what is a republic?

In Colorado, fiscal policy is strongly constrained by a referendum called the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights (Tabor). A lawsuit has been filed to overturn Tabor on the grounds that Colorado is no longer a republic if an elected legislature cannot determine the budget. Not being a republic would violate the US Constitution, Article 4, clause 1: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government …”

I believe that Tabor is bad policy, and it’s generally wiser for a legislature to determine a budget than for voters to make fiscal policy through the ballot box, because the legislative process requires a comprehensive, deliberative look at all revenues and expenses, whereas a referendum can enact inconsistent requirements. (See: California.) But I don’t believe a court should declare that Colorado isn’t a “republic”; the word is simply too contested.

The Romans coined res publica to describe their own regime from ca. 509-59 BCE. Ever since, people have examined the Romans’ complex and evolving constitution and have seen various aspects of it as salient. They have defined a “republic” accordingly. For example:

1. Sometimes it just means an alternative to a monarchy, for the Roman Republic legendarily originated with the overthrow of a king and ended with the rise of the Caesars. Removing a monarch can be a revolutionary moment–or it can be symbolic. In countries like Canada and Australia, “republicans” are proponents of removing Elizabeth II as the titular sovereign. The effects on power and policy would be very modest. By this definition, Colorado is certainly republican because it has no king or queen.

2. We might say that there is something specifically problematic about a monarchy, even if the ruler is benign or his powers have been sharply limited by other institutions. The monarch’s power is arbitrary because it is not rooted in something like the consent of the governed. “Republicanism” has sometimes been defined as non-domination, and even constitutional monarchies are perhaps tainted by some degree of domination because the sovereign inherits her office. Again, by this definition, Colorado is republican.

3. The etymology of the word is “public thing [res],” perhaps better translated as “public property” or “commonwealth.” That marks an important distinction. The United Kingdom is highly democratic; almost all power is vested in a directly elected, unicameral legislature, which controls the nation’s laws and institutions. But in theory, those institutions belong to the crown. It is the Royal Navy, Her Majesty’s Prison Service, and the Royal Mail, Ltd. When Oliver Cromwell¬† monopolized power, “By the Grace of God and Republic, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland,” the nation was much less democratic than it is now, but its laws and institutions were seen as public property. Cromwell governed but did not own the navy, the courts, etc. Similarly, a communist state may claim to be a “people’s republic” because the nation’s goods are publicly owned (even if they are managed by tyrants). By this definition, Colorado is clearly republican.

4. The Roman Republic had elected officials, such as Tribunes, as well as hereditary officials, like Senators. Laws were made by direct popular votes and by small legislative bodies. In short, Rome depended on limited popular sovereignty–in contrast to a pure democracy, where the people would assemble and vote on everything. This is the distinction at the heart of the Colorado lawsuit, which asserts that the state has become a democracy and not a republic. But Colorado, like ancient Rome, has a mix of offices and processes, including a legislature that retains power and an independent judiciary. Maybe the state is a little less republican than it used to be, but it’s hard to see how it has crossed a bright line.

5. Republican Romans believed in civic duty. Gentlemen were expected to serve in the army and to take part arduously in public life as orators and leaders. The ideal was the soldier/statesman. Civic life was held in¬† much higher regard than private life or market exchange. It could even be called sacred, because religion and government were deeply enmeshed. When Renaissance Italian city states revived republicanism, they were mainly interested in republican virtues. In contrast, today’s liberal regimes prize what Benjamin Constant called “the liberty of the moderns”: the freedom to live one’s own life as independently as possible. So one definition of republicanism is a culture or political order that expects a lot from its citizens. Civic participation as an intrinsic good, not a cost. By this definition, Colorado is not very republican, but neither are the other states or the United States as a whole.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.