Last October, Utah Senator Mike Lee baffled many by posting a simple tweet. It was short and to the point:
“We’re not a democracy.”
He received immediate and well-earned scorn and blowback across the board. What do you mean America is not a Democracy? Are you saying that our representatives shouldn’t be decided by voters?
I’ve noticed this trend more and more in recent years. When somebody refers to American Democracy, someone else inevitably chimes in “We’re not a democracy! We’re a republic!”
Lee, who fancies himself a “constitutionalist,” later tried to walk back his remarks with an op-ed (still ridiculously titled “Of Course We’re Not a Democracy”) where he attempted to explain that HIS definition of “democracy” was one of exclusive majority rule, and therefore rules in the senate which require 60 votes to move a bill forward to be voted on somehow takes America out of “democracy territory.”
Here’s the problem. People like Lee and all other commenters are essentially suggesting that “democracy,” or any other conceptual term, only has one appropriate definition. And to them, only THEIR definition counts.
There are a few points I want to make here.
- Our structure of government (representative republic) and our electoral process (representative democracy) are NOT mutually exclusive.
- Government and political concepts and constructs always have many forms.
- Not all levels of government in our country work the same.
Structure of Government vs. Electoral Processes
When someone falsely proclaims “we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic!” they’re often only looking at the structure of government and ignoring our electoral processes. But you cannot have one without the other.
By structure, I mean things like the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), the roles of those branches (making laws, enforcing laws, and interpreting laws), and the various levels of government (federal, state, local).
Our form of government is indeed a representative republic, where representatives make, enforce, and interpret laws on behalf of the greater population.
Often, when talking about the United States, people call it a “constitutional republic,” meaning that these efforts to make, enforce, and interpret laws are based on a core constitutional document. Lee makes this point, and to give him credit – this part is true.
But this claim still ignores the electoral process. How are these representatives in our republic chosen? Do they inherit it from their parents? Are they chosen solely by a small group of elites? (There are plenty of republics in the world which use this model – including the U.S. in some instances)
When you have a republic, there must also be a process established by which representatives are chosen. Otherwise, your form of government is not a republic.
And in the United States, in the case of ALL of our legislators and all heads of the executive branch, defining this electoral process is simple.
As of today (it hasn’t always been this way) almost ALL adults over 18 can vote, regardless of income, race, gender, or most other factors. Any way you look at it, with indisputable clarity, our electoral process is a democracy.
Therefore it is absolutely appropriate and correct to say that we are a democracy. This doesn’t take away from our government structure of being a constitutional, representative republic. In fact, the democracy that is our electoral process is an essential elements of what makes us a republic at all.
Government and Political Concepts and Constructs Always Have Many Forms
Yet still people persist on the “we’re not a democracy!” claim. I’m not really sure why. Maybe because the assume “democracy” and “Democrat” mean the same thing? I don’t know.
The truth is, there is not one single idea, concept, platform, or structure that is called “democracy.” Democracy is no monolith (neither is a republic for that matter, but let’s not digress too much).
At its core, democracy means a form of government where the people have a say when it comes to the laws of their communities.
This could be in the form of voting directly on political issues (often called a direct democracy or pure democracy). It could be in terms of voting for our representatives who will make laws on our behalf (like our most commonly-used representative democracy), or it could even refer to the ability for normal citizens to actually run for office and seek to become policy and lawmakers.
So when people cry “we are not a democracy!” what they are usually meaning to say that our government is not as a whole a direct democracy. In so doing, they ignore all of the other, far more common forms of democracy.
Not All Levels of Government in Our Country Are the Same
Mike Lee tried to point to nuances regarding the way the Senate works as a primary argument that “we are not a democracy.” He says that the filibuster rule and the fact that two senators represent each state regardless of population essentially create a situation where there is no “majority rule.”
Well, how did he (and all other senators for that matter) get in office in the first place? Yep, utilizing democracy at the state level. People in Utah voted for him. He had to receive a plurality (not exactly the same as a majority, but still more than the rest) of the votes in order to win the race.
Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1912, people did not vote for senators – they were selected by state legislatures (a less democratic process). So the senate has, in fact, become MORE democratic as an electoral structure since the founding of the country. It may come as no surprise that Mike Lee is one senator who believes the 17th amendment should be repealed. Go figure.
Next – even with filibuster rules, the senate A) is not the only decision maker in the federal government, and B) only a simple majority is needed for a bill to pass through the senate once it comes to a vote.
However you slice his claims, it seems like a very weird non-democratic hill to die on.
Finally, what about local governments? Many states have systems whereby citizens can initiate referendums, promote ballot initiatives, and recall elected officials. And some local governments, such as some in Vermont, skip the representatives all together and have town meetings where decisions are made and voted upon directly by citizens – a form of direct democracy.
So even when people try to claim “we are not a DIRECT democracy!” this is only partially and selectively true.
I know that there is a lot of nuance here. But can we please stop making the claim that “we are not a democracy, we are a republic!”?
How about instead we say, “yes, we ARE a republic. And yes, we ARE a democracy.”
I’m not sure what angle the Mike Lees and others of this country are getting at by promoting this falsehood. Unless, of course, at their core they believe that we need to just do away with, or severely limit, citizens voices all together.
I know I’m not okay with that. I’m guessing you are not either.
I know that democracy isn’t perfect, and is often downright messy. But we need to stop trying to narrow the voice of the people. Democracy is the idea that every citizen should have a say. The fundamental truth stated in the Declaration of Independence says that all are created equal.
These values are the backbone of our American society.
So yes. Of course we are a Democracy, Senator Lee.