“We’re not a democracy,” Republican Senator Mike Lee tweeted in the middle of Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate. He was reacting to something he’d heard onstage there, in his home state of Utah. Another 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.” Hours after the debate Lee was still worrying the thought: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Why did Lee choose this moment—less than four weeks before an election in which his party seems likely to suffer defeat—to make the familiar, even pedantic, point that we live in a republic rather than a pure democracy? Why did he insist on the point so vehemently that he neglected to mention that power in the American system ultimately lies with the people, which means that our system could also be called a representative democracy? Did he mean rank as in “foul,” “rancid,” or “outright”? If the last, does that mean the tyranny of the majority leading to perverse rule by “the few”? What did this short, misleading course in Civics 101 have to do with anything?
My guess is that Lee wasn’t just being pedantic. Worried about an election in which the people can express their will, Lee was laying the groundwork to contest the results or block an elected majority from governing.
These incidents, coming faster than anyone can absorb, are all expressions of raw, undemocratic power—of might making right. They signify that Trump and his enablers will trample on any rules, and finally majority rule. Senator Lee made a constitutional case on Twitter for what President Trump will try to do by chin-jutting fiat. What Lee calls “rank democracy,” Trump calls a “rigged election.” Later, Lee explained that he’s concerned about the protection of minority rights from a coercive majority. That sounds like a hedge against an election blowout.
Lee’s contortions recall the antidemocratic arguments of Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, whose theory of nullification by concurrent majorities claimed constitutional grounds for the slave states to defy federal authority. History rendered a negative verdict on Calhoun’s theories and the evil system he defended to his last breath. Like the antebellum South, today’s Republican Party is composed of a demographically and economically weakening population. It appeals ever harder to an ever-shrinking base of older, white, male, rural, less-educated Americans. And, like the antebellum South, the Republican Party holds on to power by exploiting the Constitution’s unrepresentative features—the Senate, the Electoral College, and unelected justices with lifetime appointments. These institutions have concentrated outsize power in a minority party that doesn’t hesitate to break the rules for maximum advantage. Its skill in drawing inside straights and turning weak hands into political domination has been impressive. But next month’s election seems poised to begin the return of majority rule.