Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

I. res publica

The Democratic Party is lost. From its left fringe to its bland center, the Democratic Party is lost. It does not lack a legislative agenda, not exactly. And, come 2012, it will also not lack a Party Platform, sort of. But the Democratic Party is lost.

This blog—and soon book—was written in order to encourage the Democratic Party to recover its identity. In the process, my hope is that it will also help our nation reclaim its classical heritage. Reclaiming this heritage is necessary because over the course of the last century our leaders and our people appear to have forgotten the most basic truths upon which their nation was founded. Not the least of these truths is that America, first and foremost, is a republic, not a democracy.

This may seem like an odd place to begin, but it is absolutely crucial. It is crucial because, unless (big “D”) democrats reclaim republican values and institutions, the Democratic Party has absolutely no chance of recovering its own identity. Democracy, after all, means so much—rule by the demos, the people—that in the end it means very little.  In theory, we are all (small “d”) democrats.  But, in theory, that hardly distinguishes us.

Yet, whereas most of us who vote Democratic embrace and defend republican values and institutions, most of those who vote Republican do not.  That is because the very term republic—res publica—turns their stomachs and sends them into convulsions. After all, both as understood in its original Latin and as understood by the framers of the Constitution, res publica means “public things” or “common wealth.” Res publica are the “things we hold in common.” Which is why nearly every Republican candidate since Reconstruction (with notable exceptions) has been fiercely opposed to holding anything in common—whether social security, health care, public utilities, public education, public transportation, public lands. You name it; if it has the name “public” anywhere near it, Republicans run for the exits or, as they like to put it, “we reach for our wallets.”

Therefore, at least ideally, the Democratic Party is the true (and only) republican party, the only party ready to embrace and defend republican institutions and values. And, yet, gradually, over the course of the last half century even the Democratic Party has steadily retreated from its vigorous defense of the Republic, so that today it is not uncommon for Democratic candidates in some parts of the United States to join their faux Republican allies in opposing the most basic public values and institutions. Why?

The reasons are certainly complex. But they are not incomprehensible. Some candidates fear the loss of precious corporate campaign finance contributions. Others fear a genuine rebellion among their FOX News loving constituents. And still others may in fact have lost their own passion for republican values and institutions. (Perhaps they really are closet Republicans.) But, at bottom, all of these reasons have a common root, their failure to distinguish and separate two of the most basic concepts in political and economic life.

This failure, it so happens, is not all that uncommon. So common is it, in fact, that two and a half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was said to begin nearly all of his lectures on politics by alerting his students to precisely this error:

It is an error to suppose, as some do, that the roles of a statesman (politikon), of a king (basilikon), of a household-manager (oikonomikon) and of a master of slaves (despotikon) are the same, on the ground that they differ not in kind but only in point of numbers of persons—that a master of slaves, for example, has to do with a few people, a household-manager with more, and a statesman or king with more still, as if there were no differences between a large household and a small state. They also reckon that when one person is in personal control over the rest he has the role of a king, whereas when he takes his turn at ruling and at being ruled according to the principles of the science concerned, he is a statesman. But these assertions are false.

We too may be similarly inclined to think only about the numbers and not also about the kind of government. A nation ruled by the many, the demos, is a democracy. A nation ruled by one is a monarchy. A private enterprise or oikonomia is also managed either by one or by a few (an oligos), but is smaller than a monarchy. A nation of free individuals ruled by a tyranos is a tyranny, while an individual who rules over unfree members of a private enterprise—i.e., slaves—is a master, a despot and his government is a despotism. The differences among these various forms of rule—democracy, monarchy, economy, despotism—are not differences in number alone, notes Aristotle, but also differences in kind.

Nevertheless, we often make the same error as Aristotle’s students. We too think that there are no essential differences between the CEO of a large company and the governor of a small state—“no differences between a large household [megalen oikian] and a small state [mikran polin].” And so we also may ask, “Why shouldn’t the manager of a large private enterprise,” say an oil company, “be perfectly suited to serve as the Governor for one of the United States?”

Because, points out Aristotle, the aptitudes businesspeople acquire managing individuals who report to them are not only different from the aptitudes statesmen need to work together with their equals.  These two sets of aptitudes, Aristotle tells us, are diametrically opposed to one another. Which is why a businessperson is as likely to destroy a republic as a statesman is likely to destroy a private enterprise.

The point can be made even sharper. As most readers know, our English word economy is a transliteration of the Greek oikonomia (from the root oikos, meaning household, and the suffix –omia, meaning management). However, its nearest equivalent might actually be private enterprise, which captures both the private dimension of the household and the entrepreneurial dimension of management.

To grasp what the Greeks meant by this term, we need look no further than your own families. Few parents canvass their children before dinner to see whether they would prefer soda and cotton candy to vegetables, protein, and fruit. So, few parents let their pre-teen children decide when they will go to bed, when they will get up, whether or not they will clean their rooms and help out with common household tasks. The household, we are all fond of reminding our own children, is not a democracy—the many do not rule. Nor, however, is it a tyranny, where those less fit to rule govern those who are better qualified.

A household, properly speaking, is a despotism in which those better fit to rule govern those who are not (yet) fit to rule—least of all themselves. Similarly, neither is a private enterprise, an oikonomia, a democracy. It, too, is a despotism. A CEO or Board of Directors—or those to whom the CEO or Board of Directors delegate authority—hire employees whom they deem fit to perform highly specialized tasks. No one is hired thinking that all parts of the enterprise are equal or of equal rank and authority. If an employee fails to live up to the expectations of his or her employer, the employer is free to “let them go.” Which is why no one walks into a private enterprise thinking that he or she is walking into a democracy where equals work side-by-side with and make decisions democratically with others equally well-suited to make such decisions.

Management skills are important, both in a household and in a private enterprise. And, as we will see later on, private enterprise is essential to every republic. More importantly, democracy can pose a serious threat both to a private household and to a private enterprise. As Aristotle knew well, a private enterprise is neither a democracy, nor a republic. It is, in fact, a despotism. And those skilled at despotic governance should be kept as far away from the decision-making bodies of republican institutions as wolves from a flock of sheep.

Later on we will look carefully at the debates that took place at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. These debates will make it clear beyond a shadow of doubt not only that the framers of the Constitution were intimately familiar with Aristotle’s arguments, but that they embraced them. We will also examine the steps the Founders took to ensure that our nation’s republican values and institutions would not fall easy prey to the private interests and personal avarice of its rulers or its people.

I think all of us can agree, they did a pretty good job. And, yet, over the past two and a quarter centuries Americans appear to have forgotten precisely what it means to be a republic. This is not only true of Republicans, who, since Reconstruction, have waged an ongoing battle against all things public, but also of Democrats, who, since 1976 have proven themselves increasingly reluctant to reaffirm and strengthen their own commitment to republican values and institutions. As a result, our nation is at serious risk of going the way of all great republics, which, having abandoned republican values and institutions, often in the name of democracy, quickly lost sight of their very reason for being.

Since the Republican Party shows no interest in defending the republic, but only in crushing every last remaining public institution and value, that leaves us with the Democratic Party. But, as I said, the Democratic Party is lost.

In chapter two, we will examine the events and ideas that first inspired the framers of our Constitution and so provided them with a foundation upon which “to form a more perfect Union.”