Republicans Are Suddenly Afraid of Democracy

In a series of tweets, Senator Mike Lee laid the groundwork to contest the results or block an elected majority from governing.

by George Packer

“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.

The Trump administration is using the last weeks of the campaign to soften up the country for a repudiation of democracy itself. This project will take some doing. Getting rid of checks on presidential power in the form of inspectors general, congressional committees, special counsels, and nonpartisan judges might drive pundits and experts crazy, but such moves don’t hit home for many citizens. The post-Watergate norms established to preserve the Justice Department’s integrity are not widely understood. But voting is something else. Your vote is your most tangible connection to the idea of democratic government. It’s the only form of political power most Americans possess. It’s proof that government of, by, and for the people hasn’t yet perished from the Earth. Your vote is personal. For a president to throw it out would be an audacious undertaking.

Trump keeps promising to try. Every time he talks about “massive fraud” and sending the election to a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, he’s preparing you to have your vote taken away—to make that shocking prospect a little more normal, even inevitable. Each new controversy, each norm broken, each authoritarian pose makes Trump’s intention to nullify the election results clear.

In just the past two weeks, Trump’s children, his entourage, and the president himself engaged in ostentatious rule-breaking at the presidential debate. The president refused to condemn white supremacists or promise a peaceful transfer of power. Vice President Mike Pence engaged in less aggressive but more persistent interruptions and lies in Wednesday’s debate, and gave his own nonanswer to a question about accepting election results. Trump’s contempt for health protocols at a White House event introducing his new Supreme Court nominee led to the viral contagion of his staff and much of the executive branch’s senior leadership. The president’s flight back from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Marine One ended with a climb up the White House steps and a dramatically lit self-unmasking and salute, like a winded Mussolini. Attorney General William Barr rescinded Justice Department rules in order to be able to investigate supposed vote fraud just before an election. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released tricked-up evidence of a Barack Obama–Joe Biden–Hillary Clinton conspiracy against the Trump campaign in 2016. Trump expressed annoyance with both Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for taking too long to produce more “evidence” that could undermine Biden in the election’s final days. When the FBI broke up a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer by right-wing extremists of the kind the president won’t renounce, Trump hurled insults at their intended target.

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.

If so, then Republicans who trashed checks and balances for four years in order to consolidate conservative power will suddenly rediscover them. Not to constrain presidential abuses, but to thwart the popular will—first by trying to send the election to legislatures and courts and then, failing that, by blocking every move of a Democratic president and Congress. We’ll hear a lot of talk about the rights of minorities, the importance of separation of powers, and how America isn’t really a democracy. Last night Senator Ben Sasse released a statement warning that Biden intends to “effectively kill two of our three branches of government by abolishing the Senate and packing the Supreme Court.” Sasse was referring to the prospect of newly empowered Democrats ending the legislative filibuster and adding justices to the court.

Both of those possibilities deserve to be debated, before the election as well as after. Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, should remind voters that Republicans, not Democrats, have turned the Senate into a body that produces no legislation but simply functions as a conveyor belt to cram every level of the judiciary with partisan conservative judges, filling seats that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell forced President Obama to leave empty. The goal of this strategy is to seize control of the third, unelected branch of government and use it to prevent the elected branches, if they ever return to majority rule, from governing. What we’re hearing now from these latter-day Calhouns is fear of representative democracy.

Having chained their party to Trump, Republicans will follow him in his frantic effort to delegitimize the coming election. But I don’t think it will work. The vote remains too powerful an idea in the minds of Americans. They are already standing in long lines to cast the ballots that Trump claims are fraudulent. The word democracy might not be found in the Constitution, but Senator Lee is right to be frightened by it.

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is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.

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