In July 1979, Walter Karp published his great essay “Republican Virtues” (also known as “The Two Americas”). He published it at a time when the radical Right — the neoconservatives, dedicated as Karp writes to founding a new religion based on “consecration to the State” — were preparing to seize the country, which had been drifting away from its nationist moorings for more than a decade. The signs of nascent republicanism — demands for government transparency, for election reforms, and above all for a modest foreign policy — had put genuine fear into the country’s rulers. A people that loudly demanded two presidents’ dismissal — wartime presidents — was no longer safe for them to rule. Something had to be done, and the new republicanism would be throttled first in the humiliation and destruction of a Democratic president who spoke of the task of “citizens,” and the exaltation and triumph of a Republican president who blamed “government” for all our ills, and then reminded us of a “government right to confidentiality.” America, declared the neoconservatives, was “proud” again, and “free,” too, free of its own sacred traditions — no longer at risk of being subverted by its own republican principles.
Against so much perverting and defaming of “patriotism,” Karp wrote his essay as a sort of Declaration of Independence. He declared independence from leftists and rightists alike, finding his roots in the half-forgotten principles of the republic itself — the principles that had nothing to do with flags or fireworks. I still remember the first time I read his concluding paragraphs, shivering as I recognized in them thoughts I had always held but never quite been able to put into words. The whole essay deserves reading — and rereading, should you be so moved — but the final paragraphs sum it up. They continue to be the most succinct and powerful statement of republicanism I have ever read.
The republic is more than our form of government plus a few rudimentary maxims and memories. It embodies a profound principle of political action — an “energizing” principle, as Jefferson called it. It is supposed to operate at all times and under all conditions against oligarchy, special privilege, and arbitrary power. The energizing principle is the preservation and perfecting of self-government, the securing to each citizen of an equal voice in his own government. That grand object, as Lincoln once said, we must as republicans constantly strive for, constantly try to “approximate” even if we can never perfectly achieve it. Without its energizing principle a republic becomes a hollow form, or still worse, a ponderous hindrance.
Yet it is a truly burdensome principle to live by. It is easier to be servile than free, easier to submit to the rule of a few than to keep up the endless struggle for self-rule. It is easier to fight enemies abroad than to fight for the republic at home. That is why the virtue of virtues in a republic, as Montesquieu long ago observed, is the citizens’ love of the republic — “to be jealous of naught save the republican character of their country,” as the Workingmen’s party put it 150 years ago when it campaigned for free public schools in America. That is why the enemies of popular self-government have striven to erect and strengthen the rival cult of the nation, by war if possible, by the menace of war when there is a perilous lull in the fighting. It is the only way to undermine the people’s love of the republic and subvert among the citizenry themselves its energizing principle.
In the name of the nation, that undermining goes on unceasingly. It is the reason why the one thing never taught in our free public schools is “to be jealous of naught save the republican character” of our country. In my own schooldays we learned more about Betsy Ross and the wonders of the Panama Canal than we did about Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is no longer celebrated in a dozen states that once paid his memory that homage. Above all, it is the reason why what old Henry Cabot Lodge called the “large” foreign policy — the policy of having a busy foreign policy — has governed our foreign affairs for so many long years. It is precisely the “large” policy that keeps the nation alive and the republic in twilight.