A republic worth keeping

The American right strives to subvert representative democracy, with a curated electorate that will protect the privileges of a white, patriarchal ownership class, regardless of popular will.

This has been a dedicated project for at least 50 years, and is poised to shift America further toward that end, perhaps very soon.

Contemplating that possibility today, it occurred to me that this is actually much like the reality of America’s republic at its very outset.

Morton Halperin ends a new Slate article with a familiar story about Ben Franklin, and a familiar message:

When the Constitution was being drafted behind closed doors, many feared that the Framers would create a monarchy. As Benjamin Franklin left the hall as the meeting was ending, they shouted at him: “What is it?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Our ability to do so is being tested now. We must seize the moment to reestablish the republic that we were given.

We were given a republic which functioned to subvert representative democracy, with a curated electorate to protect the privileges of a white, patriarchal ownership class. We have not kept that republic, exactly, but I think the contemporary Republican Party is reestablishing it to a significant extent, and that this is the real threat, for all of Trump’s attraction to kingship.

We should not reestablish that original republic. We should, instead, reckon honestly with what it was, and with the long and far from finished efforts which went into creating a system of government worth defending.

Let’s be realistic, here. The republic originally established by the Constitution involved:

  • A curated electorate, in which the franchise was narrowly restricted and malapportionment (e.g. in the construction of the Senate) further distanced government from representational democracy
  • White privilege, most obviously and odiously demonstrated in the three-fifths compromise
  • Patriarchy, just as obviously, since women’s exclusion from the activities of governance was total, and both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were entirely content that this continue
  • Ownership; the whole system was set up by and for substantial property owners, and here too did nothing to change a requirement for property ownership even to be a voter, which was common in much of the nascent republic

In my lifetime, American culture has largely looked back at this and interpreted “the republic” of Franklin as a promise and a vision, greater than the shabby compromises made by the hero-visionaries of national mythology.

Yet I think, in the interests of clarity, it’s worth reexamining what the word “republic” even means. A lot of us, myself included, use the term interchangeably with “representative democracy” but it really is not the same thing.

The Merriam-Webster definitions of “republic” are pretty loose when it comes to being democratic or representational. The phrase “a body of citizens entitled to vote,” for example, is fully compatible with almost any extreme of disenfranchisement you can imagine. Certainly there is much overlap between potential definitions of “republic” and “oligarchy.”

On some level, at least, I do think this matters. I think that imprecision about language and a normalization of fudging its meaning to suit wants, instead of accurately communicate about reality, is a real component of our society’s larger decay.

Imprecision here—responding to the threat of a white patriarchal oligarchy with wistful nostalgia for a republic which was actually founded as that very thing—seems particularly detrimental to building support for the kind of real departures, from what has gone before, which we need in order to get closer to fairness.

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