A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption
by Jay Cost.
Encounter Books, 2015.
Hardcover, 393 pages, $28.

This Madisonian lament might have been written as early as the 1790s and the battle over the constitutionality of the First National Bank. For that matter, it might have been written at virtually any point in American history between then and now. Therefore, this question begs to be answered: Just when did we become a “republic no more?” Better yet, has the United States ever been the republic that James Madison, architect of the Constitution, intended?

Jay Cost, staff writer for The Weekly Standard, would have to answer a resounding “no” to the second question. And the first? Cost’s main argument, not to mention the multitude of stories and examples that constitute this work, would seem to dictate the conclusion that Ben Franklin was foolish to have a) so much as suggested that the founders had established a republic in the first place; and b) so much as hinted that there was any real possibility of keeping it.

And yet Mr. Cost’s own version of “Cost analysis” suggests a different conclusion. The United States has never been simply a republic; it has always been a commercial republic. That sort of republic has always come with its costs. Now it has its Jay Cost. The Cost thesis is that the structure of the American government, formal and informal, has never been up to the task of taming the appetites and ambitions of a commercially minded people.

Madison’s preoccupation with limiting and dividing the powers of government, his emphasis on multiplying and otherwise encouraging the development of factions, was consistent with his understanding of republican government. Jay Cost does not disagree with that understanding. He also shares Madison’s suspicions that virtuous (meaning public-spirited, common–good-minded) citizens are always in short supply. The tricks, therefore, are twofold: 1) make it difficult for the nonvirtuous to gain significant power for any length of time; and 2) find and advance those rare “natural aristocrats” to lead us.

By Cost’s reading, Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln are the best examples of American “natural aristocrats” in action. Both used the system and its weaknesses to advance the common good, rather than to advance themselves, especially their economic selves and the political interests of the party they represented.

The heart of this book dwells on the preternaturally venal and politically power-hungry among us. His villains are numerous and have been distressingly successful. Rather than name names, let me encourage you to read the book. It is as informative as it is maddening, and as entertaining as it is disturbing. It is also even-handed. His targets are villains on both left and right who would use big government to advance their private interests. And by private interests he means not just those in search of corporate welfare, but allegedly progressive reformers and their allegedly disinterested government allies as well.

If we truly are a “republic no more,” is the situation hopeless? Cost’s stories and examples would suggest that it is. As the government has gotten bigger, the corruption has gotten progressively worse, thanks also to the political parties that the founders did not anticipate and the democratized executive they did not envision. But his own “Cost analysis” leads him to a different conclusion. The moment at hand is less revolutionary than “mugwumpian,” as in something akin to the late nineteenth century, when anti-corruption Democrats and Republicans combined to clean up some of the worst offenses of the Gilded Age.

Will such an alliance come into being? At this historical moment (the summer of 2016) when both major parties are giving us something other than “natural aristocrats” as their standard-bearers it is more than tempting to join the lament that we are a “republic no more.” It’s also more than tempting to wonder whether a new generation of mugwumps will materialize—and whether they will make a difference if they do.  

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota.