Writing in Slate, Joshua Keating claims to know The Real Reason Why Republicans Keep Saying “We’re a Republic, Not a Democracy”, as revealed to him by activist Astra Taylor. Are they right?
The timeworn phrase “we’re a republic, not a democracy,” once confined to campus political debates and the nerdier corners of the political internet, has been bubbling up to mainstream politics for some time now. But it was still jarring, during last week’s vice presidential debate, when Sen. Mike Lee of Utah tweeted, simply, “We’re not a democracy.” He later followed up, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
How is that “jarring”? America (like Canada) is not a pure democracy. Democracy is a system, not an objective.
Lee’s comment triggered an uproar on social media, and other conservatives took up the line. During the first day of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana made the point that America is not a “pure democracy” and quoted newspaper columnist James Gill quipping that “we don’t all put on a clean toga and rush down to the forum to vote in person on every issue.”
Who gives a rat’s ass about uproars on social media?
An even more extreme position was staked out, a few days before Lee, by Loren Culp, the long-shot Republican candidate for governor of Washington, who said in a recent interview that “democracy is mob rule” and that “famous Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Mikhail Gorbachev loved democracy because democracy is a step toward socialism, which is a step towards communism.”
Democracy is indeed a dangerous tool. If you empower the majority to oppress the minority, it is certainly a possible outcome.
The critique that too much democracy will inevitably lead to mob rule and tyranny is as old as Plato—hence the togas—and these men are right that it was very much on the minds of America’s founders. But for anyone who lived through the era of George W. Bush and democracy promotion it’s jarring to hear Republican candidates and politicians speak about democracy with such disdain. And it certainly seems significant that the democracy critique is picking up steam ahead of an election that could once again hinge on the difference between the Electoral College and the popular vote, as the president rails against “ballots” and refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
There’s that complaint of “it’s jarring” again. Don’t be so fragile. While the difference between the electoral college and the popular vote are not the difference between a republic and a democracy, election by the popular vote is certain to be non-representative. Just as the current system gives swing states exceptional power, election by popular vote would massively favour voters in large cities.
Ah, yes. This phrase, “We are a republic, not a democracy.” I heard this phrase frequently, but always from a certain class of person. Always from a white man… That is a phrase that is uttered by people who, looking back on the sweep of American history, see themselves as safely at the center of the narrative, and typically they see their present privileges under threat. And so, they want to shore up the privileges that they possess, and they’re looking for a sort of historic hook.
What a steaming load of crap. Astra Taylor is a racist and a sexist if she thinks only white men are capable of understanding that the US has a constitution, which is what makes it a republic. Her privilege theory is pure neo-Marxist ideology.
I think you’re seeing a real shift in conservative rhetoric because they are giving up on winning majorities. [Republicans are] figuring out how to maintain dominance with a minority of support.
When cities are overwhelmingly liberal, why wouldn’t conservatives focus on the areas they can win? If you want people in the suburbs and rural areas to vote for you, you need to offer policies that they support. If that means liberal urbanites don’t vote for you but you can still win a majority of electoral seats, so be it. In Canada, our Conservatives have often held a majority of seats in our parliament with nowhere near a majority of the popular vote.
Political institutions in this country are not majoritarian. There is a long history of exclusion. And there are quite a few veto points in the political system that obstruct majoritarian policies. So they have a lot to draw on and it’s not a novel political philosophy. It’s a reversion to the American norm in some way. Because we haven’t really been a fully inclusive democracy, ever. And to the degree that we have, it’s been for just a generation—since the Voting Rights Act—and they’re already giving up on that.
The electoral college is not exclusionary. Trying to claim it has anything to do with the Voting Rights Act, which gives rights to minorities who could be stripped of them in a pure, non-constitutional democracy is pure sophistry.
And it’s so fascinating to me that that period that I took for granted because of the moment in time I happened to be born in—this Cold War framework of “capitalism is democracy versus communism is unfreedom”—that paradigm is breaking down. So, you see people on the left becoming more self-consciously socialist and saying, “Well, hold on, maybe socialism’s not so bad.” But on the right, you also see people who are like, “Why do we even have to pretend to be democratic at all?”
Socialism is destructive. Look at Venezuala. And don’t tell me their problems were all caused by US sanctions. Bullshit. If pure democracy leads to socialism, that is a good argument against pure democracy. I have never heard a person on the right (other than the fringe far right) say that they don’t want a universally representative government.
Democracy is a term that has really deep roots in this country. It’s going to be hard to turn people against it. So I think there is something powerful in this shift. And this is why I’m saying that it justifies future strategies, because I think what it helps us do is understand what we’re up against. It helps us name the strategy that we’re going to have to fight if we care about building a more democratic society.
By more democratic, does Taylor mean that there will be less representation for the minority regions, the so called “fly over” states? Why would they agree to be ruled by the massive majority who live in California, New York, and Illinois? Moving to election by popular vote might even lead to the breakup of America. Here in Canada, we have periodic rumblings of separation from both Quebec and the western provinces. People who don’t feel their government is listening to them don’t care if it was elected by a majority.
And this is why I’m frustrated with liberals who have spent the last four years warning about “populism,” which implies that the threat is the will of the majority. The real worry right now is not tyranny of the majority. If you look at the popular will in this country, the majority of people still want action on climate change, despite all of the disinformation and all of the millions of dollars that have been poured into misleading the public about the scientific consequences, right? People want better health care and public investment in health care. People want unions, et cetera. I think the problem is not the tyranny of the majority right now. The problem is the tyranny of an elite minority.
I agree with Taylor’s premise that there is a problem with the elite minority. What I disagree with is her claim that because something is popular it is the right thing to do. If people want better health care, but to get it they borrow massively against future generations, that is a problem. Again, here is where the idea of a pure democracy falls over. If a city mismanages its budget, you can move away. When your country does the same, it’s not so easy.
This is why it’s important to understand the history of this country. The Founding Fathers were very concerned with protecting minority rights. They didn’t understand the phrase minority rights as we understand it today—protections for trans people, immigrants, et cetera. But they were very concerned with the rights of the opulent. And that’s one of their words, right? Madison said that it’s very important to structure the Senate as they did to protect the rights of the opulent minority against the landless masses.
Those who have are always at risk of having what they have earned taken from them by the majority. Clearly, not all wealth is earned, but why do others have the right to take what I have worked hard to earn? This is not hard to understand.
John Adams wrote at length about how terrible it would be if you had a system where there’s rule of the majority, because the impoverished masses would vote to redistribute wealth. That is a fact of this nation’s history. And that is the history that these Republican figures are actually conjuring when they talk about the United States being a constitutional republic, not a democracy. Mike Lee is an economic libertarian, and in his tweet he emphasized liberty and prosperity. He didn’t say equality or prosperity broadly shared, right? So it’s all about protecting property from the masses who would seek redistributive reforms, and John Adams warned of that.
Exactly. Forced redistribution is theft. Worse, empowering the establishment to do the redistribution means that most of the wealth will go to those who aren’t impoverished.
People who are annoyed by that phrase, they tend to do this counter-originalist argument. They’ll say, “Oh, you stupid conservatives, don’t you realize that actually the Founding Fathers meant representative democracy when they said republic, right?” But the Founding Fathers did not want the United States to be a direct democracy, which is how they understood Athenian democracy, to be a purely direct form of democracy. They thought that that was very unstable and risky.
And they were correct.
I guess I have two responses to that. One is, I don’t really care what the Founding Fathers thought. They also thought I should have no political rights. So I’m not here to live in their world forever. And there was a lot of disagreement among the people we count as the founders, right? There were some of them who were far more small-d democratic than others. But I think the point is that the battle was never just, “Are we a direct democracy?” But rather, “How representative of a democracy are we?” In my opinion, it’s never been representative enough, but that’s really what this conversation is about.
The founders wrought well. What they created wasn’t perfect. Replacing it with a system based purely on the popular vote would be taking a huge risk.
I think this election is existential, and I hope it reminds the left that we can’t take for granted even the basic political rights we think we have. I think for a while, there has been this sort of sense on the left that we are in this two-party system, it’s a duopoly, it’s not democratic.
You have a choice between two establishment parties that are by and large the same. How is that “existential”?
And that critique was right. Of course, the system is not democratic in so many ways. I don’t think a society with the wealth inequality we have qualifies as democratic, just as a baseline. But we also have to vote. We can’t take the progress that’s been made for granted because there’s a deeply undemocratic anti-democratic strain to American politics. That’s what we’re seeing with comments like the one from Mike Lee. There are elites who are more than happy to do away with democracy, to do away with regular people having any sort of power or say over their lives.
Wealth inequality is a natural thing. A society that had no wealth inequality would not be a democracy. I agree that there are elites that want to maintain control and enact policies that make unearned inequality worse. Many of them are unelected bureaucrats. That is why government should be as small as possible.
Democracy has always been a concept that has been held in contempt by elites, even in ancient Athens. And that attitude is alive and well. Democracy is an idea that we really have to put a lot of care into, and constantly be engaging with, and to me, that process absolutely does not require this weird, religious reverence for the Founding Fathers. That’s why I end the book on the image that let us not aspire to be Founding Fathers, but to be perennial midwives, birthing democracy anew. If you don’t renew it, if you don’t reinvent it, then it’s at risk of disappearing.
As it has to a large degree in the European Union. Who is worse? Republicans, who reject your socialist doctrine of wealth redistribution, or the Democrats, many of whom are (ironically) anti-democratic globalists. I don’t disagree that democracy is at risk of disappearing. It seems all we can do is periodically vote out the party in power to show our ire with their corruption. Socialism is not the answer.