Recovering the Republican Sensibility (Andy Smarick, Winter 2024, National Affairs)

There is not an agreed-upon definition of “republicanism.” Indeed, views on republicanism have evolved over two millennia. It can, however, be generally understood to begin with a sensibility, a way of seeing citizens and public life. Five principles outline this sensibility.

First, citizens of a republic are self-ruling and equal. In a republic, the government’s legitimacy flows from its citizens. Republican citizens are on equal footing before the law; they have equal duties and powers to shape the state.

Second, citizens of a republic should demonstrate “republican virtue.” When rulers have near-total power, individuals are expected to be passive while their rulers govern; when the people have power, they have a duty to be engaged in matters affecting the community. Active, constructive participation in public life is thus essential to republican government. Citizens must behave in ways that help the community succeed, including acting with honesty and civility, avoiding corruption and self-dealing, and putting public benefit ahead of private gain.

Third, democracy is the primary means of reaching decisions in a republic. Citizens may vote directly on public matters, or they may vote for representatives who in turn vote on such matters. Republicanism allows for non-elected administrators and judges, but these officials exercise the authority delegated to them by the people, and must operate within the rules the people establish.

Fourth, citizens of a republic must advance the common good. Issues affecting the community are public, not private matters. Republicanism does not tolerate nepotism or cronyism; a citizen should never see a community issue as an opportunity to advance his personal interest or the cause of his family or friends. Similarly, community decisions are not the concern of just the elite; all citizens contribute to the community’s good. This work is the substance of citizenship and the glue that bonds a community together.

Fifth, republicanism requires an active but limited government. Republicanism intends for the state to play a role in advancing the common good, but the state isn’t authorized to do anything and everything. The state can be limited via enumerated powers, individual liberties, and rights to procedures like due process. Republicanism does not emphasize expansive negative rights, but the state cannot rule arbitrarily and cannot dominate individuals or society.

These five pillars do not amount to a formula, or even quite a formal definition. But they describe the contours of republicanism as the founders of the American system of government understood it, and as we might understand it now.