Defining a Republic

An essay on the normative aspects of republicanism.

Welcome to the Self-Evident newsletter. Today, I decided to share with you the bulk and essence of the essay I wrote as my final paper for my Comparative Politics class this past semester. This one’s a bit more technical, but I learned quite a bit putting it together and hopefully some of you will find it of worth.

Defining a Republic

What is a republic? Is it just a word we throw out there? Are there are any normative aspects we can define to describe what constitutes a republic?

In initially considering these questions, it might seem simple and straight-forward, but the answers are deceptively elusive. Various forms of government have gone under the label republic and even more have used the term to describe themselves, even if many typical elements of what’s understood to be a republic are missing.

But before we can delve further into this inquiry, we have to answer an additional question to determine our path of discussion: should the focus of the original question be the empirical aspects of the actual regimes which are considered or declare themselves to be republics or should the focus be the normative aspects of what republican ideologies aspire to build? Each path has its shortcomings.  

Focusing only on what is and not on what ought to be can lead us to a cynical analysis of representative government, and without consideration of a society’s ideological impulses, we might conflate aspects of human nature with aspects of republicanism and provide a woefully inaccurate summary of what a republic is.

Conversely, focusing simply on what ought to be and not on what is would lead us to a vague assessment, a wishful preponderance of a system of government that, without considerations of reality, would only actually exist in our minds. 

But perhaps my secondary question creates a false dichotomy. Must we choose one or the other path? Perhaps the best way forward is to combine the positive aspects of both the scientific and the philosophical approach, whereby we can offset their negative aspects. But, this too has its problems. As Hume suggests, it is not always easy, and indeed can sometimes be impossible, to draw a straight line from an is to an ought. 

The North Korean state declares itself to be a democratic republic. We can compile lists of data comparing it to other countries that call themselves republics and reach an empirical conclusion that North Korea is not, in fact, a republic. We can say, based on the data, that that is not what it is.

But that data could not tell us conclusively what North Korea ought to be to be a true republic. Are the nations we compared North Korea to true republics? Must a republic take a unique form to thrive in North Korea? How effective would republicansim even be in North Korea? 

The great millstone hanging around the neck of the field of Political Science is that it has given as its focus establishing what is and leaving what ought to be largely to philosophers and politicians. And, even when it does attempt to provide prescriptive conclusions, it does so while trying to draw a straight line from the is to the ought, so as to maintain its jealous description of itself as a science. 

But politics is the struggle of individuals for dominion, influence, and order. Government is the organizing of individuals into a cohesive society. And humans are far too complex as creatures to be easily deduced into data that clearly contrives what is and clearly demonstrates what ought to be. 

So, I choose as my emphasis political ideology, political philosophy, and the normative theories that attempt to proscribe what ought to be. However, to ground this approach in relevancy, I will ensure it is informed by what is. 

What we, today, classify as a republic has among its essential influences three historical political developments from three different regions of the world.  

The first is its most basic aspect and was developed by the Greeks who originated the term, democracy. Stemming from the combination of the Greek words demos and kratia, we’re given an essential meaning of “rule by the common people.” A democracy, then, is fundamentally a participatory form of government where all citizens could have a say on any given issue. This gives us our first fundamental aspect of a republic: participation. 

The second influence comes to us from Rome, who adopted and popularized the term, republic. The term itself bears essentially the same meaning as the Greek word democracy, stemming from the Latin term res publica, or the “public affair.” But the term, as used to describe the traditions that developed during the era of the Roman Republic and continuing through the institution of the Roman Senate in the imperial era, came to include in its basic description the rise and development of representative government and political contest between factions.

These ideas and traditions were preserved in Latin texts and survived the fall of Rome to be resurrected by Christian monks and Renaissance thinkers, ensuring the perpetuation of our second fundamental aspect of a republic: competition. 

The final influence is the nation considered the cradle of modern representative government: Great Britain. As an island country, generally insulated from continuous conflict and conquest, both its form of monarchy and feudalism took different directions than its continental European cousins.

Starting with the Magna Carta, progressing to the establishment of Parliamentarian sovereignty as part of the Glorious Revolution, and culminating in the many texts that constitute the early and establishing theories of classical liberalism, including the writings of John Locke and Adam Smith, Great Britain was the predominant actor in establishing our third fundamental aspect of a republic: individual liberty and natural rights. 

Taken together, these three fundamental aspects give the basic definition of a republic (or liberal democracy) as provided by Patrick O’Neil: “Political power exercised either directly or indirectly through participation, competition, and liberty.” 

But how is this best achieved? Do modern republics, such as the United Kingdom and Japan, live up to this definition? Can they live up to it? Are alternate definitions of republicanism and different approaches to representative government more possible or more ethical? Do these three basic fundamental aspects need to be expanded? 

The United Kingdom has possibly the most powerful legislative body in the world. Without a written constitution and with an executive branch that essentially operates as an extension of parliament, the United Kingdom’s representative body can project its will with near impunity. The United Kingdom maintains its traditions of liberty, its legislative body is selected through popular election, and different factions and parties compete peacefully for power within the pluralist framework of the system. It is a republic as determined by our basic definition.

But these aspects are held together simply by deference to established norms and traditions of the British society, namely through the institution of common law. If the will to hold to this deference were to ever fail in the hearts of British citizens or its political leaders, what firm guide rails exist in the British system to hold them to the path of republicanism? 

Most other republics in the world, including Japan and the United States, have established constitutions that ensure a limited mandate to the government. These documents hold the force of law and ensure against the arbitrary use of power, which can easily frustrate the republican values of a society. This seems to be a most prudent avenue to take in establishing and preserving a republican society, especially when a country lacks the similar traditions to the United Kingdom’s (a liberal order and common law).

But should this principle of prudence be solidified as a fourth fundamental aspect? Should the rise of the United States and its experience in building a constitutional republic from the ground up be added to our basic definition? Perhaps our proper and basic definition of a republic would be improved and more precise if it said: “Political power exercised under a limited mandate either directly or indirectly through participation, competition, and liberty.” 

However, the experiences of Japan may give us pause to create a definition that might exclude the United Kingdom as a fully actuated republic while still including Japan.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, while Japan has a constitution that provides perhaps the most impressive enumeration of individual rights in the free world. But, the United Kingdom has largely lived up to its aims of republicanism through the long establishment of a liberal tradition. In contrast, Japan has struggled to remain committed to the values of republicansim despite the high-mindedness of its establishing document. 

The aspects of participation in Japan are questionable, since the bureaucracy ultimately determines the country’s path. The aspects of competition in Japan are uncertain, since a single political party has dominated the government since the inception of its republican form. And even the aspects of liberty are in doubt, since Japan has established its economic rise largely on the backs of mercantilist principles and has set economic dominance as its most valued goal, possibly at the expense of individual liberties and especially consumer freedom and individual entrepreneurship.  

Clearly, Japan is still developing its cultural conversion to the principles of republicanism as we have laid out in our working definition, despite the presence of a nearly all-encompassing, written constitution. Perhaps, while a limited mandate can be a solid aspect of an established republic, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of a newly developed fundamental aspect. But before we can conclusively determine the limited mandate’s importance, we should consider the case of the United States. 

In the United States, its constitution is foundational both for the law and also for political philosophy and political contest. On its framework, a society has risen that has strong traditions of holding to liberal principles, even if those principles are often interpreted differently by disparate political factions. So, what has allowed a written constitution to be so powerful in the United States yet less immediately successful in Japan? For our answer, we can once again turn to the traditions of the United Kingdom. 

The United States began as colonies under the British crown. The United States’ traditions arise from the same traditions that built up the foundations of republicanism in the United Kingdom. The political norms and institutions of the United States are essentially a system with multiple aspects grafted in from other societies and heavily influenced by the philosophy and culture of the English tradition. With this cultural tradition of belief in the liberal order, the US Constitution is given its power as a grounding force in American society. 

We can conclude, then, that the notion of a limited mandate may very well be a new fundamental aspect in the development of republicanism, but only if it is wed to a cultural commitment to republicanism. If we are to expand our definition to include a limited mandate, it must be further expanded. It could read as follows: “Political power exercised under a limited mandate either directly or indirectly through participation, competition, and liberty in a culture committed to a free society.” 

These five elements, then, are what I can conclude to be the normative aspects for which a republic should strive: participation, competition, liberty, a limited mandate, and a cultural commitment to free society.


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Well, now that you’ve seen a bit of what I’ve been working on, I can wake up from my fall semester and enjoy a few weeks reprieve, and be human again for just a little while.


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