The word “democracy” never appears in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.
However, democracy is central to the modern concept of America.
The founders seemed to prefer calling the fast-growing country a republic rather than a democracy. Many opposed direct democracy and the possibility that demagogues could corrupt it or take over the rule of the mob. Instead, they designed a representative government in which “the people” would elect representatives who would make the laws and run the administration.
The problem, of course, was that their definition of “the people” was largely limited to wealthy white men, including slaves.
Over the years, America has expanded the definition of “the people” to include more Americans, but conservatives have resisted the expansion at every turn. And now they are trying to drag the country backwards, tear down the ranks of those who can vote and deny or invalidate elections in which the voting population, which has not been reduced enough, produces results they do not agree with.
We hear people say over and over that candidates, like some who are running in Tuesday’s primaries, threaten our democracy. We learned about threats to our democracy during the January 6 hearings. We have been hearing for years that Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy.
But it seems to me that we need to step back and realize that the current Republican Party has given up the idea of full democracy.
Republicans want to return the country to the way its founders conceived it, when white men had excessive influence, when patriarchy prevailed, when white supremacy masqueraded as conventional wisdom.
Liberals often seem to me overly annoyed with why Republicans fail to recognize the threat posed by Trump’s election denial. The reason is clear to me: they have turned their backs on democracy.
For anti-democratic Republicans, Trump is an incredibly useful tool. His motives are selfish and petty, but the Republicans who forgo full democracy have big plans. They see themselves falling into a minority, so they want to devise a plan for a minority government.
And they are attacking the electoral process at every level to achieve their goals.
By calling themselves traditionalists and constitutionalists, and by canonizing the flawed founders, they disguise their regression as conservation.
Conservatives now routinely make the point that America is not a democracy, but a republic. The Heritage Foundation even published a report in 2020 called “America Is a Republic, Not a Democracy”. The report argued, “Thus, contemporary efforts to weaken our Republican customs and institutions in the name of greater equality run counter to the efforts of the American founders to defend our country from the potential excesses of Democratic majorities,” and that the US government system “threatened by an egalitarianism that undermines the social, family, religious and economic differences and inequalities that undermine our political freedom.”
In their narration, the will of the majority itself seems to be a problem. I interpret this broadly: that in the eyes of many conservatives a fuller democracy is a disaster waiting to happen.
So we see an epic clash taking place in America in which the parameters are not fully, loudly delineated: the Democrats want a democracy; the Republicans do not. The Republican Party is anti-democracy, post-democracy. While Democrats scream about a collapsing country, Republicans are already surveying the landscape of America that will emerge from the wreckage.
George Thomas, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, argued in The Atlantic in 2020 that while the word “democracy” may not be in the constitution, its spirit is. As he put it: “High-end claims that we are not a democracy that are secretly merging” republic of minority rule rather than popular government. Enabling continued minority government at the national level is not a feature of our constitutional design, but a perversion of it.”
Perversion, distortion and deceit now seem to be the backbone of the Republican Party. It is no longer a party of ideas, but rather a party of atavism. It’s a party frantically running down an ascending escalator.
The problem is that there is a real risk that the party will succeed in dragging the country with it.
As Sue Halpern wrote in The New Yorker, “The paradox of American democracy is that its survival is a choice; it persists only at the discretion of an electorate that can dismantle it, if it wants to.” Republicans are pushing the portion of the electorate they control to dismantle it.
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