who are today’s republicans (in the classic sense of the word)?

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we are briefly discussing both the classical tradition of republican thought (from Cicero to John Adams) and the contributions of Black American republican thinkers of the 19th century, as described by Melvin Rogers (2020). In this brief introductory video, I identify the following components of traditional republicanism:

  • Opposition to domination (which republicanism defines as the basic problem)
  • Rule of law
  • Separation of powers
  • Deliberation
  • The common good
  • Popular participation (going beyond voting, which by itself can allow domination by the majority)
  • Anti-elitism
  • Civic virtues and an expectation of sacrifice for the common good

One of our US political parties happens to be called “Republican,” and I think that is not merely coincidental. The GOP has roots in antebellum abolitionist movements that, in turn, explicitly invoked republican ideas.

But that doesn’t mean that either of our major parties today is necessarily more republican (in the classical sense) than the other. The recent Civic Language Perceptions Project from Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) offers a chance to see how partisanship–as well as demographics–relate to classical republican ideals. Not all of the components of republicanism are tested, but some are. The data come from a nationally representative random sample of 5,000 registered voters conducted in 2021.

One component of traditional republicanism was an orientation to the common good. That phrase might seem like empty rhetoric, but classical republican authors placed the common good ahead of individual negative freedom, material prosperity, and pluralism, which they often decried as “factionalism.”

PACE asked respondents to react to the phrase “common good,” and it performed best among people who identified as “very liberal.” (See the graph above.)

Patriotism is not on my list of components of republicanism, but often the civic virtues have been defined in patriotic terms. Although some today may see patriotic rhetoric as conservative, it was fundamental to left-wing revolutionary republican movements, from France in 1789 to Mexico in 1910 to Russia in 1917. According to the PACE data, patriotism polls far better among Republicans than among Democrats: a 36-point gap. (See below.)

“Liberty” was the great principle for classical republicanism, and it polls better among Republicans than Democrats. However, some Americans may think of liberty as non-interference (simply being left alone), whereas for classical republicans, it meant non-domination (freedom from arbitrary will). This semantic ambiguity makes the result hard to interpret.

Both parties like “unity,” which was a classical republican value, but Democrats like “diversity” much more than Republicans do. Classical republicans tended to be skeptical of diversity. Therefore, either Democrats dissent from classical republicanism on this issue, or else the word “diversity” is being used in a new way–basically to mean racial equity, which Democrats like much more than Republican do: a 22-point gap. Classical republicans should have embraced racial equity, even though few actually did.

Republics require participation, also known as civic engagement, and that phrase is more popular among Democrats than Republicans.

Democracy is compatible with republicanism, although proponents of democracy tend to emphasize majority rule and responsiveness to mass opinion, whereas republicans want voting to play the limited role of checking elite domination. Madison writes, “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views, by regular vote” (Federalist 10). In this passage and many others, he’s defining “republican” as majoritarian, but his own overall view is more complex. Democrats are more favorable to the word “democracy” than Republicans are, according to the PACE data, although a majority of Republicans do support it.

On balance, one might conclude that today‚Äôs Democrats are more republican than Republicans are; but perhaps it’s more accurate to regard the classical republican tradition as marginal all across our spectrum.

PACE infographic

Source: Melvin Rogers, “Race, Domination, and Republicanism,” in Difference without Domination: Pursuing Justice in Diverse Democracies, edited by Danielle Allen and Rohini Somanathan (University of Chicago Press 2020). See also introducing republicanism; James Madison in favor of majority rule; every Republican president [until Trump] insisted that the US is a democracy; a Democratic Republican Federalist; what defines conservatism?; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution etc.