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A Civic Republican Primer


Will we ever get beyond “left” and “right” by synthesizing the better elements of both into a civic republican vision and way of life that’s old and honored, but also new and responsive? Some American conservatives now acknowledge that their long-standing commitment to “ordered liberty” can’t survive a lockstep reliance on financialized and conglomerated riptides that derange ordered liberty’s ways of communicating, culture-making, and enforcing mutual obligation. 

Some conservatives try to finesse these contradictions between liberty and corporate capitalism by urging a return to sacred, “throne and altar” guidance for our eternally divided human hearts. They seek an authoritative (authoritarian), sometimes religious state capitalism to channel the accumulation and distribution of wealth amid recent economic, technological, climatic, migratory, demographic, and hence cultural upheavals. But one knows how to ride these global riptides constructively.  Other conservatives have always tried to make ethno-racial differences a central organizing principle of public life, hoping to achieve order and peace by placing every group benignly in its place, with a label on its face, under the tutelage of Western (historically white) classical liberalism. 

Most liberals and progressives oppose capitalist, religious, and racialist orientations. They accuse conservatives of reviving these orientations’ dark, destructive downsides. But many progressives have defaulted to racial and sexual identity politics, hoping that they will liberate us. It has taken me a long time to understand and explain why identity politics won’t work that way. (See this website’s section, “Why Skin Color isn’t Culture or Politics.”)

Conservatives aren’t always wrong to condemn progressives for clinging to “the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbor, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress,” as the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it. Nor are conservatives always wrong to yearn for a “positive liberty” that accepts social obligations within wisely ordered material, spiritual, and ethno-racial frameworks. Democratic vitality depends on such frameworks. It needs to balance individual freedoms with mutual obligations in a commonwealth that serves the common wellbeing by imposing some restraints, without asphyxiating individual conscience and autonomy.  “Obedience to Law is Liberty,” reads an engraving on a courthouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was born. I’ve tried to say what this entails in some of the pieces on this website.

Civic republicanism puts reasonable restraints on commercial, religious, and ethno-racial group, and even individual behavior, even while protecting a fairly high degree of liberty. Civic republicanism relies on the rule of law; on a civic culture of mutual respect and rational communication; and on inspiring narratives, “myths,” or “constitutive fictions” that organize our energies for constructive ends. It reminds us and our children that a strong society, like an individual, strides forward on two feet — a “left” one of social equality and provision (public schools, public health care, and Social Security), without which the individual and communal strengths that conservatives cherish couldn’t flourish – and a “right” foot of irreducibly personal conscience, responsibility and autonomy, without which even the best-intentioned social engineering would reduce persons to passive clients, cogs, cannon fodder, or worse. 

Some of this balanced stride can come from public undertakings by a state that’s elected democratically. But for that stride to lead to freedom, most of its energy and direction must come from voluntary individual and associational initiatives in entrepreneurial ventures, religious communities, labor unions, cultural organizations, and other undertakings in what we call “civil society,” which maintains some independence from statist and market forces.  

Civic republicanism also relies on humanistic education — some of it classical, some of it religious — that cultivates intellectual and moral virtues. It shares Aristotle’s view that humans are the noblest of animals when they have deep education and sound politics that prepare them to govern themselves through dialogue, reflection, and authoritative choice, but not through force and fraud. Without that balance, humans all-too-easily become beasts, fit only for despotic rule. Civic-republican strategies and customs subordinate beastly and despotic inclinations to voluntary, associational efforts, regulated by law. Civic republicans can smell a despot coming from a mile away, and they reject demagogic seductions and intimidations.

The following pieces sketch some of the civic-republican strengths and risks that I’ve just mentioned:

It’s Not Only a Constitutional Crisis, It’s a Civic Implosion – BillMoyers.com Written in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration

Obama’s 2010 ‘State of the Union’ Address: Pearls Before Swine. The Founders Saw it Coming. January 27, 2010

Can Anything Improve the Conversation? This writer tried and came close. Sept. 21, 2009. Irving Kristol’s bad faith, outdone by Nicholas Thompson’s civic-republican faith in the latter’s book, The Hawk and the Dove.

In Defense of Civic Culture, Progressive Policy Institute.pdf (jimsleeper.com) The Progressive Foundation, 1998.  

Civic liberals and race, Boston Globe, 1992.pdf (jimsleeper.com) Why civic republicanism resists making racial identity a central organizing principle of public life.

Jury’s Out, Dissent, 2008.pdf (jimsleeper.com) Dissent, 2008. Why jurors should resist racialist thinking, which doesn’t bring justice as often as it compounds mistrust.  

Duty Bound.pdf (jimsleeper.com), a profile of a young civic republican, The American Prospect, 1996 

Decadence “By Gradual Paces,” The American Prospect, 2004. Written shortly before George W. Bush’s re-election, this carried warnings from the republic’s founders and from Edward Gibbon

“Gip, Gip, Hooray!” Ronald Reagan euthanized American civic culture even while celebrating it. History News Network, 1997  

Gurus and the American counterculture, Boston Phoenix, 1973.pdf (jimsleeper.com) A meditation on the 1960s American counterculture’s decline, prompted in this instance by dismay at the weird popularity of a teenaged guru, The Boston Phoenix, 1973  

When Immigrants Were Welcomed : Democracy Journal – and how they were welcomed, with civic-republican expectations.  

“Should American Journalism Make Us Americans?” How American media companies profess “diversity” but foster division. A 1998 discussion paper that I wrote for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

Many Americans Want a Better National Story Line. How about this one? Salon, 2019. This recounts some of what I learned in teaching a seminar at Yale on “New Conceptions of American National Identity” in the mid-1990s.

Religion in its Place – ICNL This essay was written for a conference on “Nurturing Civil Society” at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School in 2004. I say that we “can’t live with it, can’t live without it,” because a republic needs a “civil religion” to anchor and inspire its young.

Civic Republicanism: Good for the Jews, by Win McCormack, The New Republic, 2020 An endorsement of my arguments by the magazine’s publisher, himself a strong exponent of civic-republicanism.