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 burgeoning country a Republic rather than a democracy. Many were opposed to direct democracy and the possibility that demagogues could corrupt it or mob rule could overtake it. They instead designed a representative government in which “the people” would elect representatives who would make the laws and conduct the governance.
The problem, or course, was that their definition of “the people” was largely limited to wealthy white men, enslavers among them.
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 backward, to pare down the ranks of those who can vote and to deny or invalidate elections in which voting populations, not yet pared down enough, deliver results with which they disagree.
We keep hearing people say that candidates, like some of the ones competing in Tuesday’s primaries, threaten our democracy. We heard during the Jan. 6 hearings about threats to our democracy. We have heard for years that Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy.
But it seems to me that we have to take a step back and realize that the current Republican Party has abandoned the idea of a full democracy.
Republicans want to revert the country to the way the founders conceived of it, when white men had outsize influence, when patriarchy prevailed, when white supremacy masqueraded as conventional wisdom.
Liberals often seem to me overly vexed by why Republicans don’t recognize the threat that Trump’s election denialism poses. The reason is clear to me: They have turned their backs on democracy.
For anti-democracy Republicans, Trump is an incredibly useful tool. His motivations are selfish and small, but the Republicans balking at full democracy have plans that are grand. They see themselves falling into a minority, so they want to devise a plan for minority rule.
And they are attacking the electoral process at every level to realize their goals.
By calling themselves traditionalist and constitutionalist, and by canonizing the flawed founders, they disguise their regression as preservation.
Conservatives now routinely make the point that America isn’t a democracy, but a Republic. The Heritage Foundation even published a report in 2020 entitled “America Is a Republic, Not a Democracy.” The report argued, “The contemporary efforts to weaken our republican customs and institutions in the name of greater equality thus run against the efforts by America’s Founders to defend our country from the potential excesses of democratic majorities,” and that the American system of government is “threatened by an egalitarianism that undermines the social, familial, religious, and economic distinctions and inequalities that undergird our political liberty.”
In their telling, the will of the majority itself seems to be a problem. I interpret this broadly: that a fuller democracy is, in the view of many conservatives, a disaster waiting to happen.
So we are seeing an epic clash playing out in America in which the parameters are not being fully, loudly delineated: The Democrats want a democracy; the Republicans don’t. The Republican Party is anti-democracy, post-democracy. While Democrats are screaming about a collapsing country, Republicans are already surveying the landscape of the America that will emerge from the wreckage.
George Thomas, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, argued in The Atlantic in 2020 that although the word “democracy” may not be in the Constitution, the spirit of it is. As he put it: “High-minded claims that we are not a democracy surreptitiously fuse republic with minority rule rather than popular government. Enabling sustained minority rule at the national level is not a feature of our constitutional design, but a perversion of it.”
Perversion, distortion and deceit now appear to be the spine of the Republican Party. It is no longer a party of ideas, but rather a party of atavism. It is a party frantically running down an ascending escalator.
The problem is that there is a real risk that the party will succeed in bringing the country down with it.
As Sue Halpern has written in The New Yorker, “The paradox of American democracy is that its survival is a choice; it persists solely at the discretion of an electorate that can, if it so wills, dismantle it.” Republicans are pushing the portion of the electorate they control to dismantle it.