Bo Li, Republicanism and Democracy

Bo Li, Republicanism and Democracy



What is republicanism? What is its relationship with the theory and practice of democracy?

As I mentioned in the last essay, republicanism is regarded as one of the four sources of democratic theory and practice. However, republicanism is not attributable to ancient Greece; it was instead exemplified by republican Rome (510-23 BC) and was revived by the Italian city-states in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. Instead of emphasizing the importance of “rule by the people” and the ideal of political equality (as the classical democracy does), the classical republicanism advocates self-government, mixed constitution and the need for a government that reflects the interests not only of “the many (the people),” but also of “the one (the monarch)” and “the few (the aristocrats),” which in pre-modern days were regarded as two distinct classes separate from the people (“the many”).

Republicanism was revived to fight against the claims of natural rights to rule by monarchs and churches in medieval Europe. As such, the first key proposition of the Renaissance republicanism is self-government. The classical republicanism, facing various claims of natural rights to rule, posits that a government should answer to no one other than the community of people that it governs. The possibility and institutions of self-government is at the core of the classical republicanism, and the basic idea of sovereignty of people is an important contribution of republicanism to the modern theory of democracy. According to the Renaissance republicanism, an independent and self-governing people, together with the right of citizens to participate in the government and a constitutional framework assigning definite roles to various social groups, forms the basis of liberty.

As a corollary of the first proposition, the second important proposition of the classical republicanism is that government power should be derived from a great majority of the people, not from god or other supernatural forces, nor from a small group of privileged individuals. Since a republican government has to be accountable to the community as a whole, its power can only be derived from the community as a whole.
In addition, the classical republicanism posits that a government must have a mixed constitution in order to be legitimate and stable. Governments that are in the exclusive control of “the one” (monarchy), “the few” (aristocracy) or “the many” (democracy) are illegitimate because none of the groups can represent the community as a whole. Only a government that incorporates the interests of all groups can be truly legitimate. This government is called a republican government. The republican government is also stable because few people can complain that their voices are not heard.

To be sure, many of the classical republicanism’s premises and propositions are the same as those of democracy. The classical republicanism and the classical democracy have the same goals: a society sustained by civic virtue, in which people live a happy life by devoting to public good and committing to civic duties. People are by nature political and social, according to the classical political thinkers, and that is why people can be happy only by living in a political association.

The major difference between the classical republicanism and the classical democracy lies in their different approaches to the ideal society. Republicanism emphasizes the importance of a mixed government stabilized by incorporating the preferences of various classes of the society (meaning, a great majority of the society), while democracy focuses on the interests of “the many” which, as mentioned above, was regarded in pre-modern ages as a distinct and different class from “the one” (monarch) and “the few” (aristocrats). In other words, the classical republicanism demands a broad social basis for self government (which, as we will see below, survives as a central element of modern republicanism), and it posits that any government controlled by one class is both illegitimate and unstable; in contrast, the classical democracy favors participation of the people (“the many”) in the political process and focuses on the ideals of liberty and political equality.
There is another difference between the classical republicanism and the classical democracy: while the classical Greek democracy elates the potentials of civic virtue, the Roman republicanism is more concerned with the fragility of the civic virtue. As such, the classical republicanism is closer to the modern liberalism’s assumptions about human nature; i.e., people are short-sighted, impulsive and prone to vanity and passion. The major threat to civic virtue, according to the classical republicanism, is factions and political conflicts. As such, the major task of republicanism is to design a system of mixed government so that different interests are balanced and civic virtue is maintained.
The third difference between republicanism and democracy is historically obvious. The classical republicanism tries to find the truly legitimate source of government power. In contrast, the classical democracy does not concern itself with this question; instead, the Athenians are more concerned with political equality and political participation. To Athenians, there is no question about legitimate source of government power because the people is the government and the government is the people. In this sense, the classical republicanism foreshadows the modern theory of representative government and liberal democracy, because it implicitly draws an distinction between “the government” and “the people.”

As two examples, we will take a look at the Roman Empire and the city republics in 12th-century Italy. The Roman Empire is regarded as republican for two reasons. First, the Roman people were regarded as highly virtuous and actively participating in the political process. Second, with its system of consuls, Senate, and tribunes of the people, the Roman Empire maintained a mixed constitution that accommodated and contained various social forces in the public domain. Similarly, the 12th-century Italian city-states were republican because of their ideals and institutions of self-government. Their systems of government consisted of ruling councils headed by “podesta,” officials with supreme executive and judicial powers. Podesta were elected officials with limited terms, and they were accountable to the ruling councils and ultimately to the citizens of the republic. In feudal Europe, the self-governing Italian city republics were remarkable because “they represented an explicit challenge to the prevailing assumption that government must be regarded as a God-given form of lordship” (Skinner).
The classical republicanism later developed into two strands, which are called protective republicanism and developmental republicanism by Professor David Held. The major figure in protective republicanism is Niccolo Machiavelli. An often misunderstood thinker, Machiavelli points out the important connection between republicanism and individual liberty. Unlike the classical republicans, Machiavelli is among the first to foresee the modern distinction between “the public” and “the private.” In an often neglected but very important treatise titled The Discourses, Machiavelli does not believe that there is a natural or God-given way of organizing the political order. To Machiavelli, it is the task of “politics” to create order in the world, and the objective of politics is to strive to gain, maintain and use power. At the same time, a nation can never become strong and dominating unless its people have been enjoying liberty, and the way to guarantee liberty is to have a mixed constitution, not to meddle with people’s private life, and to expand by constantly engaging in wars. In the end, however, Machiavelli places collective and national interest above individual liberties, and he is concerned more with national strength than with individual happiness. As such, like his classical predecessors, Machiavelli is ultimately an illiberal republican.

The most important figure in developmental republicanism is J.J. Rousseau. To Rousseau, the appeal of republicanism lies not in its potential in guaranteeing the private liberty of individuals, but in its ability to develop human potentials and to unleash the “general will.” Rousseau is no liberal, but his influence in republican and democratic theories is enduring. Like his classical predecessors, Rousseau does not see the value of a “private sphere;” indeed, Rousseau hates the private sphere. The existence of a private sphere, with its accompanying inequality in wealth, vanity and distortions, causes much of the human sufferings. Rousseau wants people to live independently and transparently, and only the “general will” of the people can lead people to happiness and freedom. Rousseau sees a republican democracy as the way to general will and freedom.

As time passes by, the classical republicanism encounters various difficulties. One major difficulty is that it became harder and harder to distinguish between “the one,” “the few,” and “the many” in a society. As such, modern republicanism has abandoned the centrality of mixed constitution in classical republicanism. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of a broad social basis for government power. As James Madison puts it in his famous Federalist Papers No. 39, a republican government is “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.” In addition, as Professor Robert Dahl points out, separation of power, not mixed constitution, is more important to modern republicanism.
In modern terms, republicanism and democracy are no longer incompatible. Instead, they tend to focus on different aspects of the same political regime, and they are complementary to each other. Republicanism explains the source and nature of governmental power in a democracy, while democracy provides the mechanism for a government to be truly republican. In addition, the classical idea of mixed constitution, and the modern idea of separation of power, can be regarded as a way to control the problem of democratic tyranny.
Another difficulty for the classical republicanism is about the size of a republic. Can a republic be a large nation-state? How can republican ideals be realized in a large nation-state? Most of the classical republicans are worried that, as a country gets larger, a republican regime becomes unstable due to the factional disputes and endless quarrels. However, this worry was alleviated by the “discovery” of representative government in the 18th and 19th century. We will discuss the theory of representative government in the next essay. Additionally, the American Federalists argued in 1787 that a republican regime is not only possible, but also necessary, for a large country like the United States of America.

How to evaluate the classical republicanism? To be sure, most of the liberal democratic states of our time have the remnants of the classical mixed constitution. The United Kingdom, with its system of the Queen (the monarch), the House of Lords (with some remaining aristocratic arrangements) and the House of Commons (representatives of the people), is a quintessential example of mixed constitution in modern times. Even in the United States, there are elements of democracy (the use of various referenda), aristocracy (the existence of an entrenched class of social and political elites), and monarchy (the existence of a powerful President). The continuing existence of mixed constitutions proves the enduring influence of republicanism. More importantly, the republican lesson that government power must be from a great majority of the people has become a central element of the modern theory and practice of democracy. When we examine the modern liberal democratic states, we find that some of the core propositions of the republican tradition — such as its anti-monarchical spirit and its concern with the corruption of public life by private interests — have been maintained and combined with the later liberal ideas and institutions.

(The author Bo Li is an associate at the New York law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the author’s and should not be attributed to Davis Polk & Wardwell.)

1. Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critiques. Yale University Press, 1989.
2. Held, David. Models of Democracy (2nd Edition). Stanford University Press, 1996.
3. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
4. Madison, James. The Federalist Papers, No. 39.
5. Rousseau, J. J. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968


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