Losing Republicanism, Inheriting Leviathan

by Peter Daniel Haworth on August 8, 2011 · 14 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Economics & Empire,Politics & Power


In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously predicts that Doom will come subtly, rather than dramatically: “This is the way the world ends[,] This is the way the world ends[,] This is the way the world ends[,] Not with a bang but a whimper.” Maybe this wisdom also holds true for political systems within the City of Man. Recent Congressional action might entail such a “whimper.”

As many readers know, a new “Super Congress” is being created via the agreement to raise the debt ceiling. This consists of a special committee that will recommend fast-track legislation to the Congress for a vote. Individual members will be unable to add amendments, filibuster, or otherwise employ their traditional practices aimed at improving the legislation. Moreover, given the adverse consequences entailed in not approving the Super Congress’ proposals, members will likely rubber-stamp its actions. Ron Paul has wisely protested this new usurpation of members’ legislative authority in his recent statement:

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this deal is the ‘Super Congress’ provision.  This is nothing more than a way to disenfranchise the majority of Congress by denying them the chance for meaningful participation in the crucial areas of entitlement and tax reform.  It cedes power to draft legislation to a special commission, hand-picked by the House and Senate leadership.  The legislation produced by this commission will be fast-tracked, and Members will not have the opportunity to offer amendments. Approval of the recommendations of the “Super Congress” is tied to yet another debt ceiling increase. This guarantees that Members will face tremendous pressure to vote for whatever comes out of this commission– even if it includes tax increases.  This provision is an excellent way to keep spending decisions out of the reach of members who are not on board with the leadership’s agenda.”

Sadly, this new strategy by the “leadership” in Congress entails more rending of the republican principles of limited government. Willmoore Kendall and George Carey have argued that Publius’ Federalist teaches a Constitutional morality that aims at realizing a consensus–in the Congress and among the three branches–before major policy changes can realized (Kendall and Carey, “How to Read ‘The Federalist’,” in Contra Mundum, 415). The so-called “Super Congress” is a significant violation of such teaching. Indeed, this special committee clearly violates the very logic of Federalist #10, which recognizes the function of multiple and diverse interests in checking factions. Since less members will participate in the formation of legislation, less interests will be represented in the process. Thus, according to the logic of #10, there will be less interests serving as barriers to faction-promoting legislation.

The Federalist Papers are not perfect, and I take issue with them on a number of points. Nevertheless, to the degree that they defend true republicanism, citizens should cherish their arguments. What the coming Super Congress entails, however, is utter abandonment of the kernels of Federalist wisdom. In short, we are losing the slivers of republicanism that have been left to us in the wake of already foregone losses from the 19th and 20th centuries. We are losing republicanism, and we are inheriting a leviathan.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar JonF August 8, 2011 at 8:01 am

“Republicanism” is a rather awward term here, since there are plenty of Republics now and historically which were brutally totalitarian and/or fiercely bureaucratic. The Islamic Republic of Iran. All those People’s Republics, etc.

avatar John Médaille August 8, 2011 at 8:18 am

The Republicans do not trust the congress to control spending, even–or especially–when they control it. And they are right to have this suspicion, since the majority of the debt was built up while they were in office. So they want some mechanical means of limiting spending: automatic cuts, constitutional amendment, a “super-congress,” etc. In other words, they want to refuse the art of government.

At base, this may be just a healthy suspicion of a pure democracy. Such a democracy does not “check” faction, but magnifies it. Alas, there is no mechanical way to fix that.

avatar John Haas August 8, 2011 at 5:37 pm

This is perhaps just a tad overwrought. The special committee has certain constraints on it–but these are constraints placed upon it by the peoples’ representatives. Those senators and representatives have also established rules for themselves which they’ve worked under for ages, without having submitted them to the people first. That’s the nature of representative democracy. Those representatives still remain subject to the approval of the people. Our system may be representative, but that doesn’t make it a Leviathan.

avatar P.D.H. August 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm

The above comments are insightful, and I want to briefly respond to them. First, with respect to republicanism, there are many authoritarian regimes that call themselves republics, but these are misnomers. Such regimes do not conform to the historical standards of republicanism that developed within western civilization (e.g., limited government, separation of power, mixed regime, scale, etc.). Their self-identity as republics is likely part of the propaganda necessary to maintain legitimacy in spite of their repressiveness.

Second, I agree with John Medaille that there are major problems with a pure democratic system, but such a system was not envisioned within the Founding constitutional morality. The Federalist Papers are obviously wary of this, and the historical states themselves were hardly pure democracies given many of their property requirements for suffrage. It is fair to ask, however, whether our own system has become a pure democracy. If so, this would reveal how far we have regressed from our political inception.

Third, in response to John Haas, I think his argument proves too much. It is possible for a representative system to vote itself right out of being representative. Consider, for example, the transition from Weimar Germany to the Third Reich. The key issue to follow is the degree and trajectory of representativeness in the system. Many would argue that the current system (even without the “Super Congress”) with its ratio of one HR member of Congress for every 600,000+ Americans is far from ideal in this respect. Now with the “Super Congress” we have one member of this special committee representing multiple millions of Americans. This development is, indeed, a regression into a more non-representative, if not despotic, regime.

avatar John Haas August 9, 2011 at 10:22 am

Right. We have a republic–if we can keep it. We were never promised more than that.

But the particular structure of this republic has never been purely democratic. Case in point: the Supreme Court, where five individuals can decide the fate of some 330 million. Even there, however, the ultimate sovereignty remains with the people, who can if they so choose make the restructuring of the court a priority and vote accordingly, or they can amend the Constitution.

As long as those powers still lie in our hands, we have all the republic we were promised.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm

The people are most expressly not sovereign within the lapsed-republic. They are told they are however, and smile prettily at their fate, illustrating the fact that gullibility is the bride of patriotism in the Last Bastion of the Scoundrel Motel. Fortunately , there is only a 35% voter turnout , otherwise you’d never get a room in the Motel.

That such dupes might be sovereign is exhibit one in the choice of a Republic by the Framers.

avatar John Haas August 10, 2011 at 11:28 pm

They most certainly are sovereign. That they are also (politically) apathetic in no way qualifies their sovereignty. It merely endows their apathy with consequence.

avatar JonF August 11, 2011 at 9:01 am

Re: First, with respect to republicanism, there are many authoritarian regimes that call themselves republics, but these are misnomers.

Actually, no. A republic is any govermment that is (in theory) publicly owned. (Res Publica = “Public Thing” in Latin). As opposed to a monarchy, where the state and govermment are technically the patrimony of a monarch, or an aristocracy where it is owned corporately by a privileged class, or a theocracy where a god or gods is credited with onwerrship of the state, administered through a priestly caste. You should not use “republic” as a synonym for “good govermment”. The word is neutral, and history abounds with examples of awful republics, while the modern world gives us examples of decent and free nation that are not republics (e.g, Canada, a legal monarchy, from which country I am posting this)

avatar T. Chan August 11, 2011 at 11:17 am

“You should not use “republic” as a synonym for “good govermment”.”

He isn’t:

“Such regimes do not conform to the historical standards of republicanism that developed within western civilization (e.g., limited government, separation of power, mixed regime, scale, etc.). “

avatar Peter Haworth August 11, 2011 at 11:31 am

Thanks, John F, for the criticism. In my comment above, which you cite, I intended to imply that authoritarian regimes often do not conform to the concept of a “republican regime” as this has developed within the Western tradition (especially during the Italian Renaissance)–i.e., a regime in line with the principles of divided power (even through mixed regimes), focus on the common good, and pursuit of civic virtue. Here a normative evaluation is implied, and an authoritarian regime (e.g., a regime where all real power is concentrated in the same hands) that calls itself a republic, but that does not conform to the characteristics of republicanism, is engaging in a misnomer.

Please realize that this is not an arbitrary connotation for the term “republic.” During the ratification debate, even more rigorous definitions were employed. Here, for example, is the connotation of a “republic” employed by James Madison in Federalist #39:

“If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.”

As you can see, by this definition, many authoritarian regimes where political power is in the same hands cannot be considered republics.

I am not implying that Publius had the last word on what qualifies as a republic. The Anti-Federalists, for example, also had their own connotations that focused more rigorously on representation.

avatar Josh August 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm

I don’t wish to be pedantic, but I would have enjoyed this more if the word “fewer” had been substituted for “less” in a few places.

avatar JonF August 12, 2011 at 6:39 am

On the issue of “reopublic” I simply have to disagree. The term has a meaning and it is the one I cited: a state that is not owned by a monarch, an aristocracy or a priesthood in the name of deity. That’s it. It’s morally neutral and does imply good govermment, freedom, democracy or civil rights (The American republic was founded with slavery after all)
At the time of our Founding republics were thin on the ground. In fact I think the Dutch Republic, the several Swiss cantons, and maybe some scattered mini states (San Marino?) were the only examples, although the Founders had the vast historical example of Rome as well. The Founders were reacting to the exanples of those republics would have seen examples of states that were often freer and better run than the more extravagnt monarchial states ogf their time (although the Roman Republic was certainly not an eaxmple of “small govermment”; most of Rome’s empire was accumulated under the Republic)
Also, ere: Republic vs Democracy. The terms are not mutually exclusive since they are about somewhat different things. Republic referst o the wonership of the state; democracy to the process of its administration. Obviously there are non-democratic republic and democratic non-republics (as in Canada, already cited)

avatar D.W. Sabin August 15, 2011 at 10:43 am

Mr. Haas, regarding the “people’s sovereignty”, you are well advised, in the context of the current government, one in which Habeas Corpus is but a fond memory….amongst a growing list of fond memories, to make a distinction between what once was and what now exists.

Sentimentality is the new cranial chastity belt and I hope you are not enraptured by the current theatre of sentimentality that is used to present our current totalitarian political slide.

avatar John Haas August 19, 2011 at 9:08 am

It would have been a stretch–a long one–to call habeus corpus merely a “fond memory” even before BOUMEDIENE ET AL. v. BUSH.

But, hey, what good is habeus corpus anyway when the government’s planting chips in our heads, right?

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