Republican Liberalism

I was looking at two scholarly books about the history of American ideologies. Both books are fairly recent (2007 & 2008) and both bring up a similar viewpoint about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism. I’ve never come across this view before and so it made me wonder what caused two different authors to write about it at around the same time.


The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
by Michael J Thompson
pp. 2-3, location 208

“My basic argument is that liberal and republican themes were wedded in the American mind at the nation’s founding. Both viewpoints saw an intimate relation between power and property, if not coevality with each other. Liberalism was a doctrine of individual labor and, by extension, property, and it sought to give independence to individuals, smashing feudal relations of dependency that were predominate before the American Revolution. Republican themes emphasized the need for the institutions of the state to ensure that inequalities in property—and by extension, power—were kept in check. Within the context of an emerging commercial society bent on popular government, the theme of economic inequality was therefore central. Both liberalism and republicanism—two doctrines that have traditionally been seen as oppositional in previous literature on American political history—were actually seen as two sides of the same coin. Both sought to confront inequality of property and political power, and each saw that this was a central concern in eradicating the vestiges of feudalism that were at the heart of the birth of the American republic and modernity more generally. But the real essence of the story is that these two impulses begin to differentiate over the course of American history as the economic context develops. The evolution of capitalism begins to chart a course for liberalism at the expense of republican themes. By the end of the twentieth century, liberalism becomes co-opted by capitalism, and republican themes of the past fade into the background. The result is an overall acceptance or at least toleration of economic inequality and the gross differentials in political and social power it engenders in contemporary American politics and culture. I contend that this has led to a reorientation of democratic life in America and that as long as economic inequality and politics are held separate, a more vibrant democratic culture and consciousness will not be possible.

“Indeed, the success of neoconservative and neoliberal thought over the last thirty-five years has had the effect of redrawing the boundaries of American liberalism. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the loss in mainstream American political discourse of one of the most crucial veins of American political thought, which ran, until quite recently, like a roiling river at the heart of American life. This vein is the politics of economic inequality”


Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns
by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson
location 1685-1700
“Working with these orientations, proclivities, and tools, these thinkers and actors powerfully transformed republicanism into political liberalism but did so distinctively. Their pathways to a common outcome were not identical. The formation and crystallization of political liberalism was not the result of a single line of development. Nor can its origins be identified with a seminal thinker, or even with one lineage or sheer acts of substitution.
“[ . . . ] republican failure to identify and secure a stable and enduring political center in the space between radical Jacobinism and reactionary monarchism. This disappointment prompted her liberal inventions. It was her dissatisfaction with French republicanism’s violence, fanaticism, and dictatorship, as well as her fears that republicans could not end the Revolution, that impelled her to explore such new political formulations. Republican traumas, in short, motivated Stael’s liberalism.
“[ . . . ] These various paths converged. At their terminus, constitutional liberalism existed; republicanism no longer was a freestanding alternative, but it did not disappear. Republican values, sensibilities, and orientations have survived as deposits that fused with, and became integral to, liberal politics. In light of this history, some of the most familiar, and often pejorative, dichotomies in today’s political thought, including the right and the good, interest and virtue, individual and community, make little sense. These oppositions are new fabrications that do not accurately capture the rich historical and conceptual relations between the two traditions. They contradict the most prominent aspects of liberal beginnings.
“Further, both republican nostalgia and liberal purity are revealed to be false alternatives. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it became apparent that the republican model was radically deficient. So it is worse than ironic that some leading thinkers today counsel a resurrection of what even leading republicans two centuries ago transformed and superseded, and for good reasons. It is respectively discomfiting that a good many liberal advocates have distanced themselves from the lessons taught by key founders. By contrast with often abstract and philosophical exercises, the thick and sturdy liberalism fashioned within and against republicanism was open and syncretic, not closed and exclusive.”

6 thoughts on “Republican Liberalism

  1. I don’t like what we have become. My oldest son rejects his half gay brother and me for being a whacked out liberal. Even my own mother has evolved into a pseudo racist. That I never saw coming. My views have been consistent throughout mt life. I’ve watched the two sides waiver back and forth, yet I have delicately balanced back and forth, even while raising children. In fact, whenever I found myself in a line of work that challenged my integrity, I moved on rather than letting it define a new me. So many people I know have drastically changed. Oddly, the ones who have grown more conservative are those who have triumphed financially. It’s as if the more they get the more they want.

    • I don’t like it either. There is an antagonistic atmosphere that has overtaken our society. It seems that some people have embraced this antagonism and allowed it to rule their lives.

      I’m sorry to hear about your family.

      My parents are strong conservatives. I disagree with them all the time, but we have kept it from ruining our relationship.

      I did notice that it has been more challenging this past decade. It’s hard for me to say in which ways I may have changed. I do know my parents have changed. In recent yeard it has become increasingly difficult to find a middleground on issues.

    • I’ve been reading some books on economic inequality, one of them being the first book quoted above. The other books on economic inequality that I’ve been perusing are focused more on the data itself instead of the larger view of ideological history. So far, a few conclusions have stood out to me.

      Rising economic inequality is correlated with all kinds of social problems from violent crime to disease, although I’m not sure that anyone has yet proven direct lines of causation. However, it seems obvious that economic inequality will lead to less resources being available to the general public and so the problems of the general public are less likely to get the resources needed.

      Relevant to this post, some researchers have also found a correlation between rising economic inequality and rising political polarization, especially among conservatives. Furthermore, with rising economic inequality, conservatives increasingly support political positions that cause economic inequality to rise even higher: tax cuts for the rich, cutting benefits to the poor and needy, voter suppression laws, etc.

      Also, other researchers have proven that the issues that politicians focus on are the issues the wealthy class focuses on. Politicians, of course, spend little time on the issues of the lower classes. As economic inequality rises, the wealthy become wealthier which means their political influence increases and government resources increasingly are taken away from the lower classes in order to be given to the upper classes. This undermines all of democracy.

      However, it isn’t simple class war. Wealthy conservatives achieve this focus on inequality and polarization by preying on the fears of lower class social conservatives, in particular evangelists. During times of lower economic inequality, on the other hand, you’ll see wealthy progressives as the leaders in lessening inequality.

      Anyway, the conclusion I came to is the following. Liberals are at a disadvantage and democracy is dysfunctional when economic inequality and polarization are high. It is precisely at this time that conservatives are able to dominate. They seek to increase inequality and polarization for the simple reason that it increases their power and influence.

      I wouldn’t say this is a conspiracy, although I’m sure many of the political strategists in Washington understand this phenomenon. For most Americans, they don’t comprehend the impact inequality and polarizatioin has. Most conservatives aren’t bad people, but times like these bring out the worse in conservatives. it’s very sad. I don’t think the average conservative sees what is happening or understands why it matters. For liberals, it is impossible not to notice how much things have changed.

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