If you haven’t yet realized that we are beyond politics as usual, consider the reaction we had after posting our updated problem brief, Threats to Voting Rights, to Facebook: Someone posted in reply “#WeAreNOTaDemocracy” and within moments, someone else had liked the post.
America – that is, our currently un-united America – IS a democracy. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution sparked a political revolution that continues to this day 250 years later. We may no longer be the best example of democracy, but in 1835, our young nation was the subject of one of that century’s most influential books, “Democracy in America”. No one disputed that America was a democracy.
Even Utah Senator Mike Lee, author of the essay, Of Course We’re Not a Democracy, believes America is a democracy. In that 2020 essay, he confusingly wrote, “Insofar as ‘democracy’ means ‘a political system in which government derives its powers from the consent of the governed,’ then of course that accurately describes our system.”
It’s not clear what the senator is trying to do. His title seems like clickbait that he tosses out into the infosphere knowing it’s a falsehood because it’s a pronouncement that he immediately contradicts. But then, he confuses things with poor rationalizations about why a republic is not a democracy. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “republic” as
“a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law”
That sounds a lot like a democracy, and indeed, like the democracy at the country’s founding when only white men of property constituted the body of citizens who were allowed to vote. But the nation has progressed since then, expanding voting rights however slowly and reluctantly to more and more of the citizenry.
That’s the nuance, perhaps, that Lee wanted to communicate: the power in the kind of democratic republic that he has in mind lies not with all its citizens but with a smaller body of citizens who are entitled to vote. What the senator and others who believe that we are not a democracy may be trying to say is that we need to go back to that point in time when not all of us should have the right to vote. That would be consistent with the history of resistance to voting rights that the GOP inherited when the party welcomed the southern Democrats into the fold after passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s.
The unasked question is, who gets to decide who among us gets to vote?
This week, we saw that a Supreme Court populated by conservative justices hand-picked and groomed by the Federalist Society is willing to walk back settled constitutional law. And Susan Collins (R-ME) is reminding us that several of them assured her and other members of Congress, both privately and during public hearings, that they considered Roe v. Wade to be settled law and they would not overturn precedent. The release of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has given us good reason to believe that other “settled” law is most certainly not set in stone.
And as the Threats to Voting Rights points out, this version of the GOP doesn’t support protections of voting rights and is actively seeking to pass laws that will make it easier for them to rule which votes count and which don’t, regardless of their legitimacy.
If that should come to pass, then Senator Lee’s essay title will be much more true than it is today, and America most certainly will not be the democracy we inherited from those who fought and won the battles that came before us.