Last week in this space, I wrote about the democracy-thwarting effects of the Electoral College. Since that time, two relevant things have happened:
One, many conservative readers, most (though not all) of them clearly supporters of President Donald Trump, have responded by essentially admitting the Electoral College thwarts democracy — but indignantly insisting that we’re not supposed to be a democracy anyway.
And, two, a president who would not even be in office without that anti-democracy Electoral College asterisk has demonstrated, in some of the most shocking ways imaginable, how dangerous that view is.
Let’s take these one by one.
It’s become an ominously popular talking point on the right — especially during strained attempts to defend the Electoral College’s modern effect of giving the Republican Party an unearned advantage in presidential elections — to declare that America isn’t, never was and shouldn’t be “a democracy.”
“Mr. McDermott apparently does not know that the U.S. is a constitutional republic, not a democracy,” declared one typical comment posted on last week’s column.
“In its halcyon days, the [Post-Dispatch] would hire editorial writers who knew America is not a democracy,” someone else wrote.
“How do you write an entire article regarding the American electoral process and not once mention that we are NOT A DEMOCRACY?” demanded another reader in an email.
The column got lots of similar responses, most of them assuming the stance of a glowering civics professor correcting an especially dense student: We’re not a democracy, you blockhead, we’re a republic!
In addition to being a deeply weird mantra, one that would have been unimaginable for most Americans to suggest even a few years ago, it reveals a basic misunderstanding of terminology. It’s like looking at an automobile and saying: That’s not a car, you blockhead, that’s a four-door sedan!
Yes, America is a republic. And it’s a democracy. You can call it a representative democracy, or a constitutional democracy, or a constitutional republic, or even a democratic (small “d”) republic. They’re all different linguistic paths to the same place: a government that draws its legitimacy from the popular will, within a structure of limitations that distinguishes democracy from mob rule.
It would be comforting to believe this is just a matter of confused definitions; that when Trump’s supporters declare, “We’re not a democracy!,” what they really mean is, we’re not a direct democracy. Which is true. That specific form of democracy would have no elected representatives — all of America would vote on every governmental decision — and there would be nothing to protect individual rights from the majority.
The thing is, no one is calling for that. Those of us who believe the Electoral College needs to be reformed are simply talking about making presidential elections reflect the expressed will of the voting public (as they generally did prior to the current century), not doing away with representative government and uncoupling the majority from all restraints. If the more precise battle cry of these readers was supposed to be, “We’re not a ‘direct’ democracy!,” the response has to be: Well, duh.
But reading through these comments, and other commentary out there by Trump supporters, you get the impression they’re not just confusing definitions here — that it’s not strictly direct democracy they’re opposed to. (Again: Who is arguing otherwise?) Instead, they seem to be attacking the whole concept of democracy, rejecting the general premise that power ultimately should reside with the citizenry, disputing the idea that political leaders should be accountable to the people.
Why? Well, here’s a thought: While democracy isn’t actually at odds with being a republic — this notion that you have to choose one or the other is simply false — democracy is very much at odds with dictatorship. You do have to choose one or the other.
And our president, the man whose behavior most of these folks are desperately trying to justify these days, has clearly chosen the latter.
Let’s review what the president has done in just the past week: After getting called out by a whistleblower for pressing a foreign government to investigate his potential 2020 election opponent — which Trump admits — he demanded the whistleblower’s identity, in violation of federal law; accused the whistleblower’s source of being like “a spy” and hinted that person should be executed; accused a ranking congressional Democrat of “treason” for leading the impeachment investigation and threatened to have him arrested; called that constitutionally sanctioned impeachment process itself a “coup” (adding, with an exquisite lack of irony, that it would deprive the people of their vote); and predicted that if he is legally removed from the presidency, civil war will follow.
Now overlay all that with this strange insistence among Trump supporters that we’re not, and shouldn’t be, a democracy.
Maybe that should be Trump’s campaign slogan next year. It would be an apt one.