'A republic, not a democracy,' and other lies that serve the status quo

Tyranny of the minority, Part 2

Utah Sen. Mike Lee
Utah Sen. Mike Lee Photo by Gage Skidmore

As a rule, whenever you hear someone confidently (and usually condescendingly) assert that America is "a republic, not a democracy," know that you're dealing with either a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect or a disingenuous pedant.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee's Twitter comment, midway through the Oct. 7 vice-presidential debate, that "We're not a democracy," likely falls into the latter camp. His attempt at cleanup early the next morning probably sounded better in the original German: "Democracy isn't the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that."

Lee is said to be a 2024 presidential aspirant. He's also said to be one of the sharper minds in the GOP Senate. I'm disinclined to assume that he's firing off freshman-level Deep Thoughts based on a Wikipedia skim or a Dinesh D'Souza documentary. This isn't ignorance. It's more perverse than that.

To be clear, I don't think Lee is suggesting we start practicing our goose-stepping. In his mind, this isn't about fascism versus democracy. This is about freedom versus democracy, which he thinks are irreconcilable. Lee and a not-insignificant proportion of the Republican Party believe that too much voting – or the wrong kind of voting – infringes on their inalienable right to impose their worldview on the rest of us. Phrased less generously, democracy threatens a comfortable, privileged status quo.

OK, I'll put it bluntly: They matter more than you. Their votes should matter more than yours.

Since we're here, let's dispense with it: The "republic, not a democracy" trope is rooted in a superficial understanding of America's founding. Yes, the framers distrusted "democracy," by which they meant Athenian democracy – a plebiscite – not a democratic government.

Just read James Madison's Federalist No. 10: "From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. ... A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking."

Counter-majoritarian institutions such as the Senate, the Supreme Court and the presidential veto existed not to overrule the majority, but to protect minorities from oppression. See Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inaugural address: "All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."

Yet, as we discussed last time, ours is a system in which the majority's will does not prevail. Quite the opposite. A strategic, oppositional and radicalized GOP has turned the constitutional system against itself, shattering norms and using maximalist tactics to cling to power despite its diminishing popularity and looming demographic apocalypse.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will, on a party-line vote, send the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the floor, where Senate Republicans will rush it to the finish line ahead of the Nov. 3 election, ensuring a far-right 6-3 Supreme Court majority for a generation. Never mind that five of those justices were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote. Never mind that the last three will have been confirmed by a Republican Senate majority that represents a mere 45% of the population.

A week or so later, the Republican president will probably try to cheat his way to re-election. That's not hyperbole. All over the country – North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Wisconsin – the Trump campaign and its sycophants are waging legal battles to prevent absentee ballots from being counted amid a pandemic, while the president makes reckless, baseless, wild-ass accusations of widespread fraud on the daily.

The stated goal – as in, they've said this out loud – is for President Trump to insist that the millions of ballots counted after Election Day are fraudulent, sue, and have the courts declare him the victor.

That's not an election strategy. That's a coup.

In Trump's best-case (and most legitimate) scenario, he again cobbles together a bare electoral majority while losing the popular vote by three or four points, hardly a show of strength.

Meanwhile, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, Republicans have a 27% chance of maintaining control of the Senate – a majority that would continue representing millions fewer Americans than the "minority." They have almost no chance of reclaiming the House, but the GOP wants to game that system, too. The administration prematurely pulled the plug on the decennial census, meaning areas with immigrants and poor people – i.e., Democrats – will have less congressional and legislative representation.

Let's acknowledge this for what it is. This isn't about a principled (if esoteric) stand for republican liberty in the face of democratic oppression. This is about power in its rawest, purest form. This is about people accustomed to status and privilege using every lever at their disposal – some legal, others illegal only if the judges they appoint say so – to maintain that status and privilege in perpetuity.

But ruthlessness cuts both ways. Mitch McConnell is putting Coney Barrett on the Court because he can, just like kept Merrick Garland off the Court because he could. He has power, and he's using it.

If come Jan. 20, Democrats control Washington, D.C., they'd be fools not to do the same: eliminate the filibuster, make D.C. and Puerto Rico states, add seats to the Supreme Court, and expand and protect voting rights. Make our democracy more democratic – then pass a sweeping agenda and have voters judge you on the results. There's nothing stopping them.

Nothing, that is, except nostalgia for an era that is never coming back.

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