The Politics of Solipsism, by David Brooks

The United States, as you know, was founded as a republic, not simply as a democracy. The distinction has been lost over the past few decades, but it is an important one.

The believers in a democracy have unlimited faith in the character and judgment of the people and believe that political institutions should be responsive to their desires. The believers in a republic have large but limited faith in the character and judgment of the people and erect institutions and barriers to improve that character and guide that judgment.

America’s founders were republicans. This was not simply elitism, a matter of some rich men distrusting the masses. This was a belief that ran through society and derived from an understanding of history. As Irving Kristol put it in a brilliant 1974 essay called “Republican Virtue vs. Servile Institutions,” “The common man is not a fool, and the proof is that he has such modest faith in himself.”

The first citizens of this country erected institutions to protect themselves from their own shortcomings. We’re familiar with some of them: the system of checks and balances, the Senate, etc. More important, they believed, was public spiritedness — a system of habits and attitudes that would check egotism and self-indulgence.

As Kristol points out in the essay, the meaning of the phrase “public spiritedness” has flipped since the 18th century. Now we think a public-spirited person is somebody with passionate opinions about public matters, one who signs petitions and becomes an activist for a cause.

In its original sense, it meant the opposite. As Kristol wrote, it meant “curbing one’s passions and moderating one’s opinions in order to achieve a large consensus that will ensure domestic tranquility.” Instead of self-expression, it meant self-restraint. It was best exemplified in the person of George Washington.

Over the years, the democratic values have swamped the republican ones. We’re now impatient with any institution that stands in the way of the popular will, regarding it as undemocratic and illegitimate. Politicians see it as their duty to serve voters in the way a business serves its customers. The customer is always right.

A few things have been lost in this transition. Because we take it as a matter of faith that the people are good, we are no longer alert to arrangements that may corrode the character of the nation. For example, many generations had a moral aversion to debt. They believed that to go into debt was to indulge your basest urges and to surrender your future independence. That aversion has clearly been overcome.

We no longer have a leadership class — of the sort that existed as late as the Truman and Eisenhower administrations — that believes that governing means finding an equilibrium between different economic interests and a balance between political factions. Instead, we have the politics of solipsism. The political culture encourages politicians and activists to imagine that the country’s problems would be solved if other people’s interests and values magically disappeared.

The democratic triumph has created a nation that runs up huge debt and is increasingly incapable of finding a balance between competing interests. Today, the country faces three intertwined economic challenges. We have to make the welfare state fiscally sustainable. We have to do it in a way that preserves the economic dynamism in the country — that provides incentives for creative destruction. We also have to do it in a way that preserves social cohesion — that reduces the growing economic and lifestyle gaps between the educated and less educated.

These three goals are in tension with one another, but to prosper America has to address all three at the same time.

Voters will have to embrace institutional arrangements that restrain their desire to spend on themselves right now. Political leaders will have to find ways to moderate solipsistic tribalism and come up with tax and welfare state reforms that balance economic dynamism and social cohesion.

Over the past months, there has been some progress in getting Americans to accept the need for self-restraint. With their various budget approaches, the Simpson-Bowles commission, Paul Ryan and President Obama have sent the message that politics can no longer be about satisfying voters’ immediate needs. The public hasn’t bought it yet, but progress is being made.

There has been less progress in getting political leaders to come up with compromises that balance dynamism and cohesion. Republicans still mostly talk about incentives for growth, and Democrats still mostly talk about economic security. The breakthrough, if there is one, will come from the least directly democratic parts of the government, from the Senate or some commission of Establishment bigwigs. It will be enacted when voters realize we need to build arrangements to protect ourselves from our own weaknesses. It will all depend on reviving the republican virtues upon which the country was founded.

I offer this column not to convey a political message. Politics is so frustrating to me that I squeeze my eyes tight while reading the Times, hoping to limit my furor at the illogic and other flights of fancy that make up ninety percent of American rhetoric.

For once I am delighted to read a political columnist who writes not about Democrats and Republicans as we know them, but rather as those who believe that our form of government best resembles a democracy or a republic.

Our country’s founding documents are quite clear on this. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands . . . “, chant schoolchildren across the land. Yet the idea of DEMOCRACY is emblazoned in golden lights in our collective psyche: we take democracy with us around the world. The world will be safe and beautiful if only democracy flowers everywhere.

Yet my point here is not about our psychic misunderstanding about what our form of government really is. Even though this is one of my favorite rants.

Instead I point out that democracy and republicanism are two theoretical constructs that contribute toward our theory of politics. They are not opposites — cannot be measured as two ends of a bipolar scale. They are two different different, yet related, ideas about how best to establish decision making in a government. The first advocates complete and active participation of all people, whereas (as Brooks explains) the second establishes rules and institutions to intercede between people and decisions. Anyone who doubts this can recall the 2000 presidential election in which the Electoral College overrode the popular vote, putting George W Bush into office. The Electoral College exists because our founders did not trust the power of the public.

Democracy and republic are words that we assume we know all about. But we don’t. On which other unsupported assumptions do our country and our scholarship depend?

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