“We’re a republic, not a democracy” is a thing Republicans are fond of saying.
Michele Fiore, whose insatiable thirst for right-wing celebrity status has led her to run for governor of Nevada, said it during a forum with five-sixths of the rest of the GOP gubernatorial field the other day. Except Fiore, always the innovator, turned the tired phrase around to put the “we are not a democracy” part first and then firmly pronounced, all Queen of Hearts like, that the nation is in fact a republic. Whatever Fiore thinks that is.
There’s ample reason for Republicans to be anti-democracy. Their nominee has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. And yet on two of those five occasions, their candidate ended up in the White House anyway. That would certainly seem to bolster the GOP’s claim that the U.S. is not a democracy.
As does a system whereby the Holy Sacred Founding Fathers Amen decided that the state of Wyoming, which they didn’t even know about at the time, should have just as many U.S. senators as New York, no matter how overwhelming the ungulate-to-human ratio in the former.
The 100 U.S. senators are grouped into three classes so more or less a third of the seats are selected every two years. Over the last three elections, which is to say accounting for all 100 Senate seats, Democratic candidates received a total of 141.6 million votes, to 115.4 million for GOP contenders, but until last year Republicans controlled the Senate all that time anyway.
The 2018 Senate elections were an especially stark reminder that democracy in America doesn’t rationally extend to U.S. Senate apportionment. Democrats got 52.2 million votes to the GOP’s 34.6 million that year, yet Republicans managed not only to retain their majority in the Senate but pick up two additional seats.
Just as the founders intended, Fiore might say.
It is true that most of the founders were fancy pants guys, mighty suspicious of the rabble, and they didn’t even put the word “democracy” in the Constitution. (They didn’t put the word “god” in there either, unless you count the “Year of our Lord” timestamp at the end, but I digress…).
Some will argue that not only did framers leave out the word “democracy,” they also left out the concept. The electoral college, state legislative selection of U.S. senators, and the appointment of judges are not what we’d call democratic.
The words “slave,” “slavery,” or “enslavement” are also nowhere to be found in the Constitution (the Declaration either for that matter). But the concept is included, and the crime against humanity condoned, in multiple portions of the document, including the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and a provision assuring that enslaved humans from abroad could be imported to the U.S. for sale to American enslavers for at least another 20 years.
So, founders. Yikes!
But there were some democratic features in the Constitution. “Representative democracy,” if you will. That’s what Hamilton called it, anyway.
For instance, Article I, Section II – we’re less than a hundred words into the original 4,543 word document – says “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second year by the People of the Several states…”
Despite fits, starts and some ugly reversals, democracy in the U.S. has become more and more representative ever since.
Common when the Constitution was ratified, none of the states after the first 13 established property requirements to vote. (North Carolina was the last state to abolish property requirements, in 1856.)
Though the Constitution didn’t call for it, states pretty early on established that their electoral college votes for president would be determined by popular vote (whether Nevada’s fake electors like it or not).
The 15th Amendment, the last of the three Civil War and Reconstruction Amendments that comprised something of a second constitutional founding, guaranteed Black men the right to vote. White supremacists trampled all over it after they used brute force to overthrow Reconstruction. Civil rights legislation of the 1960s restored it, though now the white supremacists are scrambling to enact new voter suppression measures.
In the early 20th century, the 17th Amendment provided that senators would be chosen by popular vote, while the 19th Amendment guaranteed Fiore’s right to vote.
Western states in particular, including Nevada, have practiced quite a bit of direct democracy. Just one example – in 1990, 63.5% of Nevada voters approved a constitutional amendment protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion.
But instances of direct democracy notwithstanding, democracy in America is predominantly of the representative kind, where people elect, you know, representatives, who in turn make policy decisions, and then elected officials can find out what people think of those decisions at the next election.
One notable Nevada demonstration of an elected official embracing his interpretation of the representative democracy concept happened in 2013, when then-freshman state Assemblyman Jim Wheeler responded to a suggestion that he would allow slavery if his constituents wanted him to by saying: “If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose … they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah.” Wheeler remains in the Nevada Legislature to this day.
Republicans know that the vast majority of Americans a) believe they live in a more or less representative even if flawed democracy, and b) prefer it to the Trumpocracy on offer from the GOP. Republicans know that the vast majority of Americans think democracy is a good thing. That’s why you don’t hear Republicans say “Democratic Party” but resort instead to unattractively use a noun as an adjective and refer to it as the “Democrat Party.” Since “democratic” sounds like something people would like, Republicans almost never use the word.
Republicans, most of them anyway, don’t seem opposed to representative democracy, in principle. The concept of representative democracy, in and of itself, isn’t driving Fiore and others on the right to cuddle up to pseudo-intellectual huffery-puffery and declare we’re not a democracy, we’re a republic.
The right’s objection to representative democracy, and the thing about it that scares Republicans, is that people they don’t like might actually be represented.
Hugh Jackson is the editor of the Nevada Current which first published this essay.