The word “republic” comes from the Latin phrase “res publica”, meaning literally “the public thing,” but better translated as “the public affair” or interest. As a term to describe our government, it is so much more evocative and instructional than the word “democracy,” which is used more frequently. Democracy simply means rule of the people, outlining the origination of political power but without suggesting in any way its proper administration or ends. This term and the context of its usage tend to emphasize the right of each person to a say in the political process, rather than the responsibility of that same person to dutifully tend to its health.
But the word republic in its very etymology speaks to the public interest, implying the notion that there is indeed a set of abstract goods that can be said to collectively constitute the public interest. The promotion and preservation of this interest, however it is termed, is the whole end of government.
Indeed, without such a public interest, what would be the need for a government? If all that existed were private interests, there could hardly be a role for a third party, who would only ever favor one interest to the detriment of another.
It’s a hard pill for the modern mind to swallow, but the theoreticians of the fledgling United States wanted voting restrictions in elections, not to advance the elite classes at the expense of everyone else, but because they thought that the majority of the uneducated population couldn’t be trusted to act in the interest of the long-term public good instead of using the government for their own selfish gain. Of course, with the advent of free public education and the mass dissemination of information in the modern era, we have truly become both a republic and a democracy; everyone can and should make an informed decision about their governance. But the principle of republican responsibility to maintain the public interest remains, though it grows ever fainter, a refrain in the national conversation.
It has been a favorite tactic of the GOP for some time now to decry certain political measures as ‘socialism.’ This, along with an incessant insistence that the power of the free market can solve every societal ill, has blurred the line between a well-defined public interest and the ever-feared socialism. Socialism, at least in its more severe forms, does not recognize any distinction between the public and private spheres. Since the public interest is defined as economic equality, the government can intercede in the affairs of its citizens toward this end.
A republic, on the other hand, guarantees freedom within the private sphere as it is delineated, subjecting only the public sphere to regulation. The public sphere is that which benefits everyone without prejudice in the broadest sense possible, and is the sphere of government intervention, negatively through regulation and positively through public works. These acts of government are aimed at facilitating economic and cultural exchange between private individuals, or put another way, enhancing the quality of life, insofar as it can be done in a way accessible to all.
Over the last 50 years the public sphere, both as an idea and an actual portion of national life, has been continually shrinking at the expense of the private sphere. Entertainment, socialization and even political discourse have shifted from public spaces into private homes. At the same time, the language of free-market economics has been abused, much as the language of Darwinian evolution was abused a century ago, to justify dismantling the public interest for the sake of enriching private interests. The productive power of greed has its own purposes where markets are concerned, but the idea of individualism has overstepped its natural bounds. The language of self-interest has grown so pervasive that the very idea of a public interest is in danger – an idea without which no individual comfort, nor cultural enrichment, is possible.
For too long now, the all-or-nothing mentality between the public and private spheres has blurred the line between tyrannical socialism and a healthy public interest. The political opportunists who label opponents as socialists only make socialism and its lack of freedoms more probable, by effectively destroying any middle ground based on wholesome American tradition. The ‘Occupy’ movements throughout the country are a tremendous leap forward in restarting the national conversation. Their most admirable quality, by far, is not any political demand, but the act of reclaiming the public sphere, as an idea and as an actual space. Without a sense of community; of shared responsibility; of a vested interest in the healthy maintenance of public goods, and therefore the administration of the government; our republic and its wonderful way of life cannot survive. The time is now for a rebirth of the truly republican spirit.
Gavin Beeker is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.