June 3, 2019

The Promise of Republicanism: a Niskanen Series



Essays in the Series


In “Republicanism for Republicans,” an essay published earlier this year in National Affairs, Brink Lindsey, Niskanen’s vice president for policy, argued that a revival of the (small “r”) republican tradition offers a promising intellectual basis for a renewed American right. “To build a new, post-Trump right,” Lindsey writes, “we need a new political language in which to express ourselves. Where will we find this new vocabulary, which might reach beyond the term ‘conservatism’ as an organizing principle?”  

“The answer,” Lindsey observes, “is right under our noses, hiding in plain sight”:

The project of intellectual and moral renewal on the right is best founded on the principles of republicanism. The challenge is to develop and articulate the principles and program of the republican wing of the Republican Party.

Republicanism, in the most basic sense of the word, simply means support for a republican form of government. This alone, these days, can suffice to position you clearly on controversies of the utmost importance. Beyond that, in intellectual history the term refers to a political tradition in early-modern Europe and North America, stretching from Machiavelli to Madison and Jefferson via Milton, Harrington, Sidney, and Montesquieu.

At the core of this tradition was the ideal of political liberty achieved through popular self-government. This ideal stood in contrast not only to hereditary regimes — kingdoms and empires — but also dictatorships, oligarchies, and direct democracies. Steeped in the classical literature on the example of ancient Rome, republicans saw political liberty not as the expression of some spontaneous general will, but as the artifact of constitutional structure: limits on power, checks and balances, and the rule of law. The structure of liberty is not self-maintaining, however. It rests on the civic virtue of the people, bound together as fellow citizens, who are called upon to uphold the public interest and safeguard it from corruption.

This classical republican political tradition culminated in the American and French revolutions and then receded from history along with its main antagonist, the divine right of kings. Many of its elements and themes merged into the tradition of liberalism, including both its progressive and conservative strains; others simply gave way to liberalism’s individualism and pluralism. In recent years, a small group of academic philosophers has sought to revive republicanism as a theoretical alternative to liberalism. These scholars, including Philip Pettit and Robert Taylor, have worked to tease out contemporary implications of the old republican worldview, with particular emphasis on the distinctively republican conception of freedom as non-domination.

As part of a larger to project to develop a contemporary republican basis for a healthy, practical governing philosophy for the right, the Niskanen Center’s Open Society Project is launching a new, ongoing series of occasional essays exploring the promise and perils of a refreshed and updated republican philosophy. We’re tapping a broad array of scholars to explore topic such as the republican approach to markets and regulation; the connections and tensions between the republican and liberal traditions, and their respective conceptions of freedom; the republicanism of classical liberal thinkers such as F.A. Hayek; the freedom-protecting role of popular representation in republican schemes of government; the importance of republican civic virtue and participation; the worrying relationship between republicanism and illiberal nationalism; and more.

Our series begins with a new essay of by Robert S. Taylor, a political theorist at the University of California, Davis, on “Commercial Republicanism: A New Center-Right Governing Philosophy.” As we roll out essays in the series, they will be indexed at the top of this page, so be sure to check back over the next weeks and months to follow along with what we’re confident will will be a stimulating and fruitful exploration of the potential of a 21st-century version of America’s founding philosophy to refresh liberalism, restore the republic, and extract the political right from the morass of illiberal populist nationalism.