The Meaning of “Republican”
Each day across America, local newspapers feature the columns and letters of those who proclaim themselves “Republican” and upholders of “republican values.” In fact, a rough and ready definition of “republican”--at least the current American variety—can easily be derived: it is a person who is against “big government,” somewhat of a moralist, usually militaristic, opposed to taxation, and generally pro-business and a supporter of capitalism. Yet it is quite obvious to anyone who possesses a negligible amount of historical awareness that this colloquial American definition of “republican” is not in keeping with the traditional definition and use of the noun “republican.”
Etymologically, "republican" is from Latin, lit. res publica: "public interest, the state." This basic Latin meaning seems to counter the current American usage of the word— associating say a Reagan or Bush with “public interest” or even the “the state” is difficult. In political science, a republican is defined as one who is opposed to monarchical governments: i.e., the Irish Republican Army and its offshoots are opposed to the British monarchy, and earlier the Spanish republicans were opposed to the monarchy led by the dictator Franco. I doubt that many American “republicans” would care to be associated with either the Irish or Spanish variety of republican, who often might be a bit closer in ideology to what the American republican would term an anarchist, and indeed the Spanish republicans were allied with anarchist and left-wing groups. It is certain then that the European republicans bear little or no resemblance to the American variety, and in many ways are diametrically opposed.
Limiting the discussion to American history, an assertion can be made that the current type of republican bears little resemblance to his historical predecessor. Republicans like to proclaim that Abe Lincoln is the father of their party, and yet Lincoln was in many ways quite opposed in mind state and political policies to what is known as a republican today.
There are many examples of Lincoln’s liberalism: the Emancipation Proclamation being perhaps the most clear example. Lincoln wrote poetry and was in no way a fundamentalist Christian, being closer in mind and outlook to, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Additionally, Lincoln favored a national banking system and worked towards creating a more stable currency based not on gold or silver as many conservatives would like. Indeed some of Lincoln’s comments on economics sound surprisingly like current liberal if not leftist rhetoric, as in this following passage following the National Banking Act of 1863:
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people, until the wealth of the nation is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed.”
When has a current Republican stated his fear that the wealth of the nation would be “aggregated” in the hands of a few? The current “republican” has no problem with wealth and capital being so divided and in fact argues for policies that support this disparity—such as Bush’s recent tax cut for the super rich.
Therefore, not only is the current American usage of the term “Republican” etymologically not consistent with traditional usage of the word (assuming, perhaps naively, that political semantics should be consistent), but in ideology, the current American republican bears little similarity in outlook or philosophy to at least one of his putative political idols, Abe Lincoln.
Tuesday, August 03, 2004
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