within their respective spheres, to the general authority, than the general authority is subject to them, within its own sphere." Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson each wrote of natural rights as inherent and inviolable, thereby demarcating individuals' protected spheres.
The system the founders developed ensured that governing in the federal, state, and local spheres, though largely protected from one another, would each exhibit the five principles of republicanism. At the federal level, the people would be in charge. The Constitution was ordained and established by "We the People" — an expression of popular sovereignty. The people would also select their leaders; as noted in Federalist No. 57, the "elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government."
The Constitution also advanced citizen equality at the federal level. Though it fell terribly short by today's standards when it came to racial and gender equality, it made great strides in promoting class equality relative to other nations of its day. Hamilton called the Constitution's prohibition on the awarding of titles of nobility — unthinkable in most other nations — "the corner-stone of republican government." The framers also sought to ensure that the national government and its leaders would reflect all classes — again highly unusual elsewhere. Madison wrote that in a republic, the government must "be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it." Adams wrote that an assembly should comprise an "equal Representation of the People" and should be "in Miniature, an exact Portrait of the People at large." With the adoption of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments, our Constitution would further advance the cause of equality among the people.
Democracy — another key component of republican government — was obviously embedded at the federal level. The people would directly elect members of the House of Representatives and indirectly choose U.S. Senators (via state legislatures) and the president (via electors). Congress, the most democratic branch, would take priority among the federal institutions; as Madison asserted, "[i]n republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates." Fittingly, the Constitution's drafters delineated Congress's powers in its very first article.
The federal framers also understood the necessity of civic virtue. As historian Gordon Wood has written, "the most enlightened of that enlightened age believed that the secret of good government and the protection of popular liberty lay in ensuring that good men — men of character and disinterestedness — wielded power." Indeed, our first two presidents exemplified America's commitment to virtue. George Washington wrote in his farewell address, "virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." For serving the nation in the highest military and civilian posts and then willingly giving up power, he was often compared to the great Roman citizen Cincinnatus, and was thought to personify republican virtue. John Adams, too, put the public's interest ahead of personal gain, not only serving as a diplomat, vice president, and president, but also defending — at significant personal cost — the British soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre. "The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue," Adams declared, and elsewhere, "public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics."
Though it is impossible to mandate virtue through law, the federal framers sought other ways to promote it. Federalist No. 57 argued for taking "the most effectual precautions for keeping [public officials] virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust." Hamilton defended the system for electing presidents by arguing that it would lead to the "constant probability" of the selection of "characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue." According to Federalist No. 65, impeachment covered not just crimes, but also the "misconduct of public men," or the "abuse or violation of some public trust." Consistent with republicanism's elevation of the public good above private gain, the two emolument clauses prevented officials from receiving benefits from their service, thereby distinguishing American officials from those in Europe.
As for the service component of republican virtue, the founding generation lived it. The most influential writers and speakers of the day — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, all three authors of the Federalist Papers (Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay), the authors of the Anti-Federalist Papers (Robert Yates, George Clinton, Samuel Bryan, Melancton Smith, Richard Henry Lee), Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, James Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, and many more — served in major public capacities. The Constitution provided citizens with a host of avenues for participating in the federal government, including voting, standing for federal office, joining the military, and serving in some other federal capacity. Importantly, and again unlike in most other countries, few qualifications were required for office. As Federalist No. 52 observes of the House of Representatives, "the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith."
The Constitution also created a limited national government. Its powers were enumerated, authority was split among different branches, due process was guaranteed, and individual rights were protected. The founders understood that limited government power was a core element of republicanism. As Adams wrote, "I know of no better Definition of a Republic than this, that it is an Empire of Laws and not of Men." Madison identified the "republican form" as one of two constraints on state power. An important strand of the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was whether a strong executive, deemed essential by Hamilton and others, could be made consistent with the republican principle of limited government.
Lastly, the federal government would have a role in advancing the common good. This becomes apparent when one notes key differences between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration evinced a liberal understanding of the purpose of government: to secure rights. Neither the phrase "republic" nor "common good" appears in the Declaration (though the king is assailed for his failure to provide "his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.") But the Constitution's preamble explains that America's government was created with republican, common-good goals in mind (e.g., establishing justice, promoting the general welfare). To carry out the duties associated with its partial responsibility for the common good, the federal government was given strong but targeted powers. It was charged with those things only the central government can do (e.g., provide for the common defense, regulate interstate commerce, establish a currency) or, as Madison noted, matters "which concern all the members of the republic." Since its common-good tasks were relatively few, the federal government's powers were enumerated; but since those tasks were essential, its hand was strengthened in those areas by the Supremacy Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause.
The framers understood that the federal officials of each era would need to identify and pursue the common good — hence the Constitution's focus on democracy and leadership. Federalist No. 57 explains the Constitution's aim of elevating leaders "who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society." Madison wrote that because the people of a republic choose elected representatives possessing the capacity for discernment, wisdom, patriotism, and love of justice, the public voice may well be "more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves." These arguments indicate that the framers believed the common good was the product of republican action — equal citizens deliberating and electing representatives who engage in policy debate — rather than extra- or anti-republican means. As appeals-court judge William Pryor, Jr., argued in a 2021 lecture, "the Founders understood that doing the hard work of politics through consensus-building and compromise is the better way to promote the common good."
State-level governing was also marked by the five elements of republicanism. The Constitution was democratically ratified at the state level, and all powers not given to the federal government were retained by states. Madison made this point in Federalist No. 14, and it was made binding by the 10th Amendment.
Equally important is Article IV, Section 4, which guarantees to the people "a Republican Form of Government" at the state level. America would be a republic of republics (or a "confederate" or "compound" republic, as described by Hamilton and Madison, respectively). And each state would decide for itself what form of republican government it would adopt. Madison wrote that the guarantee presupposes the existence of republican governments at the state level, and permits states to reform those arrangements, substituting different republican forms. "The only restriction" on states, he explained, is "that they shall not exchange republican for antirepublican Constitutions."
Accordingly, state constitutions are republican in important ways. They create legislatures, courts, an executive, governing processes, and protections of liberties. They note the sovereignty of the people and of the state governments. They include provisions on the importance of virtue.
Of course, there are differences among states, including the size of legislatures, the powers of governors, and the organization of judiciaries. Prior to the 14th Amendment, the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states, meaning state laws and constitutions determined which liberties were protected from state encroachment. The people of the states were understood to be self-governing, so they were allowed to craft differentiated republican state governments. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to substantially limit states' experimentation with republican forms, including initiative and referendum.
Outside Washington's sphere, states would define and pursue the common good. The phrases "public good" and "common good" appear frequently in state constitutions. Examples include allowing for the creation of state institutions as required by the public good; permitting the creation of corporations that are endowed for the public good; preventing monopolies that interfere with the public good; creating a state university with departments necessary for the public good; authorizing the legislature to pass laws, alter courts, and create judicial districts and circuits consistent with the common good; and protecting the right to assemble for the common good.
Through their constitutions and statutes, states created another layer of republicanism at the local level. Initially these included various cities, counties, towns, boroughs, and other municipalities. Later, additional types — including school districts, fire departments, and library systems — would emerge. Such municipal bodies generally share republican features. State constitutions often granted them the right to self-government. "Home rule" provisions protect many municipalities' decisions from state interference. Consistent with republican practice, the people of a municipality typically elect a legislative body, such as a council, commission, or board, that has primary authority. The people generally elect an executive, such as a mayor, who administers the system. The powers of the local entity are typically delineated.
The state and local levels also realize the service component of American republicanism. Citizens participate in governing by voting for representatives, running for office, serving in an appointed position, taking staff roles, volunteering for committees or work groups, and serving on juries. Citizens also engage from the outside by voting on referenda and recalls; by exercising constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, petition, and the press; and by attending hearings, testifying, submitting comments, and reviewing government documents and communications. Indeed, the many ways a citizen can participate in the full governing process has been a distinctive feature of American republicanism from the start.
A final notable aspect of America's disseminated republicanism is its "associational life." Alexis de Tocqueville famously described how Americans advanced the common good through voluntary non-governmental service. Americans, he wrote, understood that they benefit when the community benefits, and this "constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the State."
Since Tocqueville's time, Americans have formed a constellation of local private organizations that define and advance particular visions of the common good. Some are faith-based, others secular. They might support a school, provide meals to the needy, manage a neighborhood's affairs, preserve a custom, or simply offer a place for people to socialize. Each gives citizens the opportunity to give of themselves to promote the good of the community.
These groups enjoy legal protection. Just as the Constitution protects state-government republics, and just as states create local-government republics, the First Amendment protects these community-based, non-governmental, republic-like bodies. The five freedoms of that amendment — religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly — are not merely individual rights; they are also group rights, protecting citizens acting together. The U.S Supreme Court has recognized the right of faith-based organizations to make some decisions free of government influence through the doctrine known as the "ministerial exception." It has also recognized a freedom of association, which protects expressive and intimate groups from government intrusion.
THREATS TO AMERICAN REPUBLICANISM
The founders conceived, designed, and built America with republicanism in mind. But recently, commentators have assessed our public affairs using liberal theory — an undertaking akin to assessing a skyscraper based on the blueprints for a suspension bridge. These commentators point to legitimate problems in today's America. But because they characterize the Constitution as the product of liberalism, they wrongly attribute these problems to liberalism, and then sell anti-liberalism as the response.
In truth, America was founded as a republic. Our biggest challenges are the result of our retreating from republicanism; the answer to those challenges is to recover the republican sensibility our government was founded on. Three topics in particular clarify this picture: the elevation of anti-republican courts, the retreat of Congress, and the deterioration of public service among American citizens.
Since the early 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court has played an oversized role in public life. This is primarily the result of justices elevating their views on liberty above those of the people, a phenomenon seen most clearly when the Court invents rights that inhibit self-government. Between 1950 and 2010, the Court invalidated all or parts of over 460 federal, state, and local laws. During another 60-year period at the nation's dawn (1789-1849), the court overturned just 22 state, three federal, and one local law. Sometimes, overturning a law advances republicanism; self-government is strengthened when the Court invalidates laws giving too much power to agencies at the expense of Congress, for instance. But we must be mindful that courts' overturning of laws exists in tension with republicanism.
Democratically legitimate laws are the result of public participation and self-government. When judges create additional, national rights, they undermine the polycentric nature of the common good in American republicanism. A single national rule prohibits communities from reaching different conclusions.
The framers believed American-republican forces, not just courts, would protect rights. Foremost among them is the Constitution's separation of authority among the various branches and levels of government. Madison argued that this distribution of power would foster competition among equal citizens guarding their interests. He referred to the new system's "extent and proper structure" as the "republican remedy" to threats to liberty.
The framers also insisted that self-governing citizens would naturally defend liberty. Hamilton, as a matter of fact, made a full-throated case against a bill of rights: Since the people retain all power, he believed listing reserved rights was unnecessary. Similarly, Madison referred to "republican liberty," or limits that republicanism places on the state — namely the fact that government power is derived solely from the people and that power is distributed among many officials dependent on the people for reelection.
Finally, the framers believed that the virtue of republican citizens was central to the defense of liberty. Harvey Mansfield, in "Liberty and Virtue in the American Founding," wrote of how the founding generation understood that each element of this unlikely pair depended on the other. "A free people," he observed, "with greater opportunity to misbehave than a people in shackles, needs the guidance of an inner force to replace the lack of external restraint." Indeed, it is striking how many founders discussed liberty in conjunction with virtue — among them Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Samuel Adams.
Our statutes and Constitution derive legitimacy from the people. As Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 78, laws reflect the will of the people's representatives, but the Constitution represents the will of the people themselves. A court behaves in an anti-republican manner when it interprets a statute or a constitution in ways that would be rejected by those who adopted them; reading content into or out of a text undermines the people. It is therefore doubly anti-republican for judges to overturn a law based on an interpretation inconsistent with the will of those who ratified the Constitution: Doing so disregards both the law and the constitution of self-governing people.
Presumptuous courts can be partly attributed to liberalism. Liberal theory's most direct influence on governing involves preventing the state from intruding on individuals' rights. But this principle has grown distended, with too many judges expanding the number and scope of rights far beyond those intended by the people who ratified the Constitution and its amendments. It also gives short shrift to an important aspect of the republican understanding of liberty — what G. K. Chesterton called "the liberty to make laws." A healthy republicanism would not allow liberal theory to steal the people's lawmaking power; the problem is not merely liberalism's audacity, but republicanism's weakness.
Fortunately, several jurisprudential approaches aim to curb courts' elevation of individual liberty at the expense of self-government. A republican-oriented philosophy of judicial restraint directs courts to defer to legislatures. Legal scholar James Bradley Thayer's approach, often credited with leading to the rational-basis test, argues that a court can "only disregard the Act when those who have the right to make laws have not merely made a mistake, but have made a very clear one — so clear that it is not open to rational question." Originalism counsels judges to avoid "discovering" rights in a constitutional provision that were not understood to be there when the provision was adopted. Constitutional scholar John Hart Ely argued for an interpretive method that prioritizes democratic decision-making, including public participation and fair process.
Though anti-republican approaches have generally been associated with "left liberals" (progressives), they can be found among "right liberals" (libertarians) as well. The libertarian philosophy of "judicial engagement" argues that courts should be more willing to overturn statutes and regulations in order to expand individual liberty and limit lawmaking. This can be accomplished, for instance, by strictly scrutinizing whether state action is necessary and reasonable, or by finding expansive unenumerated rights in the Ninth Amendment or the 14th Amendment's Due Process or Privileges or Immunities clauses.
Others on the right are advocating anti-republican legal notions in the opposite direction. In The Atlantic, Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule advocated a "common-good constitutionalism" that is "not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them." Instead, its principles — found outside our democratic lawmaking system — should be "read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution."
In the essay, Vermeule repeatedly refers not to "citizens," but to "subjects" — a term incompatible with American republicanism. Contesting the republican principles of a limited state and citizen equality, he insists that his approach "does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy." He sees his preferred extra-democratic law as "parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits." And since individuals are evidently more like children than self-governing citizens, authority "can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects' own perceptions of what is best for them."
Vermeule's system appears to have evolved in subsequent works. He later describes it as consonant with the "classical legal tradition," which respects elements of positive law and the "prudential determination" of civil lawmakers to "concretize" natural law. But in the American-republican tradition, civil lawmakers concretize the will of the people according to, and as limited by, the Constitution and our traditions (also reflections of the will of the people), not an indeterminate common good.
Attorney and Newsweek editor Josh Hammer supports a system similar to Vermeule's. He is critical of positive law — in America, the product of self-government. Hammer notes that his own system "shares Professor Vermeule's belief that solipsistic citizens' 'own perceptions of what is best for them' are, for all intents and purposes, constitutionally irrelevant." This is not the American-republican view that the people define the common good, that the Constitution reflects the will of the people, and that the people are entitled to self-govern.
In sum, we should see activist courts and philosophies suspicious of democratic decision-making not just as evidence of liberalism's "counter-majoritarian difficulty," but as an anti-republican feature of contemporary politics.
LEGISLATIVE LETHARGY AND CIVIC DISENGAGEMENT
As noted above, the founders enshrined the nation's premier legislative body in the first article of the Constitution. They expected the legislature to be the most powerful branch — and the most likely to encroach on the other branches' authorities. Instead, Congress has grown anemic, looking to the White House, the judiciary, or agencies for leadership. As Daniel Stid puts it, Congress has transformed from an "impetuous vortex to willing pushover."
Our national legislature is replete with members more interested in appearing on cable news than in legislating. Congressional committees engage in little lawmaking. Instead of debating and drafting legislation, Congress delegates lawmaking power to agencies, or looks the other way when they assume such power. As one recent analysis observed, we now suffer "a weakened legislative branch in which debate is strictly curtailed, party leaders dictate the agenda, most elected representatives rarely get a say and government shutdowns are a regular threat due to chronic failures to agree on budgets."
As one might expect, Congress's approval rating is abysmal; it has rested below 20% for much of the last decade. Only 8% of Americans have much confidence in our national legislature — a lower percentage than that of any other major institution. Congress should be the forum for our most important national debates; its refusal to play that role may have exacerbated our nation's polarization. As Philip Wallach argued in these pages:
[I]t is precisely because we no longer have vital deliberation in our representative bodies that our citizens have become so ready to forsake each other, fantasizing about secession or civil war rather than believing Americans who are sharply divided in their beliefs and interests can nevertheless work through the nation's problems together.
Our impotent legislature cannot be blamed on liberalism. If America's government is fundamentally liberal, and if liberalism naturally enervates legislatures, it would be difficult to explain more than a century of strong congresses and state legislatures. Although the administrative state grew in size and power through the New Deal and the Great Society, during those eras, Congress affirmatively created agencies and delegated particular powers to them. While this was occurring, Congress stood up to the executive branch in other ways — by rejecting presidential Court packing in 1937, for example, and by reasserting legislative war powers in 1973.
Today, the executive branch acts brashly; Congress often invites the executive to act in its stead. Members behave as though they want their institution to be weak. It is hard to find in liberal theory an explanation for our lethargic legislature. American republicanism, on the other hand, recognizes federal responsibilities, Congress's preeminent place in federal policymaking, and the necessity of governing leadership by the people and their representatives. Because our republican spirit has deteriorated, Congress has deteriorated in turn.
Active civic engagement — most importantly meaningful participation in self-government — is foundational to republicanism. But public life has become a spectator sport. Too many Americans shrug off the duty to serve, preferring to disengage or comment, criticize, and advise from the sidelines. Only 2% of Americans report ever having run for any public office. Only 7% are participating in military, national, or public service. Many mayoral and state legislative races today have just one candidate. Only 32% of young Americans believe running for office is an honorable undertaking. And, as long noted by scholars like Robert Nisbet, Robert Putnam, and Theda Skocpol, American civil society — the way we advance the common good from outside the government — has deteriorated as well. Americans join fewer groups, and their participation in the groups they do join is less robust.
While our citizens are losing their taste for participatory self-government, our leaders are losing their taste for governing. Many of our representatives would rather talk politics on Facebook, Instagram, or a prime-time cable program than in the halls of Congress. Former president Trump often acted like his job was to criticize the executive branch rather than lead it. It is antithetical to republicanism to attain a position of public authority and then fail to do the work that defines it, much less to use that position for personal gain. But this is precisely Americans' sense of how public officials now behave: Nearly two-thirds believe those seeking office do so to advance personal interests rather than to serve their communities. The figure is even higher among young Americans: Sixty-nine percent believe public officials are motivated by selfish concerns.
Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 speech colloquially known as "The Man in the Arena" was actually titled "Citizenship in a Republic." In it, he described the duties of self-governing individuals, distinguishing those fulfilling their civic responsibility from those choosing not to. By his lights, a republic has little room for those skating off others' service:
Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are.
Roosevelt's criticism would have made little sense to an American audience a century earlier, as the most prominent writers of America's revolutionary and founding eras also served in public capacities. Indeed, it is difficult to find notable essayists or pamphleteers, much less signers of the Declaration of Independence or participants in the Constitutional Convention, who did not also have distinguished careers in governing. That would have been intuitive to our framers; they were creating a republic, and citizens in a republic were expected to serve. The very concept of "republican liberty" includes notions of service — that we become free, create the conditions for freedom, and enjoy true freedom by serving. As Cicero put it: "Freedom is participation in power."
This sense of responsibility was part of republican DNA from the start, seen clearly in the eras the founders sought to emulate. Prominent figures of early Greek democracy and the Roman republican and Pax Romana periods — even those who became famous for their thinking, speaking, and writing — served in major public capacities. Cato, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Pericles, Plutarch, Seneca, Sophocles, Tacitus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and others could hardly be accused of "shrinking from contact" with their fellow Greeks or Romans. Similarly, many important political writers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (when republicanism was revived) — including Niccolò Machiavelli, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville — served in public office. Even John Locke led a distinguished career of public service.
It is no coincidence that Roosevelt gave his speech about civic duty in 1910, when republican sensibilities had begun to fade in conjunction with the rise of the progressive era. Though a progressive himself, Roosevelt had little tolerance for the "public intellectual," a figure that came to prominence in that period and is still with us to this day.
These intelligent, accomplished individuals, often with expertise in a particular field, engage in current affairs — generating ideas and offering social criticism — from the comfort of universities, foundations, newspapers, and magazines. In an 1883 speech titled "The Duties of American Citizenship," Roosevelt argued against the influence of such well-educated but service-free individuals. Regarding the citizen who wants to do his duty, he declared: "[A]bove all things he must not, merely because he is intelligent, or a college professor well read in political literature, try to discuss our institutions when he has had no practical knowledge of how they are worked." The intellectual's eagerness to shape public life absent a sense of obligation to serve struck Roosevelt — and should strike us today — as contrary to republican virtue.
In America's early days, it was difficult to find citizens exerting a major influence on public life who had not served in significant public positions. In recent years, it has become nearly impossible to find one who has. The number of prominent public intellectuals who never served in any meaningful public capacity during the decline of American-republican sensibilities — from the second half of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century — is remarkable. Among them are James Baldwin, Randolph Bourne, Noam Chomsky, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, William James, Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, H. L. Mencken, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, and Gore Vidal, just to name a sample. Though occasionally an American thinker (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger) responded to the republican duty to serve during the second half of the 20th century up to today, the service component of republican virtue among prominent voices has largely disappeared.
Instead of a culture of service, we now have a culture of commentary — a Commentary Industrial Complex. In the early 2000s, an entire universe of opinion-driven blogs emerged; by 2022, there were an estimated 600 million blogs. Each month, more than 3 billion blog posts are published. More recently, newsletters and podcasts have proliferated. Substack hosts hundreds of thousands of newsletters. As of 2023, there are more than 4 million podcasts — a seven-fold increase in the last five years and a 24-fold increase in the last 10.
Two government-adjacent industries that allow citizens to talk and write about governing without serving — lobbying and think tanks — are also large and growing. Total lobbying spending in the United States hit an all-time high in 2022 at more than $4 billion, increasing more than 250% since 1998. Similarly, as of 2021, the United States was home to more than 2,200 think tanks; that number has doubled since 1980. And think tanks have changed in recent years, shifting from a narrow focus on research to engaging in political action and producing more journalistic output. Several observers have noted the pressure on think tanks to play the part of loyal partisan ally. This move to become "advocacy groups," or even "lobbyists by another name," is consistent with the decline of republicanism: Think tanks are fast becoming another place for citizens to talk and write about public affairs without the burdens of service.
Perhaps Roosevelt foresaw the cost to society of substituting disconnected, pessimistic commentary for engaged, productive service. In a 1903 address in Redlands, California, he argued that "the virtue that stays at home in its own parlor and bemoans the wickedness of the outside world is of scant use to the community." Today, we have citizens disengaged from service and distrustful of democracy, public officials disinterested in the duties of their jobs, and booming industries providing elites the chance to comment on public life without serving. This is not the apotheosis of liberalism; it is the collapse of republicanism.
RECOVERING AMERICAN REPUBLICANISM
We undoubtedly face other threats to American republicanism, such as the centralization of power and money. Federal outlays in 2021 were nearly $7 trillion and amounted to 30% of the U.S. GDP. (For comparison purposes, in 1961, it was 18% of U.S. GDP; in 1931, it was 4%.) The federal government spends more than all state and local governments combined — in fact, it nearly doubles that amount. America also has 65,000 fewer local-government units today than it did in 1942.
Such centralization inhibits American self-government. Each citizen's voice is less powerful at the national level, and it is impossible for citizens to keep tabs on a behemoth government hundreds of miles away. American republicanism needs strong states and municipalities to preserve our unique form of polycentrism and allow citizens to engage in public life.
The expanse of the federal administrative state also threatens republicanism. There are now 15 cabinet-level departments comprising well over 100 administrations, agencies, boards, bureaus, commissions, offices, and services, and another 60 independent agencies. There are 2.1 million civilian federal employees. The Code of Federal Regulations consists of nearly 200,000 pages. Through rules, guidance documents, letters, investigations, and other devices, administrative bodies make and enforce sprawling policies. Even though these decisions are made by unelected officials, they can carry the force of law. And because of Supreme Court rulings, courts must generally defer to an agency's interpretation of statutes and regulations. When distant technocratic entities shape so much of public life, it compromises republicanism's principles of self-government and a limited state.
The term "common good" has been misused in recent years by those trying to justify a muscular national government. If we believe there is a single common good that can be realized via a single authority, it stands to reason that a dominant federal government is needed. But American republicanism holds that responsibility for the common good is distributed among different levels of government, a variety of non-government bodies, and individual citizens. The federal government's limited powers, the 10th Amendment, protections for private associations, and other constitutional provisions speak to this understanding. Moreover, American republicanism holds that the common good is discovered through democratic deliberation and service, not reason or revelation. In other words, ongoing citizen participation in the affairs of communities, cities, and states is essential for realizing the common good.
Liberal theory is neither the primary explanation for nor the solution to presumptuous courts, legislative lassitude, deteriorating service, federal centralization, an expansive administrative state, or the distortion of the common good. To address these and related problems, we must recover the American-republican sensibility that prompts equal citizens to collectively identify and advance the common good through democratic self-government and service to an array of state and non-state bodies.
Yes, this will require Americans to behave more like republican citizens. But we also need change from our public leaders. Judges must have more respect for democratically produced laws. Federal officials must stop accumulating power and money. Congress must step up, and executive-branch agencies must step back. Government must stop doing the work of civil society, and states must stop doing the work of localities. Media outlets must stop giving platforms to those who comment but won't serve. Education institutions must teach students the duties of citizenship.
Put another way, we can't expect Americans to recover their republican spirit when our institutions are hostile to republicanism. A major task, then, of public leaders in the years ahead is to create an environment that fosters the development of American-republican citizenship. A major task for citizens is demanding such a change — and participating in it.