Would a civic republican sell you that cupcake?

Over this past week, a flurry of media attention has gathered around a quite provocative demonstration by College Republicans at the University of California-Berkley.  In protest of SB 185—pending affirmative-action-like-legislation for public universities—the organization hosted an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale.”  Baked goods were sold to students using a discriminatory price index—whites were charged the most, Native Americans the least, and women twenty-five cents less across the menu.  As one might expect, a liberal counter-protest was quickly organized.  A mob of students, all dressed in black, gathered together displaying signs that read “Don’t UC us now.” As everyone blended together, they demonstrated the loss of individual identities in the absence of protection for their individual rights.

Here are some links to news clips featuring both protests.  You should check them out!

  1. Bake Sale Footage:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2fAakr7uM8
  2. Liberal Mob Footage:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lwhjSRAU4c&feature=related

As such a polarized issue today, all of this buzz about affirmative action got me to thinking about what its context might have been in the eyes of civic republicans and classic liberals.  In particular, going back to the roots of these opposing political theories, would it be so obvious that republicans today would so strongly reject the idea of affirmative action, and democrats endorse it? Looking a little closer, I think it becomes much more ambiguous that one might expect.

To speak first to the obvious, there is a strong case to suggest that civic republicans might wholly reject affirmative action.  By definition, as we know, the fundamental entity around which civic republicanism is centered is the community.  It is a concern for the common good, for which everyone is expected to sacrifice, rather than the preservation of individual rights above all else.  Civic republicans see individual rights, when distributed heavily, as an impediment to the overall good of society.  They believe individuals with too many rights become so selfishly absorbed by the constraints of their own personal principles, that progress towards the betterment of the overall community becomes unachievable.  The quintessential civic republican endorses policies that promote and preserve community togetherness.

In this context, affirmative action is an easily identifiable evil to the civic republican ideal of government.  By assigning certain greater benefits to some over others, the solidarity of a community—like the black mob of students at USC—is destroyed by competition and factionalism.  The fact that race is the basis on which these benefits are distributed, only further exacerbates the risk affirmative action poses to the preservation of “the community.”  To a civic republican, such policies would counter-intuitively pull people out of their community and into their own corners of society.  Distinguishing race not only isolates individuals in societies, but also promotes conflict between racial groups.  It is impossible for racial classifications, especially those with significant applications, to sustain a unified society.  Affirmative action threatens to destroy the fundamental centerpiece of civic republicanism.  So, it’s a no brainer that the civic republican would be selling cupcakes right alongside the College Republicans at USC, right?

Well, as convincing as all of that might have sounded, one cannot be so sure.  Yes, the fundamental unit in civic republicanism is the community.  Yes, affirmative action is an undoubted threat to the harmony of that community.  However, the fundamental objective of civic republicanism is a collective sacrifice for the greater good of society.  In this context, depending on how the “greater good” is defined by the community, civic republicans might see affirmative action as a policy for which sacrifices—on behalf of those who benefit less—should be made.  Affirmative action extends more opportunities for work and education to individuals of minority and low socio-economic status. As a result, income inequalities lessen, work places become more diverse (a factor that can yield a great deal more innovation) and government spending on benefits, like unemployment, is reduced.  If these results qualify for how the “overall good” is defined, then is affirmative action not within this objective?  If affirmative action is to modern America, as the barn raising was to Kemmis’ community, I think civic republican support of this modern, left wing policy isn’t a far fetch at all.

Looking now to classic liberalism, this same ambiguity persists.  On the one hand, to most people, affirmative action is consistent with the classical liberal mentality.  In contrast with all we’ve just discussed about the “community” and “togetherness” underscoring civic republicanism, classic liberalism is fundamentally concerned with preserving the individual’s rights and freedoms.  They repudiate the broad sweeping community values idolized by civic republicans because they believe individual interests are too strong to be compromised. To the classic liberals, such “common good” laws are seen only as a limitation on the civil liberties of every individual—they are particularly discriminating to those outside of the affected majority. Further, it is the government’s duty to protect the individual rights of those who, as Sargent put it best, “cannot [alone] fulfill their individual potential” ( Sargent, pg. 42).  Affirmative action is doing just that.  It is integrating minorities into society that otherwise would not have the means—either fiscally or by virtue of societal discrimination—to capitalize on their individual rights to educating, working, and otherwise fully participating in their community.  Affirmative action arguably epitomizes the mission of classic liberalism, or does it?

See this is the part where the big “BUT” comes in yet again.  Classic liberalism is fundamentally centered on the preservation of individual freedoms.  However, as the definition of “the common good” changed the civic republican opinion, so does one’s interpretation of “the individual” for classic liberals. Affirmative action grants benefits to groups of like individuals—minorities.  Can it really be the case then that this policy is protecting “individual rights?” After all, it is not the individual’s identity that is relevant to affirmative action, but rather their possession of a group quality—race.   Classic liberals fundamentally oppose the community identity endorsed by civic republicans because it stifles the individual.  Therefore, wouldn’t they naturally oppose policies, like affirmative action, that create group identities with explicit advantages over other individuals? I believe it is possible.

My point here is that where our societies understanding of these competing ideologies is undoubtedly sound, our application to modern times—especially social issues—can never be absolutely certain. Sure, it is possible a civic republican today might have sold you your cupcake, but maybe a classic liberal would have too.  I think that is certainly something worth considering.

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8 Responses to Would a civic republican sell you that cupcake?

  1. I think this post is really interesting, but I’d have to disagree with your assertion that the alignments of each ideological faction (civic republicans vs. classical liberals) on this issue are ambiguous. On the contrary, I would assert that their respective positions would be quite clear and that no real ambiguity exists.

    Affirmative action, at its base, is a program designed to promote equal opportunity for historically underrepresented ethnic groups. This is achieved through the cultivation of policies which preferentially support individuals from underrepresented groups, with the most visible effects evident in university admissions and recruitment for various public sector jobs. Affirmative action therefore, by having as its primary objective the promotion of societal equality and, by implicit extension, the strength and continued progress of the community, is more related to civic republican ideology than classical liberal ideology.

    Classical liberals, I believe, would argue that affirmative action amounts to an intrusion of government into the public sphere. By preferentially supporting some ethnic groups over others, furthermore, classical liberals would insist that affirmative action policies intrude on personal rights and freedoms and limit the potential of individual actors in society.

  2. erikamir says:

    I will start by saying that I really enjoyed reading your blog post. That being said, I thought you found a way to creatively incorporate the distinctions of two competing ideologies and apply them to a modern context. I believe that a classic liberal of today would without doubt, according to the definitions of this ideology, have sold cupcakes to students. Classic liberalism like you clearly pointed out above is about the advancement and protection of individual rights. The liberal also believes that in order to advance these individual rights there must be a point of equal opportunity. The purpose of affirmitive action is, in so many words, an attempt to equal the playing field of unrepresented minority groups in today’s society. Although I do find that selling cupcakes to minority groups at a lower price is a bit extreme, I think that these particular group of students were making a political stance on how affirmative action on a small scale might not be as heavily acceptable on the large political scale. To address civic republicanism, my first thought was that the civic republican would reject this idea of affirmative action and not sell students cupcakes. But I thought you brought up a interesting point about making sacrifices of a few for the advancement of the common good. Community, like you mentioned, is the core element of civic republican ideology. But affirmative action does support minorities or a few and making the playing field equal could inf fact advance the common good. I would say that there is a high possibility of a civic republican selling these cupcakes as well.

  3. allenle2011 says:

    This was an excellent post. The way you interpreted the ideals of classic liberalism and civic republicanism was very interesting. As I further looked into the values of civic republicanism I was reminded that civic republicans are completely against identity politics. In that sense, affirmative action is exactly the opposite of what a civic republican would want. Affirmative action was created to put labels on people. The definition of affirmative action explains that women and minorities will obtain “preferential selection” for employment and education. Civic republicans would never support a program that gives certain individuals preference above the rest of the community. It would be against the common good to put a label on someone that would put them at a disadvantage just because of the gene pool they were born into. For these reasons, I think a civic republican would sell the cupcakes.

  4. davidkoz says:

    While I thought that your post was incredibly thought provoking, I, too, have to disagree with your assertion of ambiguity in determining how a particular contemporary issue would be handled by a classic liberal or a civic republican. I believe that a civic republican would be more likely to support affirmative action than would a classic liberal because of the idea of civic virtue: that communitarians feel morally obligated to do what is best for each member of the community. Without affirmative action, the common good of minorities would not be fulfilled. As for classic liberals, their “selfishness” would make it difficult for them to support the advancement of another individual, let alone another ethnic group and I think you would be hard-pressed to find a classic liberal who is also a minority.

  5. charliefilips says:

    Really smart post, nice work. It can be very difficult to find links between the theoretical texts we have examined in class and modern day policy issues. I commend you for logically supporting the idea that there is no intuitive association between classical liberalism, or civic republicanism, and a stance on affirmative action. However, I do think affirmative action is more compatible with civic republican philosophy. A civic republican is motivated to act in accordance with the principle that the community stands to gain when it pursues an objective goal. This objective may necessitate the suppression of self interests that, when acted out, threaten that which is necessary to promote the general welfare of the public. In order for civic republicans to support of affirmative action then the obvious goal of the community would be to afford greater access to education for underrepresented minorities. A civic republican who stood nothing to gain from this policy would recognize its communal benefits (offering those with previously limited educational opportunity access to education and, by extension, the means for social mobility) as imperative to its implementation. They would recognize that the potential for them to be adversely affected by affirmative action is subordinate to promoting greater access to the means for social mobility.

  6. haleynicoleepstine says:

    Like the others, I too thoroughly enjoyed your blog post. Affirmative action is definitely a major topic of discussion (as can be seen first hand with the tables in Mason Hall advocating for it) in today’s society and a great forum to compare the values of the civic republicans and the classic liberals. One aspect I feel that was not mentioned is the issue of education being a right or a privilege. With that debate I am not saying that not everyone should have the opportunity to have some form of education, but rather that higher education I feel should be given to those you have worked hard to reach that point.
    As the protesters conveyed with their bake sale education should be equally available to all-which is where as you pointed out the class liberalists would agree. Therefore, all races should be held to equal standards, which is where the value of community and equality from the civic republicans comes into play. That being said I think that you were right on target with your initial argument for why civic republicans would be opposed to affirmative action. So in my opinion, to answer your question… Yes I do think that a civic republican would be manning that bake sale and selling me that cupcake.

  7. Kirsten Meeder says:

    I too, like the other commentators here, think that the Republican bake sale at UC Berkley is a great current event in which to discuss classical liberalism and civic republicanism. Nice topic choice! I for some reason, however, have a hard time thinking of the cupcake Republicans as complete civic republicans. This stems from the results of privilege in groups as haleynicoleepstine mentioned. I think that this brought up a really interesting aspect to consider. I think you can consider the cupcake people mostly civic republican even if you don’t fully account for who they actually are representing: white men. Since the group is composed of white men, I don’t think I can consider them fully fledged civic republicans because they are not representing a common good where everyone is represented and heard because they define society in their own privileged terms. The cupcake people/white men are the only groups that were “disprivileged” pricewise by the cupcakes. It’s just too ironic that they are lamenting how “unfair” the system of affirmative action is when they themselves are at the top of our social and poltical system, and this seems a bit liberal to me. Also, on a semantic note, I don’t think its correct to refer to the counter protesters as a ”mob” as they seemed just as calm as their cupcake selling peers.

  8. czli2011 says:

    I completely agree with the author of this post about the ambiguity of interpretation. By the standards of today’s “welfare liberalism”, a person who is helped by AA might claim that the policy protects individual rights by giving people who are disadvantaged an equal chance at getting into a good school. But from a classic liberal standpoint, one could say that AA undermines individual achievement because it stresses the common good of races as a group. Rand would be fuming about this, claiming that AA sacrifices achievement for mediocrity just to uphold the “common good” of minority races.

    Having said this, my person opinion is to reconcile both of those views by supporting economic-based AA and ending race-based AA. Race-based AA is extremely patronizing; it’s a policy based on victimization, and being so ignores individual circumstances in favor of treating people as as part of a generalization. However, I fully support economic-based AA. At the end of the day, isn’t the core of AA to make up for socioeconomic disadvantages? There’s no need to categorize on race past that. To truly engage in social engineering via admissions/hiring, schools and employers should aid the most disadvantaged; this way, gains will most likely be made based on need and race doesn’t need to be in the picture at all.

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