George Pyle: Lee tries to make the end of democracy sound like a good thing

Count De Monet: “I have come on the most urgent of business. It is said that the people are revolting!”

King Louis: “You said it. They stink on ice.”

— Mel Brooks, “History of the World, Part I

Perhaps that is what Mike Lee meant the other day when he argued — if a tweet can be dignified by calling it an argument — that “rank democracy” is a bad thing. That it smells bad.

Sometimes it does.

Unfiltered majority rule can be an awful mess. That’s why it rarely exists. If whoever wins an election gets to make all the decisions, totally ignoring the interests and the rights of the losers, that’s not only ugly, it’s unsustainable.

With that much on the line, every election becomes a literal life-or-death question. Or at least a matter of whether the plain-belly Sneetches will be enslaved, deprived of all property, exiled from their homes or otherwise abused, with no recourse to the protection that comes from a constitutional government.

In a circumstance such as that, fixing elections, stuffing ballot boxes, suppressing voter turnout, aren’t just lust for power. They’re survival. At some point, it becomes obvious that nobody can afford to lose an election. So we stop having them.

Americans are smarter than that. We’ve cobbled together this contraption that distributes power into several buckets — a federal government divided three ways and 50 states — to cut down on the risk that any one group will become too strong, no matter how many elections that group wins. And we’ve created courts and a Constitution to set limits on what the government, even a democratically elected one, can do to minorities or individuals.

(Never mind that the books were cooked to protect the rich from the poor and the slave owner from the slave.)

That, no doubt, is what Lee, senior senator from the sovereign state of Utah and self-described constitutional scholar, was on about when he launched a Twitter commentary that began, “We are not a democracy.” And went on to explain, "“Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

(Actually, Lee’s original tweet misspelled “prosperity.” But I have no ground to stand on to make fun of anyone’s fumble-fingered social media keyboard skills. And I bet you don’t, either.)

Nobody thinks America is, or should be, a pure and unlimited democracy. That’s why it also gets called a representative republic, a constitutional democracy, and all kinds of other terms that mean power is curbed and decisions are made, not by the great mass of us, but by the elected representatives we choose and the courts those elected representatives install and empower.

Still, “democracy” has been the term favored by folks from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan.

Or, as the Utah Constitution puts it, without actually using the D-word, “All political power is inherent in the people; and all free governments are founded on their authority for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform their government as the public welfare may require.”

That’s the constitution that goes on for 24 articles and who knows how many words to filter, distribute and frustrate the political power that is inherent in the people. Typical.

In Freshman Seminar on Comparative Government, Lee’s tweet lecture makes perfect sense.

In the real world, with a fascist in the Oval Office, a foiled armed insurrection against the governor of Michigan and the rise of the far right in parts of Europe we thought had gotten over all that, Lee’s arguments have an entirely sinister meaning.

In that context, Lee is making the argument of totalitarians throughout history — that democracy is too messy, too accommodating of those weird, dirty people who don’t look like us, to create “liberty, peace and prosperity.” Nearly the very words of Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader.

This is a time when the democratic underpinnings of our government, which give it legitimacy and the power to maintain civilization, are being threatened at the highest levels. And all Lee can do is tell us we don’t want any of that stinky old democracy stuff anyway.

The president, whom Lee supports, is deliberately undermining public faith in the election process, not just mail-in voting but every form of balloting, calling on armed thugs to appoint themselves as poll watchers, and making no promises about accepting the result of the election if he doesn’t like it.

The president’s party — Lee’s party — has made an art of voter suppression, cutting back on early voting, slashing the number of polling places and ballot drop boxes, adding onerous ID requirements and installing what amounts to unconstitutional poll taxes.

The Republican Party’s beef with democracy right now is not high-minded or constitutional. It’s as base as it gets.

They are about to lose an election.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is actually pretty bad at predicting the outcomes of elections.


Twitter, @debatestate