It’s a common experience when you point out some anti-democratic measure or attitude in American political discourse to get a tart and sometimes angry response from someone who thinks you should know better. Jamelle Bouie explains it in a very useful column for the New York Times:
Spend enough time talking politics on the internet — or in any other public forum — and you’ll run into this standard reply to anyone who wants more democracy in American government: “We’re a republic, not a democracy.”
You saw it over the weekend in an exchange between Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Dan Crenshaw of Texas. In a brief series of tweets, Ocasio-Cortez made the case against the Electoral College and argued for a national popular vote to choose the president. “Every vote should be = in America, no matter who you are or where you come from,” she wrote. “The right thing to do is establish a Popular Vote. & GOP will do everything they can to fight it.”
Crenshaw, who has sparred with Ocasio-Cortez before, jumped in with a response: “Abolishing the Electoral College means that politicians will only campaign in (and listen to) urban areas. That is not a representative democracy.” And then he said it: “We live in a republic, which means 51% of the population doesn’t get to boss around the other 49%.”
Bouie points out that this argument for the Electoral College is simply wrong on its own terms (like most arguments for the Electoral College). But he challenges the premise that the United States has a form of government that makes democratic principles irrelevant. In part, he does this by distinguishing between the direct democracy the Founders did fear and the representative democracy they gave us. But he also gives us a quick account of the unsavory history of the “republic, not a democracy” slogan:
Nicole Hemmer, a historian of American politics and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, traces it to the 1930s and ’40s. “When Franklin Roosevelt made defending democracy a core component of his argument for preparing for, and then intervening in, the war in Europe, opponents of U.S. intervention began to push back by arguing that the U.S. was not, in fact, a democracy,” she wrote in an email …
The term went from conservative complaint to right-wing slogan in the 1960s, when Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a September 1961 speech, “Republics and Democracies.” In a democracy, Welch protested, “there is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.”
For us baby-boomers, the Birchers’ use of the term republic to justify all sorts of artificial restraints on popular majorities rings familiar. But aside from its precise origins, the general intention in opposing a “republic” to a “democracy” is clear:
The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are but to claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics — to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip, in other words, is an impulse against democratic representation. It is part and parcel of the drive to make American government a closed domain for a select, privileged few.
Some specific examples beyond the defense of the Electoral College come to mind that reflect the conservative tendency to use “republican” limitations on democracy to justify and even expand privilege.
(1) States’ Rights Champions: The oldest and most thoroughly abused doctrine seeking to take “republican” restraints on democracy and justify privilege is the ancient rebel yell of “states’ rights.” Pre–Civil War defenders of slavery often claimed that the power of states to protect the peculiar institution was essential to the ability to maintain liberty and even democracy for white people (often citing the Athenian precedent). Similarly, the Southern revolt against Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow were rationalized as self-protection against the tyranny of the (black and/or carpetbagger) majority that prevailed in many parts of the region or, alternatively, against the race-mixing national political consensus. That this doctrine produced local tyranny and entrenched racial privilege was obvious, if often ignored by its defenders.
(2) The Lochnerians: This conservative legal movement — which harks back to the era of constitutional jurisprudence defined by the 1905 Supreme Court decision in New York v. Lochner (eventually overturned after its application, as invalidating much of the early New Deal produced a near constitutional crisis) — holds that fixed private-property rights embedded in the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment cannot be abrogated by federal or state legislatures. There is a neo-Lochnerian movement active in laws schools and corners of the federal and state judiciaries today, aimed at protecting wealthy individuals from democratic “violations” of their rights via regulation and taxation.
(3) Constitutional Conservatives: During the heyday of the Tea Party movement, conservative politicians (notably Sarah Palin and presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) took to calling themselves “constitutional conservatives” to signify their adherence to a view of limited government that takes Lochnerism and expands it beyond property rights to prohibit all sorts of democratic interference with “natural rights,” ranging from state self-determination to the fetal “right to life.” It’s sort of a plenary juxtaposition of a republic dedicated to capitalism and cultural traditionalism as against any effort by majorities to change anything, forever. The privileges that posture protects stretch from the nearest property line to the most sweeping idea of cultural patriarchy.
(4) Religious-Self-Determination Supporters: Perhaps the most vibrant current example of conservative efforts to use “republican” limits on democracy to entrench special privileges involves expansive notions of “religious freedom” to give Christian conservatives far-reaching exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, hand in glove with public subsidies for religious education. The ultimate objective seems to be to create a sort of collective “Benedict Option” wherein militantly religious people can form parallel communities beyond the common law, where LGBTQ folk remain closeted and women and children remain under the firm hand of servant-leader menfolk.
In other words, “It’s a republic, not a democracy” reflects a persistent strain of conservative thinking that is focused less on vindicating individual rights than on protecting oligarchies of privilege, whether they be national, regional, or local. That many of the same people who cite this slogan are among the first to complain about liberal “activist judges” who interfere with “democracy” when conservatives are in the ascendancy just exposes the game for its hypocrisy.