Just before the election, I wrote a commentary for The Salt Lake Tribune titled, “Why is Mike Lee afraid of democracy?” In that piece, I responded to Lee’s now-infamous “we’re not a democracy” pair of tweets. I was, it turned out, merely one in a choir of responders, because, as the news website Vox intoned with a high degree of understatement, “It’s not often that you see a U.S. senator declare that ‘we’re not a democracy,’ let alone to paint that as a good thing.”
In the first tweet, Lee reacted to Kamala Harris’ two references to “our democracy” during the vice presidential debate in October. Lee enlarged on his retort that “we’re not a democracy” in a second tweet a few hours later: “Democracy isn’t the objective: liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” He doubled down on the tweets a few weeks later in a Senate hearing.
Most of the commentators registered surprise at having to correct a U.S. senator on our form of government, because, as we learn at an early age, the United States is widely considered a (representative) democracy. (See “Schoolhouse Rock — Government — No More Kings.”)
Hadn’t Utahns elected Lee to represent them in the Senate, and isn’t that democracy in action?
“The most charitable way of interpreting Lee’s tweets,” wrote David Levitz in New York magazine, “is to posit that he is stupid.”
All of the commentators ultimately settled on some variation of the idea that Lee’s tweets were previewing a justification for minority obstruction after the election. Recall that when Lee sent his tweets (Oct. 7 and 8) the polls were predicting big electoral losses by Republicans. Lee’s intellectual contribution to the GOP cause of undermining government rested on the far right view that the Constitution was designed to enable “liberty,” not democracy. Whose liberty? White Christians, mainly.
They — all of them — rejected Lee’s constitutionalism, which is widely assessed as extremist and anti-government.
“The Constitution,” professor George Thomas wrote in The Atlantic in his response to Lee’s tweets, “was designed to foster a complex form of majority rule, not enable minority rule. ... Enabling sustained minority rule at the national level is not a feature of our constitutional design, but a perversion of it.”
Logically, government should maximize the happiness of the most people. Thomas Jefferson, after all, identified the pursuit of happiness as the explanation for government. And even if the founders were uncertain about the right mix of democracy and restraints on the majority when they began the American experiment, by the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson the idea of universal (male) suffrage had become an American article of faith.
Inclusive democracy — ”rank democracy,” according to Lee — has enabled our greatest national projects, including the destruction of slavery, fascism and communism. And now, maybe, Trumpism.
The 2020 presidential election was a democratic success, regardless of the winner. Nearly 160 million Americans voted — the most ever — and the national voter turnout rate — 66.7% of the voting-eligible population — was the highest in 120 years. Utah’s voter rate of 90.1% was the highest ever, breaking the previous record set in 1964. (A special shoutout to Wayne County, which at 93% had the highest voter participation level of any Utah county.)
President-elect Joe Biden will win the election by more than 7 million votes. The high voter turnout and margin of victory represent an unequivocal democratic repudiation of the Trump presidency. Biden has a mandate to reverse Trump’s policies and carry forward the Obama consensus — in effect, to wipe the slate clean on the Trump presidency. (Steve Inskeep wrote in The New York Times: “History rarely looks on one-term presidents at all.”) This alone doesn’t defeat Trumpism, but the win does make it less likely to prevail in the present contest for the American soul.
So Lee’s tweets should be treated as his wish, not his reality. He wants an undemocratic America, ruled by a privileged minority of white Christians.
The tweets matter even more after the election, because we now know the extent to which they also reflect the undemocratic preferences of most Republicans in Washington — almost 90% of them, according to a Washington Post survey — who refuse to recognize Biden’s election victory. This madness reached into Utah on Wednesday, when Attorney General Sean Reyes added Utah to a Texas lawsuit against four other states that have certified their election results for Biden. It is the most anti-democratic official act of any high officeholder in Utah history.
The tweets allow us to attach a name to all of this: authoritarianism, or as Lee likes to call it in his Orwellian-speak, “liberty.”
David Burns lives in Salt Lake City. He wasn’t quite sure where Wayne County is, so he googled it. He hopes that doesn’t make him an urban elite.