The United States, as you know, was founded as a republic, not simply as a democracy. The distinction has been lost over the past few decades, but it is an important one.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
The believers in a democracy have unlimited faith in the character and judgment of the people and believe that political institutions should be responsive to their desires. The believers in a republic have large but limited faith in the character and judgment of the people and erect institutions and barriers to improve that character and guide that judgment.
America’s founders were republicans. This was not simply elitism, a matter of some rich men distrusting the masses. This was a belief that ran through society and derived from an understanding of history. As Irving Kristol put it in a brilliant 1974 essay called “Republican Virtue vs. Servile Institutions,” “The common man is not a fool, and the proof is that he has such modest faith in himself.”
The first citizens of this country erected institutions to protect themselves from their own shortcomings. We’re familiar with some of them: the system of checks and balances, the Senate, etc. More important, they believed, was public spiritedness — a system of habits and attitudes that would check egotism and self-indulgence.
As Kristol points out in the essay, the meaning of the phrase “public spiritedness” has flipped since the 18th century. Now we think a public-spirited person is somebody with passionate opinions about public matters, one who signs petitions and becomes an activist for a cause.
In its original sense, it meant the opposite. As Kristol wrote, it meant “curbing one’s passions and moderating one’s opinions in order to achieve a large consensus that will ensure domestic tranquility.” Instead of self-expression, it meant self-restraint. It was best exemplified in the person of George Washington.
Over the years, the democratic values have swamped the republican ones. We’re now impatient with any institution that stands in the way of the popular will, regarding it as undemocratic and illegitimate. Politicians see it as their duty to serve voters in the way a business serves its customers. The customer is always right.
A few things have been lost in this transition. Because we take it as a matter of faith that the people are good, we are no longer alert to arrangements that may corrode the character of the nation. For example, many generations had a moral aversion to debt. They believed that to go into debt was to indulge your basest urges and to surrender your future independence. That aversion has clearly been overcome.
We no longer have a leadership class — of the sort that existed as late as the Truman and Eisenhower administrations — that believes that governing means finding an equilibrium between different economic interests and a balance between political factions. Instead, we have the politics of solipsism. The political culture encourages politicians and activists to imagine that the country’s problems would be solved if other people’s interests and values magically disappeared.
The democratic triumph has created a nation that runs up huge debt and is increasingly incapable of finding a balance between competing interests. Today, the country faces three intertwined economic challenges. We have to make the welfare state fiscally sustainable. We have to do it in a way that preserves the economic dynamism in the country — that provides incentives for creative destruction. We also have to do it in a way that preserves social cohesion — that reduces the growing economic and lifestyle gaps between the educated and less educated.
These three goals are in tension with one another, but to prosper America has to address all three at the same time.
Voters will have to embrace institutional arrangements that restrain their desire to spend on themselves right now. Political leaders will have to find ways to moderate solipsistic tribalism and come up with tax and welfare state reforms that balance economic dynamism and social cohesion.
Over the past months, there has been some progress in getting Americans to accept the need for self-restraint. With their various budget approaches, the Simpson-Bowles commission, Paul Ryan and President Obama have sent the message that politics can no longer be about satisfying voters’ immediate needs. The public hasn’t bought it yet, but progress is being made.
There has been less progress in getting political leaders to come up with compromises that balance dynamism and cohesion. Republicans still mostly talk about incentives for growth, and Democrats still mostly talk about economic security. The breakthrough, if there is one, will come from the least directly democratic parts of the government, from the Senate or some commission of Establishment bigwigs. It will be enacted when voters realize we need to build arrangements to protect ourselves from our own weaknesses. It will all depend on reviving the republican virtues upon which the country was founded.