What Is a Republic?

Author's Note

It’s a Republic

Let’s look carefully at the meaning of the word republic.

In Utah and especially in the Alpine School District, there has been much discussion in recent years about the United States’ national government being a republic, not a democracy. For that matter, the United States Constitution guarantees every state “a Republican form of Government” (Article 4, Section 4) as well. This is an important discussion — so important, in fact, that it requires us to use our words carefully and with precision. Imprecision, no matter how passionate, does not serve us well.

A republic, it is said in the local discussion, is a representative government, where the people elect their lawmakers. It is characterized by the rule of law, not the personal rule of some person, such as a king or an emperor. It is intended to avoid the considerable evils of pure, direct democracy.

Most of this is mostly true; there is a certain kind of republic which fits this description. There is also another valid term for the same sort of government, representative democracy, but we’ll leave the word democracy for another time. There’s plenty to say about the republic itself .

Our Use of Words Matters

Author's Note

Words mean things, and many of the most important words mean a range of things. Consider, for example, that love can mean anything from a selfless, divine love to something only barely on the happy side of animal lust. A five year old who declares his love for his mother means something much different from what his mother means when she says she loves him.

A man and woman who discover that they love each other would do well to explore what they mean by love long before they order the wedding invitations. Likewise, we must be careful to define our terms anytime we engage in serious discussion, legislation, or decision-making which turns on the precise meaning of words.

Writing Effective Letters to the Editor

This article first appeared at LocalCommentary.com in 2004 and is presented here slightly edited.

I’ve written a lot of letters to the editor and some opinion pieces that were published on the op/ed page, not as letters. Here’s a list of 17 things I’ve learned along the way, mostly by experience — and not all of it good experience.

Losing Our Souls at the Border

We mortals can’t have government without politics, and I’m not sure we’d want to.

Politics brings partisanship, which in small doses is healthy and in large doses is toxic. When partisanship takes command of our minds, hearts, discourse, and policy, things get very ugly. Look around.

Lately, I wonder if we still have a political soul.

I’ve watched politics and government for decades. I don’t remember things being as toxic as they are now — not even in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’m not saying we’re on the verge of civil war, or that things are as bad as when our nation was in one. But we’re now routinely forgetting that some problems are real, not just political. Among other things, this insures that we’ll make them worse.

As you’ve probably heard, children are spilling over our southern border in astonishing numbers. Many of them are unaccompanied by a parent. It’s not a new problem; it’s at least two years old. But the news of it is newer than that.

New Hymns from the Sutherland Institute

In the spirit of Edward Snowden, though I do not particularly admire him, I recently hacked into the servers at the Sutherland Institute. There I found drafts of what appears to be a new hymnal. I can’t tell from the files I found whether publication is imminent; nor can I discern the intended distribution. The new hymnal could be just for in-house pep rallies — devotionals, they probably call them. Or perhaps it’s for public sale, aimed at the limited but well-financed subset of Mormons who think actual Mormonism is too concerned with things like freedom and kindness, and not nearly righteous enough.

To make a long story short, I discovered that they have rewritten all or part of some familiar Mormon and other Christian hymns to suit their higher principles. I grabbed some samples to share with you. You’ll see some evidence of their preoccupation with quivers full of children, and also their odd idea of religious freedom, which includes incorporating their religious principles into civil law, and being spared the presence in the workplace or neighborhood of anyone who makes moral choices of which they disapprove.

Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom

Author's Note

This is the third in a three-part series of essays on freedom in America. The first was entitled, “The Gulf Which Divides Us.” The second was “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.”

Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom

In a fit of dietary decadence a few weeks ago, I went to a Wendy’s drive-through and ordered a “single.” The Voice asked, “Would you like cheese on that?” I declined. I like cheese and cheeseburgers well enough, but I didn’t want to pay the extra quarter or whatever.

A couple of years ago I bought a well-used Honda Accord EX, which has a slightly peppier engine than the base model. It also has a sunroof. I wasn’t specifically shopping for an EX; that’s just what there was. The sunroof is fun, but I wouldn’t have chosen it as option at additional cost.

Freedom is like cheese and sunroofs. (I wonder if that sentence has ever been written in English before.) All else being equal, almost everyone loves freedom — and cheese and sunroofs, I suppose — but only some people are willing to pay any significant price for it.

You may have beaten me to two points. First, the word freedom is attached to so many concepts, including some which are mutually contradictory, that there’s little point it discussing it without a clear, specific definition of what it means in the present context. Second, when was “all else” ever equal?

I Am a Tocqueville Conservative

Author's Note

This is the second in a three-part series of essays on freedom in America. The first is entitled, “The Gulf Which Divides Us.” The third is called “Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom.”

I am and always have been a bookish fellow. (I do not wish to boast or drop names, but to make a point.) In the discipline of political theory I have read a lot of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and the others. I’ve studied the debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I have spent fascinating hours — sometimes months — reading and discussing Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Macchiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Burke, Mill, Hegel, and . . . the list goes on.

I’ve also carefully studied some thinkers who particularly terrify a certain sort of conservative, the one who thinks that the safest intellectual course is never to wrestle with the words of those who disagree. As I write this, I’m about ten feet from a bookcase, one shelf of which is filled with well-marked writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Bakunin, Fourier, Saint-Simon and a number of other socialists and communists of whom most people never hear and never want to.

Some of these thinkers have influenced my own thought profoundly, as in many cases they influenced each other; some have merely challenged or informed, which is also useful.

You’re now thinking that it’s a wonder I can function at all in normal human society, or communicate plainly enough to buy a postage stamp. Perhaps it is.

There’s another thing that may surprise you about all this. I have not named the two individuals who I suspect have had the greatest influence on my political thought.

The Gulf Which Divides Us

Author's Note

This is the first in a three-part series of essays on freedom in America. The second is “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.” The third is “Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom.”

“How about freedom from diseases and pain?”
the subject line of an e-mail spam message I received today

Joe Klein writes for Time, and he does it very well. I frequently enjoy both his style and his insights, even though, generally speaking, he is on the left, and I am on the right. Not every issue fits neatly into the left/right paradigm, you see, and it’s not unusual to find some good thought on both sides of an issue.

When the latest issue of  Time came in the mail Saturday, I picked it up and read Klein’s two-page column, “The GOP Has Become the Party of Nihilists.” Yet again, I observed that Klein has mastered the mechanics of the language and employs them artfully. This time, however, my disagreement is fundamental and possibly irreconcilable.