A growing number of scholars have been led by that impulse to an interest in 'the republican tradition," arguing that it offers resources for correcting the deformities they perceive in contemporary life and for which they hold liberalism responsible. Republicanism is a mansion with many rooms, and its modem interpreters emphasize varying possibilities within it, but common to all is the vision of a politics that recognizes and seeks to strengthen the social bonds within a political community. Within the limits set by that vision differences abound, just as differences exist among liberals concerning appropriate political foundations for individual freedom. Republican thought thus functions, as Professor Michelman has written, "less as canon than [as] ethos, less as blueprint than as conceptual grid, less as settled institutional fact than as semantic field for normative debate and constructive imagination.'' The breadth and intensity of contemporary interest in republican ideas reflect a deep desire for a greater sense of community than currently exists in the United States. Still, a deeply felt need does not necessarily translate into a political theory of contemporary relevance or even a useful way of talking about current issues. Despite the importance of republicanism in the history of Western political thought, the effort to find within it resources for addressing issues of contemporary life seems a bit odd - or, to be more precise, anachronistic. Republicanism was rooted in an intellectual and social milieu vastly different from our own. It was premised upon a moral epistemology and an organic conception of society that few moderns can accept. Its expositors assumed - indeed, often insisted - that it was suited only to small, homogenous populations occupying a limited territory. Republican thought was generally anticommercial, often hierarchical, and in some versions depended upon a martial citizenry as well. Its intellectual and social presuppositions were, in brief, precisely the conditions of life and thought that separate modern and premodern times. My purpose in this brief essay is to raise a number of questions about the contemporary relevance of political ideas rooted in a world so different from the one we inhabit. Although the turn to republicanism represents an effort to redirect the course of American life, limits exist beyond which change is implausible. We are not about to reestablish the Greek polis or the Italian city-state. The commercial republic that the federalists foresaw has existed for well over a century, and though many changes in the economic order are within the realm of plausible proposals for reform, the abandonment of a commercial economy is not among them. Similarly, individualism - understood, minimally, to mean freedom to transcend social roles iM pursuit of individually determined ends - is so deeply embedded in the American character and national ideals that it must be recognized as a constraint upon proposals to refashion political life within a republican mold. Among the questions the new republicans must confront is whether republicanism can find a place within the constraints imposed by these and other circumstances and commitments associated with modernity. To ask questions about the contemporary relevance of republican ideas is, inevitably, to suggest skepticism that affirmative answers can be given to those questions. Skepticism is not proof, however, and I shall not try to demonstrate that affirmative answers cannot be developed. My purpose is merely to draw attention to a number of issues that, though they have perhaps been noticed by republican writers, have as yet received inadequate attention.
Sandalow, Terrance. "A Skeptical Look at Contemporary Republicanism." Fla. L. Rev. 41 (1989): 523-44.