What chance does Fairbanks stand of being — or being part of — a republic? Can we be a community?
In high school, I learned that the United States was not a “democracy”, as many people think, but a “democratic republic”. Certainly the CIA World Factbook describes us as a “Constitution-based federal republic”.
The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin phrase res publica, which means “public matter” or literally “people’s thing”. It implies that a republic is, by definition, a common concern. Not that the republic is a matter of common concern, but that that commonality itself is the substance of the republic. Where there is no common concern — where the people have no collective thing — republic can’t exist.
Now, I know that meanings of words change, and that modern definitions of words need bear little relationship to their historical meanings. But I feel that ‘republic’ has an almost spiritual core, or a philosophical kernel, in this idea of “the people’s thing”. When it comes to refer only to specific outward forms of government, it loses this kernel and becomes merely an empty husk.
The word ‘community’ comes close. It is derived from Latin communis, meaning “common (to several persons or to all)”. It doesn’t just mean some aggregation of people; it means a group of people who live by sharing something. (The word ‘city’ derives from Latin civis, which means “a free inhabitant of a town, and implies no commonality.)
I’ve long felt that community is one of the most important guiding principles — maybe just behind family. So I’m always disheartened to see large-scale enthusiasm for political candidates who seem not to believe in any common goals of society. There’s one running in Fairbanks — though they exist everywhere — who claims to be all about “freedom”. He says he believes in the role of government only to provide infrastructure and arbitration, so that the people can pursue their own individual goals. On his campaign web page devoted to “principles”, he says nothing about community, common goals, shared fate, mutual obligation, or even duty. As far as I can tell, it is all about the individual: governments exist solely to further private ambition. John F. Kennedy urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but to ask what we could do for our country. My guess is that this candidate believes we and our country should do as little as possible for each other; any more would constrain our freedom.
It should be no surprise that he seems to have a large following in Fairbanks. We have more than the usual share of members of the cult of the individual. There’s much distrust of “government” here, and people vociferously protest most proposed laws that would constrain the liberty of the individual to do as he lists — common interest be damned.
Of course, this raises the question: What is our common interest? What are our common goals? If we have a community, what is the substance of that community? By sharing what things do we live? What is our people’s thing?