Republicanism is not the defense of the status quo, or of the past. Today is not perfect, and any true telling of history belies the rose-toned filters of nostalgia. Not all social and political evolution touted as “progress” is good, and much should be resisted in favor of more measured change. But to resist change entirely is as misguided as the insistence that we live in a perfect world, and no betterment is possible. That is not Republicanism or conservatism: that is delusion with the taint of egocentrism.
Republicanism is not the belief that all progress to date, drawn from an arbitrary line in the past, is somehow misguided. It is the nature of all institutions – and government most of all – to foment efforts that are utter folly, or that are of temporary utility only. The former must be uprooted without mercy; the latter must be carefully but firmly closed. But there are those that are of lasting an important benefit and, when flawed, should only be replaced when the flaws may be removed, benefit may be increased, or the efficiency improved. To root out necessary and valuable efforts merely because they fail an ideological test is the mark of an extremist. To do so merely because they were brought about by those less conservative is the mark of a reactionary.
Republicanism should be, instead, the effort to achieve the betterment of ourselves, our nation, and our world through the thoughtful, compassionate and more perfect application of time-proven principles. It is the hot steel of progress formed by the hammer of time-honored ideals against the anvil of our proven institutions, and tempered by the cool water of wisdom.
In governing a complex nation of 330 million souls, the head must lead the heart, not the other way around. Our righteous instincts, our desire to do the right thing by the ideals we hold sacred, those beliefs that Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” must advise all we do, but they must be subordinated to the knowledge that all actions have unintended consequences, and that no action, however worthy it might seem, is tolerable if it undermines the core principles on which our republic is based.
To be a Republican, then, is not to hew to a line that stands against progress: it is, instead, to be the rudder that guides the advance of the nation down a course that ensures its constant and timely improvement while guarding against the tempests of change and the shoals of stagnation.