Mike Lee would like you to know that “America is not a democracy” — nor should it be.
The Utah senator tweeted this sentiment Wednesday night, registering an objection to Kamala Harris’s references to “our democracy” at the vice-presidential debate. Lee elaborated his views on self-government hours later, arguing that “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Many commentators took Lee’s point to be more asinine than authoritarian. These days, American conservatives love few phrases more than “we’re a republic, not a democracy.” In almost all cases, this statement is a non sequitur. In contemporary political discourse, “democracy” is defined as a system of representative government in which lawmakers are subject to popular elections. Few outside of anarchist spaces advocate for Athenian-style direct democracy, sortition, or any other non-republican form of democractic rule. Certainly, Kamala Harris did not advocate for such things at Wednesday night’s debate. To the contrary, she spoke of democracy twice — first to tout Joe Biden’s commitment to protecting the troops “who are sacrificing their lives for the sake of our democracy,” and second, to express her ticket’s commitment to a peaceful transfer of power after November’s election. It is hard to find a reason why Lee would take offense at these statements that are neither stupid nor sinister.
Typically, Republicans invoke America’s status as a “republic” to justify the arbitrary structural advantages that our archaic constitutional framework happens to award their party. When Democrats ask why the vote of an American who lives in Wyoming should count for orders of magnitude more than the vote of one who lives in California, Republicans reply, “Because we’re a republic not a democracy.” Never mind that population disparities between states were nowhere near as large at the time of the founding as they are today, or that there is no theory of republican governance that advises giving the residents of one arbitrarily bounded territory more voting power than the residents of another. No logic is necessary: Like a sorcerer’s spell, one can intone “we’re a republic, not a democracy” and poof — every counter-majoritarian institution that benefits your political party, be it a gerrymandered legislative map, the Electoral College, or a felon disenfranchisement law, is magically transformed from a legal reality of dubious legitimacy into a noble safeguard of American liberty.
The most charitable way of interpreting Lee’s tweets is to posit that he is stupid. Which is to say, that he lacks the capacity of critical thought and self-reflection necessary to recognize when motivating reasoning has led him to recite politically convenient arguments that have no substantive content.
A somewhat less-charitable interpretation — one more in keeping with his denigration of democracy as an ideal subordinate to “liberty” — would be that Lee, an economic libertarian, believes that the property rights of elites take precedence over the political rights of the plebes. This view is at least coherent. But it would be more fairly described with the maxim “we’re an oligarchy, not a republic.” And it is also a philosophy of the state that is very difficult to justify unless one ignores (1) how America’s status quo distribution of wealth came to be (hint: it involved, among other things, the brutal exploitation of Black slaves and starving immigrants), and (2) the demonstrable compatibility of social democracy and societal prosperity (Scandinavia exists).
But both of these interpretations seem too charitable. Like most Republicans in the Trump era, Mike Lee’s avowed opposition to popular sovereignty is fickle. When it is in Donald Trump’s interests to cast “the will of the people” as sacrosanct, Mike Lee does so. When it is in the Republican Party’s interests to belittle democratic ideals, Lee changes his tune.
Back in February, the Senate held a vote on whether to remove Donald Trump from office, following his impeachment in the House. By that point, there was overwhelming public evidence that the president had held up congressionally authorized military aid to Ukraine in order to coerce its government into announcing an investigation into one of his prominent domestic political rivals (Joe Biden). There was also abundant evidence that Trump had obstructed a federal investigation into his campaign. In fact, the president himself had said explicitly, on multiple occasions, that he believed the job of the U.S. attorney general was to “protect” him and his allies from legal accountability. In interview after interview, he lambasted Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation, and voiced his “great respect” for the way former Attorney General Eric Holder had supposedly ensured that Barack Obama could break the law without facing legal consequences.
Beyond Trump’s myriad affronts to the separation of powers and rule of law, his basic fitness for executive office had been called into question by his own co-partisans. In 2017, then-Tennessee senator Bob Corker had likened the White House to an “adult day care center” in which Trump’s advisers worked “every single day” to “contain him.” Corker said that he feared the president’s reckless ignorance could put America on the path to World War III.” And he also claimed that his GOP colleagues shared this assessment in private, saying, “The vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.”
It seems quite likely that Mike Lee was a member of that “vast majority.” In 2016, the Utah senator refused to endorse Donald Trump’s campaign. He denounced the GOP nominee as “religiously intolerant,” and fumed at Trump accusing “my best friend’s father of conspiring to kill JFK.” Following the disclosure of the Access Hollywood tape, Lee called for Trump to drop out of the race.
So: An illiberal demagogue won election by appealing to voters’ basest instincts, proceeded to wage war on the rule of law and demonstrate his incapacity for responsible governance in ways large and small. Under our constitutional system, Congress has the power to remove presidents from office for committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” — a category of offense that Congress has unilateral authority to define.
To the extent that the distinction between “republican” and “democratic” ideals has coherence in American political debates, it describes competing conceptions of representative government: In a republican philosophy of representation, an elected lawmaker should serve as a trustee rather than a mere delegate, bringing their learned judgment to bear on the affairs of the day, rather than faithfully adhering to their constituents.
It is hard to imagine a scenario in which asserting the supremacy of representatives’ independent judgement over the dictates of the electorate would be more justified than it was during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. And yet, not only did Lee vote against impeachment (unlike his fellow Republican Utah senator), he justified his opposition by arguing that the will of the people was sacrosanct.
“At the end of the day, this government does in fact stand accountable to the people. This government is of, by, and, for the people,” Lee said on the Senate floor. “We’ve sworn to protect and defend that system of government. And that means standing up for the American people, and those who they have elected to do a job recognized by the Constitution. I will be voting to defend the president’s actions. I will be voting against undoing the vote taken by the American people some three and a half years ago.”
Lee is far from alone in simultaneously arguing that the will of “the people” is the lodestar of our system of government — and also, that America is not a democracy, and popular sovereignty is less important than liberty and prosperity. This incoherence has been a defining feature of Republican rhetoric throughout the Trump era.
Thanks in part to the president’s “populist” branding, GOP officials have spent the past four years lionizing the rule of “the people.” At the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump referred to the candidate who had lost the popular vote in 2016 as the “people’s president.” When Mitch McConnell wished to justify nullifying Barack Obama’s right to appoint Supreme Court justices in 2016, he argued the “the American people” had a right to “weigh in on whom they trust to nominate the next person for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.”
After Republican candidates lost the popular vote in the ensuing two federal elections, McConnell once again appealed to popular sovereignty when justifying why the American people shouldn’t be allowed to weigh in on whether Donald Trump should get to appoint another Supreme Court justice, following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. “Americans re-elected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary,” McConnell said in a statement issued not long after news of Justice Ginsburg’s death became public. “Once again, we will keep our promise.”
Nevertheless, when defending the Electoral College — or condemning proposals to give American citizens in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico Senate representation — McConnell and his co-partisans have disdained the ideal of popular democracy. “They plan to make the District of Columbia a state — that’d give them two new Democratic senators — Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators,” McConnell said of Joe Biden’s agenda in June. This remark implied that (1) the Republican Party is incapable of ever persuading the U.S. citizens in D.C. and Puerto Rico to vote for it (for some unspecified reason), and that (2) since the U.S. citizens in those places will never vote for Republicans, they should not have democratic representation (a viewpoint consistent with McConnell’s long-standing conviction that “voting is a privilege”).
Of course, there is no necessary contradiction between the GOP’s reverence for “government by the people” and its proud contempt for democracy. After all, as emphasized above, their tributes to “the people” almost always refer to a specific minority of the people. The Republican position is that the American people should be sovereign — but only those who vote for Republicans should be considered American people.
By itself, Mike Lee’s argument that democracy must be subordinated to “liberty” (an abstraction that he implicitly awards himself the right to define) would be abhorrent. But the fact that the senator does not argue for a principled elitism — but rather, for the right of “the people” to rule undemocratically — makes his worldview appear even more sinister. After all, we live in a country where white people ruled undemocratically over Black Americans just 56 years ago, and where roughly 90 percent of the formerly disenfranchised Black population does not belong to “the American people” that elected Donald Trump.
With his impeachment vote, Lee demonstrated that he is not a “classical liberal” who privileges rule of law over majority rule. Rather, he and his fellow Republicans are — at best — proto-authoritarians who act and argue as though their minority’s rule takes precedence over the impartial enforcement of written laws. As such, they have no business governing this country — which is a democratic republic, not a fascistic plutocracy. (Or at least, that is what it’s supposed to be.)