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The Lessons of Civic Republicanism

Thomas Jefferson is known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the articulator of the separation of church and state. These high profile accomplishments tend to overshadow his other important contributions. For example, Civic Republicanism is a Jeffersonian notion that deserves our contemporary attention. 

Civic Republicanism centers on two interrelated ideas, civic responsibility and community. Civic responsibility refers to the sense of responsibility that we have toward one another, and for one another’s well being. It is the practice of placing the common good above our individual self-interest. We do this willingly because, in communities, we get to know one another and, in turn, feel connected to the people around us. Our neighbors, religious leaders, teachers, and store owners are all part of this network of common bonds we call community. In other words, we learn not to be narcissists because we have learned the benefits of mutual dependence and mutual responsibility.  

While Civic Republicanism is a good idea, it’s not one that seems to inform contemporary America. As populations become more segregated based on race and more stratified by economic class, traditional notions of community have disappeared.

Well, what has happened to them? What has robbed of us this tradition? 

Economic inequality has transformed our communities. Economic segregation means that people who can afford the same house, or the same school, or the same college now all end up in the same community. Therefore, their understanding of “community” is one that is based on socioeconomic status not mutual dependence and responsibility, as in the past. Robert Reich suggests that people really do not need to rely on each other when they can buy their way of bad times. These are the social consequences of income inequality. In fact, the divide is so wide that the rich have no understanding of how the poor or even the middle-class live. They do not attend the same schools, shop at the same stores, or even frequent the same parks. Charles Murray claims that the elite of America rarely venture out of their high-income zip codes. It’s hard to achieve a sense of shared experience under these conditions.

When Jefferson articulated Civic Republicanism, communities were smaller and more integrated. But it is not simply a question of scale. We have evidence of Civic Republicanism in practice in the US during the 1950s, 1960s and well into the 1970s. Promoting the common good was reflected in high quality public schools, an implied social contract, tax and public policies that ensured equal opportunity, citizens’ movements and resistance, and support for a social safety net.  

Today, however, as inequality has raised the stakes and undermined traditional notions of community, self-interest has come to rule day. 


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