Interview with Adam White

The Buckley Program hosted Adam White for a seminar series from October 29th to November 12th. The seminar was titled “Keeping A Republic: Constitutional Virtues and Institutions.” Adam White is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on American constitutionalism, the Supreme Court, and the administrative state. He is also an assistant professor of law and the director of the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

Michael Samaritano: What is civic or republican virtue? Why is it important?

Adam White: “Civic virtue” and “republican virtue” mean different things to different people, both in our time and in the founders’ time. But when I use the term, I tend to mean those qualities of character that are essential to (small-r) republican government: a public spiritedness, tending to recognize that there is a difference between my private interest and the public good; a willingness to persuade and to be persuaded; and more. Sometimes we see these best by implication in the things the Founders feared most: public corruption, demagoguery.

Republican virtues are important because they allow our constitutional structures and processes to work. We have a system of checks and balances, because men aren’t angels, but without republican virtue to lubricate the gears of government, the system will destroy itself. Madison himself warned, “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

But, crucially, we should think of republican virtue in terms of the various institutions of government—the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; the people in their capacity as citizens; and other institutions. Just as each of these institutions wields different powers in different ways with different responsibilities, the virtues most needed for each will differ, too. The kind of virtues needed for the republican presidency differ from those needed for the republican Congress, republican judiciary, and so on. We see these differences in the examples of history: consider why Madison was a better legislator than a president, why John Marshall was a better judge than legislator, why Alexander Hamilton was better suited to serve in the executive branch than a legislature.

The point is not that all parts of government need to be supremely virtuous at all times. Again, we the people aren’t angels, and enlightened statesmen won’t always be at the helm. But we need a sufficient amount of republican virtue in at least a few places, at any one time, for the sake of the rest: statesmen scattered through government who can lead by example; civic leaders outside of government; and the American middle class, one of the nation’s republican ballasts throughout the nation’s history.

MS: In an article you wrote last year for the Atlantic you agreed with a quote from David Brooks that “A great deal … is lost when a society stops aiming for civic virtue and is content to aim merely for civility.” How does civic virtue differ from civility?

AW: Civility is important, but there is a risk in putting too much weight on civility alone, especially when we wield “civility” as a cudgel, ordering others to “be civil” as a way to stifle them. So, of course we should strive to be civil ourselves, but republican self-government does also require a certain amount of energy, both in the operations of government and in the politics surrounding it. We can be “civil” by retreating completely into our own personal lives, keeping all others at a distance, but that would hurt, not help, republican institutions.

MS: What are the ideal institutions to inculcate republican virtue? The family, schools, local government? What’s one practical change that could be made tomorrow to make one of these institutions better inculcate civic virtue?

AW: You’ve spotted some of the important ones. Family and schools obviously are indispensable toward the inculcation of republican virtue—a fact that’s made painfully clear in recent decades of decline. Religion, too. But you’re right to point to local government, too: participation in local government and local civic institutions gives people the firsthand experience that nourishes republican virtue and reminds us of its importance. The more that government, politics, and civic life become spectator sports, the more that all of us spectators will misunderstand what we’re actually watching. Serving in different institutions, both formal and informal, and in different capacities, is good in and of itself, but also helps us to better understand our national republican institutions.

So here are two practical suggestions, one on a large scale and one on a small scale:

First, Congress should explore new ways to favor the contribution of time to nonprofits, just as the tax code favors donations of money to them, in order to make civic life more participatory. 

And second, anyone interested in the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program should read his short book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country, to see how Buckley himself thought through the questions of our civic obligations and of what we might do to act on those obligations; whether one agrees or disagrees with his particular solutions (e.g., national service programs), it is good to see how he reasoned through the questions.

MS: Finally, there’s a lot of rhetoric out there that frames our current era as something of a crisis for our form of government? Is our republic really in a state of peril or is this rhetoric overblown?

AW: There surely are worrisome signs—our politics, and our governing institutions, seem increasingly deformed; and the political polarization of so many Americans is coming to resemble a kind of mental secession. And history reminds us that that sometimes crisis really does arrive.

But I tend to eschew talk of “constitutional crises,” because too often it is used to justify actions that would do still greater harm to republican institutions. America has seen many moments when republican constitutional government went into decline, and moments when we restored ourselves. I think those examples are more instructive for our own time. Though the Civil War and the crises preceding and following it should remind us of the need to renourish republican virtues and institutions before crisis actually arrives.