Republicanism: Cynicism and Nobility in Theory and Practice

Michael Anton, Author and Speechwriter
February 24, 2007

Republican or (in modern parlance “democratic”) government is held in conflicting regard today. On the one hand, people throughout the world, and especially in the West, regard some form of representative government by consent as the only legitimate, respectable form of government—or at least something to which all countries should aspire when they reach the appropriate level of social, political and economic development. On the other hand, these very same citizens—and especially the more intellectually inclined—have low opinions of their own government, its history, and especially its leaders. They are often inclined to believe the worst about the behavior of politicians, the people, and their nation as a whole. How warranted is this cynicism about republican government? Is it something new? Or does it have roots in the Western political and philosophic tradition? How does America fare by comparison to the theory of republicanism and practice of republics throughout history? To what extent is cynicism about American institutions and actions warranted?

Michael Anton is a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He currently works for a powerful media mogul and lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife and small child.

Session One

Focus: We will look at Xenophon’s Education of Cyrusas representative of classical political philosophy in general and of classical republicanism (or least its best face) in particular. Republican or democratic governments flourished in the ancient world before going into eclipse for at least 1,500 years. What was the classics’ view of republicanism? Were they admirers? Detractors? Qualified supporters? What were their reservations?

Then we will turn to Machiavelli and his two-fold reputation. For many centuries, Machiavelli was regarded as a teacher of evil. More recent generations of scholars and readers have instead interpreted him as a patriot and republican who was unfairly maligned for daring to speak unpleasant truths. Whatever else one may say about Machiavelli, it is certainly true that he revived republicanism as an idea and put it once again on the path to political possibility. Why did he do so? What are his true views of republicanism?

Readings:

  • Xenophon, Education of Cyrus, Book I
  • Machiavelli, The Prince, Chs. 6 & 16.
  • Machiavelli, The Discourses, Book I, Chs. 1, 5, 6, 9, & 37;Book II, Chs. 2 & 8.

Session Two

Focus: We will look at the Federalist Papers. The early essays argue for the utility of a federal union in preparation for making a detailed case in favor of the Constitution of 1787. In so doing, they lay out a broad case in favor of republican government. These papers state and address potential against republican government, and about its suitability for the American circumstance. How does this case measure up against the classical account of republican government? How much, if anything, do the American founders owe to Machiavelli? How respectable——how noble——was their intent for the American republic? Is there a conscious or unconscious cynicism lurking underneath the surface? And, finally, how worthy of respect is the American republic itself in terms of its ideals, its institutions, and its historical practice?

Readings:

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