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Commentary: Yes, Sen. Lee, America is, in fact, a democracy

(Piper Blackburn | AP photo) This June 22 photo shows voting stations set up for the primary election at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky. Voting will look a little different this November. States are considering drive-thrus, outdoor polling places and curbside voting as they examine creative ways to safely offer same-day polling places during a pandemic.

Late Wednesday night and into the early hours of Thursday morning, Utah Sen. Mike Lee released a series of bizarre tweets, including one claiming that “We’re not a democracy.”

This invokes, of course, the hackneyed (and, some would say, silly) argument: Is the United States a republic or a democracy?

As most reasonable people readily acknowledge, it is both. It is a representative democracy. Democracy is the broader term, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a government by the people or a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation.”

And so, a republic (“a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives” — Merriam-Webster) is one type of democracy, just as an apple is one type of fruit.

It is a glaring example of the either/or fallacy (or false dichotomy) to insist that our form of government must be either a republic or a democracy (similar to: “This thing I’m about to eat must be either an apple or a fruit”).

As Lee must surely know, many statesmen, including some of the framers of the Constitution, frequently used the term “representative democracy” or “democracy” when talking about our unique form of government.

John Adams used it in 1794 (as did Noah Webster in 1785). So did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. And both James Wilson (in 1787) and Chief Justice John Marshall (in 1788) referred to our government as a democracy, Wilson arguing that in a democracy, the sovereign power “is inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.”

Our form of government can accurately be called a representative democracy; a democratic republic; a constitutional republic; a constitutional democratic republic; a federal democratic republic; a constitutional representative democracy; more simply, a republic; or, more broadly, a democracy.

It does make one wonder why Lee is so insistent in his claim that we are not a democracy. How does this serve him? Instead of empowering and encouraging all people to become educated and engaged citizens, this kind of rigid emphasis on republicanism might suggest that governance should be left to those few who are enlightened/privileged enough to be entrusted with such weighty matters. This, of course, flies in the face of the grand vision of the Founders.

When those of us who speak of democracy use that word, we do it intentionally, not because we misunderstand definitions or our history, but because we hope to inspire within all members of our society a certain pride of citizenship, a commitment to contribute and participate, a sense of personal responsibility for the way our country is moving. That Lee seems not to share this vision is deeply troubling.

Lee’s second tweet is equally problematic.

Democracy (government by the people) is not the objective? Liberty, peace, and prosperity (which he misspells as “prospefity”) are? Let’s reason together for a moment.

First of all, how does one tease apart liberty and democracy? Can one be free who has no voice in his/her own governance? Wouldn’t removing the voice of the people, the base principle of democracy, be antithetical to liberty?

And we have to wonder how Lee defines peace and prosperity. If peace is defined as the mere absence of war, then, yes, there can definitely be peace without democracy. In fact, one could argue that there is peace in China. Or even North Korea. Dictators are pretty good at quelling anything that might disturb the “peace.” In fact, in an article entitled “Is Democracy Good for Peace?” the authors found that “countries led by dictators were 36% less likely to fight one another than two countries with limited democracies.”

If we elevate peace above democracy, if peace is the prime objective of this American experiment, then there are certainly more efficient ways to get there than democracy.

And what of prosperity? Is prosperity, too, a prime objective? More important than democracy? Again, how is this defined? And prosperity for whom? It seems nonsensical to pit these things (liberty, peace, prosperity) against democracy, and then to argue that “rank democracy” (one wonders at his choice of adjectives here) can actually thwart them.

The obvious question is, rank democracy as opposed to ... what? What is the better alternative? Authoritarianism? Because that certainly seems to be the direction President Donald Trump, so admired and supported by Lee, would like to take this country. Is that what this is all about?

Peace and prosperity at the cost of a voice? A vote? Individual agency? That sounds chillingly like a plan that members of Lee’s faith believe we each rejected long ago. These tweets promote dangerous ideas. Let’s hope they were merely the late-night ramblings of a man who is currently unwell and not himself. Please get better soon, Senator.

Sharlee Mullins Glenn

Sharlee Mullins Glenn, Pleasant Grove, is a writer, teacher, and community organizer who holds fast to the ideals, processes and institutions of our democracy.

Courtney McQuain

Courtney McQuain, Boise, Idaho, is an attorney and mother who believes in promoting the rule of law in the United States and who believes “a more perfect union” is best achieved through democratic principles and including diverse voices in the governance of this country.



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