Who knew that America was filled with so many amateur social studies teachers?
Whenever I write about Republican-led efforts in state capitols across the land to sharply curtail voting rights (which disproportionately impact Black and brown voters who tend to support Democrats), I’ll often get a letter from an aggrieved conservative reader who reminds me, “John, you of all people should know we’re a republic and not a democracy.”
Strictly speaking, those readers are correct. We’re not a direct democracy. But the notes came with such startling regularity, that I had to ask myself: After decades of sending American forces around the world to spread and defend our very particular brand of democracy, stepped up under the administration of President George W. Bush to an almost religious zeal, what did conservatives suddenly have against it?
The answer came in the form of a Nov. 2, 2020 essay in The Atlantic by Claremont McKenna College political scientist George Thomas, who argued, succinctly and persuasively, why the GOP’s sudden insistence on this semantic distinction is a “dangerous and wrong argument.”
“Enabling sustained minority rule at the national level is not a feature of our constitutional design, but a perversion of it,” Thomas argues, pointing to such Republicans as U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, of Utah, who have been trotting out this corrosive chestnut as a way to justify the limited kind of political participation envisioned by the current incarnation of the GOP.
“The founding generation was deeply skeptical of what it called ‘pure’ democracy and defended the American experiment as ‘wholly republican,’” Thomas writes. “To take this as a rejection of democracy misses how the idea of government by the people, including both a democracy and a republic, was understood when the Constitution was drafted and ratified. It misses, too, how we understand the idea of democracy today.”
He pointed out that President Abraham Lincoln, whom Republicans like to embrace when it’s convenient, “used constitutional republic and democracy synonymously, eloquently casting the American experiment as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And whatever the complexities of American constitutional design, Lincoln insisted, ‘the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible.’”
And it is indisputable that Republicans are a minority, representing 43 percent of the nation, but holding half of the U.S. Senate, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com, which also points out that, while Democrats need to win large majorities to govern, Republicans are freed from this onerous task. And the system is rigged to ensure it continues.
In addition to this imbalance in the Senate, “the Electoral College, the House of Representatives and state legislatures are all tilted in favor of the GOP,” the FiveThirtyEight analysis continues. “As a result, it’s possible for Republicans to wield levers of government without winning a plurality of the vote. More than possible, in fact — it’s already happened, over and over and over again.”
There’s another pattern that emerges if you start examining those who most often make this shopworn argument: They’re white, privileged, and speaking from a position of great power. Thus, it behooves them to envision as limited an idea of political participation as possible.
“That is a phrase that is uttered by people who, looking back on the sweep of American history, see themselves as safely at the center of the narrative, and typically they see their present privileges under threat,” documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor told Slate in 2020. “And so, they want to shore up the privileges that they possess, and they’re looking for a sort of historic hook.”
Taylor points out that the United States has never really been a fully inclusive democracy — going back to the Founders who denied women and Black people the right to vote — and who didn’t even count the enslaved as fully human. Still, the political pendulum of the last few years has been swinging away from that conceit to a view of American democracy, while not fully majoritarian, is nonetheless evermore diverse and inclusive.
A recent report by Catalist, a major Democratic data firm, showed that the 2020 electorate was the most diverse ever. Pointedly, the analysis found that while white voters still make up nearly three-quarters of the electorate, their share has been declining since the 2012 election. That shift “comes mostly from the decline of white voters without a college degree, who have dropped from 51 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 44 percent in 2020,” the analysis notes.
Meanwhile, 39 percent of the coalition that backed President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris was made up of voters of color, the analysis found, while the remaining 61 percent of voters were split more or less evenly between white voters with and without a college degree. The Trump-Pence coalition, meanwhile, was about as homogeneous as you’d expect it to be: 85 percent were white.
Republicans who wanted to “make America great again” were looking back to a very specific, and mythologized, view of the country: One that preserved the rights and privileges of a white majority. With Trump gone, but scarcely forgotten, the “Republic Not a Democracy” crowd is just another look on the same endlessly aggrieved face.