In Search of the Lost Republic

In Search of the Lost Republic

Americans once believed that their government belonged to them. Can we again?


As he was leaving Independence Hall one morning in 1789, Benjamin Franklin was accosted by a Philadelphia woman. “Well, Doctor, what have we got,” Elizabeth Powel is said to have demanded, “a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s reply was brisk: “A republic, Madam—if you can keep it.”

Can we keep it? For many of us, that question became painfully salient on the morning of November 9, 2016. I’d been covering the election since August 2015, when after the first Republican debate, I’d written that Donald Trump’s “unpredictability—his manifest inability to respect the norms of party, civility, or any institution or structure not bearing the Trump name, preferably in gilded letters—makes him the campaign equivalent of crack cocaine.” Though I didn’t think any of the other occupants of the Republican clown car could beat Trump, I assumed the Republican National Committee would find some other way to stop him.

Over the months that followed, I attended Trump rallies in half a dozen states, from Florida to New Hampshire. But while I couldn’t help watching Trump out of the corner of my eye, fascinated by the reinvention of a man whose first brush with bankruptcy I’d covered as a writer at The Village Voice and New York’s Newsday in the 1980s, my main focus was elsewhere. Assuming that the campaign would be boring, I decided to concentrate not on the candidates, but on the voters, volunteers, activists, and movements that make up the political ground on which elections are fought. I was wrong about the campaign. But I was right in thinking that there was a deeper story to be found far from the lights and the cameras.

Walt Whitman heard America singing. I heard a country screaming—at itself, at shadows, at enemies domestic and foreign. “Lock her up!” “Build the wall!” But I also heard something else underneath all the shouting, a collective gasp of recognition and amazement. I’d heard it most clearly in a high-school gym in February 2016—on the night Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary. Sanders himself was elated, reminding his supporters that when he’d begun campaigning, “we had no campaign organization and we had no money.”

Only it wasn’t Sanders I was listening to. It was the audience—a mix of old radicals and young activists, tie-dyed grandmothers from California and the Carolinas celebrating with thick-waisted older men in union windbreakers and college students in blue “Feel the Bern” T-shirts. Could Bernie go all the way? That magical night, with Nevada and Michigan still ahead of us, anything seemed possible. But what I remember even more vividly than that moment of wild hope was the sensation of looking across the packed gym and being astonished at how many of us there were—and realizing that everyone else was just as surprised. (Though it being New Hampshire and a Sanders rally, the crowd was overwhelmingly white.)

For decades, the media had relentlessly reminded us just how far outside the mainstream we were. In a country where Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater had made “liberal” a badge of dishonor, a label to be shunned, where did that leave those of us further left? Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, nobody bothered calling us “communists” anymore, but to call yourself a socialist, as Sanders had done, was an invitation to derision. We’d watched in dismay as the bankers deregulated by Bill Clinton crashed the economy—only to be bailed out by Barack Obama, while millions of ordinary Americans lost their homes and their savings. We’d seen George W. Bush’s National Security Agency spy on millions of Americans—and Barack Obama’s Justice Department try to lock up the whistle-blowers. We’d witnessed the War on Terror give way to the war against Iraq, and heard the cries to bomb Damascus and Tehran. So when Bernie stood up and said, “Enough is enough,” we were ready to stand with him.

But we weren’t prepared for what happened next. Grown used to our own marginality, we weren’t prepared to discover that there were literally millions of us, in every part of the country. It must be said that Bernie wasn’t prepared either. A campaign that began somewhere between a quixotic gesture and a protest movement came close enough to winning the nomination to scare the hell out of the Democratic Party establishment—which hadn’t exactly kept its thumbs off the scale during the primaries. Socialism is no longer toxic; indeed, polls show that, among younger Americans, most think it sounds like a pretty good idea.

And yet here we are, with Trump in the White House, Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, and Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci warned that while the old order “is dying and the new cannot be born…a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The headlines—and Trump’s Twitter account—provide new examples on a daily basis. Yet there are also many signs of rebirth.

For all Trump’s noisy promises of action on gun control and immigration reform and health care, his tax bill’s blank check to GOP donors may be the Republicans’ sole legislative achievement. But his administration’s rollback of federal regulations protecting consumers, the environment, and American workers is likely to be equally damaging, while his quiet reshaping of the federal judiciary in favor of economic privilege and social reaction may last for decades to come. With Trump and Mike Pence in the White House, and a conservative majority on the Court, decisions that once seemed like settled law—same-sex marriage, legal abortion, the right to join a union; indeed, the very right to citizenship itself for all born inside this country—may now come under attack. These are all fights we cannot afford to lose.

And so, despite the temptation to mourn, we have to organize. Because if we can’t rely on the president, or the Congress, or the courts, we have no choice but to rely on one another. There are some in immediate peril who need our help, our energy, and our solidarity. There are others—many, many others—who are already fighting, but who may not see how their battle fits into a bigger picture.

Ever since Election Day, I’ve tried to adopt “No more wishful thinking” as my own political mantra. All the same, in my reporting I’ve found ample grounds not just for hope, but for optimism. The United States may be a continental power and a global empire, but it is not an island, isolated from the currents of world politics. You don’t have to be a historical determinist or an orthodox Marxist—I am neither—to see a surge of majoritarian revolt spreading across the globe, from the “pink tide” in Latin America to the democratic ferment that sparked the Arab Spring to the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

Not all of these challenges to power will succeed. So in trying to map out how we in the US might, as they say in New England, “get there from here,” I’ve been guided by two principles. The first is to stay close to the grass roots. The second is that history is essential—not just the first draft of history provided by journalism, but the awareness of possibility that only history can provide.

I wanted to break through the collective amnesia that lets Americans forget what we have accomplished together in the past—the audacity that let a colony defy the most powerful nation on earth, the courage and solidarity that defeated racial slavery, the democratic confidence that took on fascism in Europe and began the work of building economic security at home. Each of these earlier achievements—these lost republics—was only partially successful. If we are to complete the work, or even to advance it, we need to remind ourselves both of what we once accomplished—and of the reasons why previous efforts fell short.

It was Tom Paine’s Common Sense that first gave the word “republic” widespread currency as an American virtue. So in using “republic” to mean a time when Americans felt that their government genuinely belonged to them, rather than being the tool or mechanism by which a particular class or section exercises power, I am not so much adding my own gloss as selecting among the many uses. Besides, I see little need, or prospect, of improving upon Abraham Lincoln when he spoke simply of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Like socialism, that still sounds like a good idea to me. But discerning readers will also detect sympathy for another ideal, almost equally discredited, namely populism. By which I mean both the historical American movements that comprised the 19th-century Populist revolt, and a contemporary sympathy for movements that are frankly majoritarian, trusting in democracy rather than the discovery of correct doctrine. Though I was often frightened and appalled by the things I saw and heard at Trump rallies, Hillary Clinton’s description of his voters as a “basket of deplorables”—and her media cheerleaders’ eagerness to double down on that contempt—still strikes me as both personally despicable and politically dangerous. Whatever else it is, populism has always represented a political and cultural revolt of the people against the elites—and in that fight, I know which side I’m on.

There is a serious strategic point to be made here as well. While the right might prefer aristocracy, or a plutocracy in which the business of America really is business, we on the left can’t just dismiss the people—no matter how much they may disappoint us. Petulance is not politics. There is simply no alternative to the hard work of assembling a majority coalition.

We are at a crossroads. Though nearly 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, many of us did so despite believing that American politics was broken, and with no real enthusiasm for the “four more years” her campaign seemed to offer. Being against Donald Trump wasn’t enough to win the election, and though it happily was sufficient motivation to drive millions of women—and their male allies—onto the streets to protest his inauguration, mere opposition won’t bring us to the next republic either.

As Jim Hightower, the 10-gallon-hatted godfather of Texas populism, once told me, “It’s not enough to be for the farmer. You gotta be against these bastards who are trying to run over the farmer!” But as Naomi Klein points out, “No is not enough. We also need to lay out our Yes.” Because it is the sum of those yesses, marching together, working together, striking together, and voting together, that will bring us—together—to the next republic.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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