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.”