From civic-duty shirker to member of the local militia

Restoration of the Republic
June 13, 2003

In recent weeks, much discussion of the US contemporary character has pivoted on the question "republic or empire?". Gary Hart, by contrast, inquires "republic, or not?", pondering the etiolation of republicanism in a state whose "stabilizing role in world affairs" is taken as given. Based on his Oxford doctoral thesis, Hart's treatise proposes a manifesto for the reanimation of "classic republicanism", "characterized by norms of civic virtue, duty, citizen participation, popular sovereignty and concern for corruption".

Hart begins by outlining the lassitude that results in more than half of eligible US citizens shirking their electoral responsibilities. Americans have increasingly retreated from civic commitments altogether, a wealthy elite immuring itself in "gated communities" that keep the country's 35 million poor at bay. (Unmentioned by Hart, 2 million more Americans languish in less luxurious incarceration.

Since former inmates of "correctional facilities" are permanently debarred from voting, this alienation of rights continues a democratic deficit as perturbing as the alienation of self-selecting non-voters.) Various 21st-century viruses further afflict this anaemic body politic.

Globalisation, as Hart sees it, has caused "economics to migrate upwards and politics to migrate downwards". Ceding authority to various supranational agencies and multinational corporations, states simultaneously face fissiparous "neotribal" tendencies. These threats to the territorial coherence of nation-states from within are compounded by the menace of terrorist attack from without.

Faced with such challenges, Hart asks, in effect: "What would Jefferson do?" The proscriptive portions of the book thus plumb early debates over the practices and procedures of US republicanism in search of remedies for the current republican malaise. In particular, Hart proposes Jefferson's post-presidential blueprint for "ward republics" as a multifunctional solution to the crisis of civic inaction. For Jefferson, true republicanism could operate only through face-to-face fora that representative government forsook. Jefferson's ward proposal subdivided counties into units of 5,000 citizens who would form self-governing communities within the overarching structures of state federation.

For Hart, the ward system fulfils several revivifying functions. To these small units would devolve considerable responsibility for administering local services, including education and welfare. Offered opportunities for meaningful participation in local governance, and pinched by peer pressure to act, disaffected citizens would quickly see community involvement create its own cycle of virtuosity - with a reinvigorated "local militia" as its highest expression. As stakeholders and soldiers, "billeted in their own homes", National Guardsmen would form the front line of "homeland defense": as guardians of the republic and guarantors of republicanism.

In the US, Hart's call for citizens to shoulder communitarian duties rather than narrowly asserting individualistic rights has struck a responsive, cross-party chord among republicans of various stripes. Given the sweeping abrogation of certain core rights under the Patriot Act, some readers may wonder whether a different diagnosis of America's constitutional crisis is not critically required. The more pressing question may be less "What would Jefferson do?" than "What has Bush done?"

Susan Carruthers is associate professor of history, Rutgers University, New Jersey, US.

Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st-Century America

Author - Gary Hart
ISBN - 0 19 515586 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 292

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