Republican Senator Mike Lee said the United States is “not a democracy.” Why does that matter?

Republican Senator Mike Lee said the United States is “not a democracy.” Why does that matter?
Source: Reuters
Criticisms of his comments have run the gamut from those who argue that Senator Mike Lee is merely splitting hairs to those who say that he is advocating for abolishing democracy.

With a pair of tweets, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah set off a firestorm, with incensed commentators calling him a fascist. His first of two tweets on October 7 was a mere four words: “We’re not a democracy.” On its surface, the tweet could be read as a pedantic assertion that the United States is technically a constitutional republic.

Yet, a follow-up tweet pushed the issue further and has only deepened the controversy. Lee has continued to defend his stance, arguing that his view is, in actuality, opposed to a fascistic, totalitarian government by the majority. However, criticisms of his comments have run the gamut from those who argue that Lee is merely splitting hairs to those who say that he is advocating for abolishing democracy.

The conversation echoes an ongoing debate around the Electoral College, one amplified by President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, despite him losing the popular vote. Republicans have defended the Electoral College, which uses 538 electors to represent the nation’s will instead of a direct vote total. Many Democrats argue the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic and have pushed for abolishing it.

What did Senator Mike Lee say?

On October 7, hours after tweeting that the US was not a democracy, Lee tweeted again, presumably as a way to address the criticism of his first tweet:

“The word ‘democracy’ appears nowhere in the Constitution, perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. To me it matters. It should matter to anyone who worries about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.’

The replies to the tweet were frequently critical, with one stating the senator was “asking Americans to give up the democracy in which we live — for fascism and dictatorship.” Another commentator echoed the sentiment: “This is you gaslighting to cover up the fact that you believe we should be a one-party, Fascist nation…with you & your pals as ruling oligarchs.”

Norman Ornstein, a contributor to The Atlantic, put it bluntly: “Mike, You ought to be deeply ashamed of yourself. This is the stuff of autocrats.”

Lee also had his defenders. One respondent, Geoff Captain, opined, “Sadly, I think Mike’s post will be lost on most of his critics in these replies. Democracy leads to tyranny of the majority, and was specifically despised by the founding fathers. Our system is set up so the minority continues to have a voice.”

Speaking to the Washington Examiner on October 8, Lee explained his position further, reiterating Geoff Captain’s interpretations of his comments.

“In a democracy,” Lee told the website, “when society decides, ‘Hey, let’s have a national church. Everybody has to go to that church.’ If you’ve got a majority for that, it’s gonna be the law. In a constitutional republic like ours, it operates according to elections, and in that respect … you have democratic forces at play. But to think of it as a democracy, and to refer to it obsessively as ‘our democracy’ sends the wrong message.”

On Twitter, a lawyer, Michael Skotnicki, took issue with that framing of the US’s system of government: “We are a Constitutional republic established as a representative democracy. If you intend to replace our democracy with some other form of government, you’ll have to tear up the Constitution. I should remind you, Senator, that you swore an oath to uphold the Constitution.”

The US system of government

The US is technically both a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. However, the former refers to the form of government, while the latter is the means (or ideology) by which the government is run.

In addition to being a constitutional republic, the US is a federal republic, meaning that it is made up of states that have their own laws, and a presidential republic, as it has a president who operates independently of the legislative body, Congress.

As Lee stated, the US Constitution does not once mention that the country is a democracy. It also does not ever use the word “republic,” though the phrase “Republican Form of Government” is used once, in Article IV, Section 4: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”

These distinctions can seem arbitrary and in modern parlance they often are. That is the view of Josh Chafetz, a law professor at Georgetown University who, on October 8, tweeted: “People, please. I’m begging you. In modern political discourse, in modern political systems, ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ are synonymous. Your ‘it’s a republic, not a democracy!’ makes you sound idiotic, not sophisticated.”

In reality, though, the founding fathers did distinguish between a republic and a democracy, with James Madison in particular against the latter. Madison argued in “The Federalist Papers” 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.”

Madison asserted that a prejudiced, demographically diverse and geographically separate electorate would necessarily create factions. The way to ensure those factions did not overrule and oppress a minority, Madison argued, was through a republic, which “promises the cure” for majority rule.

This was done through the establishment of the Electoral College, a “delegation of the government” whose “wisdom,” Madison believed, “may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

The Electoral College

Since 2000, a Republican candidate has won the presidential election via the Electoral College in three out of five elections, the most recent being Trump’s defeat of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet, the Republican Party’s candidate has only won the popular vote once – in 2004, when incumbent President George W. Bush defeated Senator John Kerry by over three million votes.

This disparity between the popular vote and the Electoral College has led many to call for abolishing the system. These critics argue that the Electoral College was originally created in a time when most of the population was uneducated and, thus, incapable of making a “wise” choice. Much has changed since the 18th century, they say.

One such critic, Darrell M. West, who is vice president of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, wrote in October 2019 that the Electoral College can “systematically overrepresent the views of relatively small numbers of people.”

Since state electoral votes are based on the number of Congressional members, smaller states are at an advantage. Currently, when weighted for voter turnout and other factors, a voter in the least populous state, Wyoming, has three times the value as a voter in California, the country’s most populous state.

The ratio is even wider when solely based on population. Wyoming’s fewer than 600,000 residents get three electoral votes, whereas California’s nearly 40 million citizens are represented by 55 electors. That means there is one elector for every 200,000 Wyoming residents, but only one elector for every 725,000 Californians.

There remain defenders of the Electoral College, though. Writing in 2018, historian Allen Guelzo, stated, “The Electoral College system is not only embedded in the structure of our constitutional governance; it is also emblematic of the fact that we are a federal republic.” [Emphasis in original.]

Guelzo continues, “Abolishing the Electoral College now might satisfy an irritated yearning for direct democracy, but it would also mean dismantling federalism.” Guelzo’s argument draws a direct connection between Madison’s writings and Senator Lee’s recent tweets.

Yet, that argument won’t persuade Lee’s critics who believe he is advocating for the minimalization of Americans’ voices in their government.

It’s clear the debate over the Electoral College isn’t going away any time soon. A recent Gallup poll found 61% percent of Americans support abolishing the system. That’s a considerable drop from 1968 when 80% supported doing away with the Electoral College. In 1969, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to do just that, but the bill died in Congress the following year.

When asked about the Electoral College earlier this year, current Democratic nominee Joe Biden said he did not support abolishing it. However, his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, said she was open to it. If Trump once again wins the election while losing the popular vote, a push to abolish the Electoral College will likely only grow even more intense.

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