The timeworn phrase “we’re a republic, not a democracy,” once confined to campus political debates and the nerdier corners of the political internet, has been bubbling up to mainstream politics for some time now. But it was still jarring, during last week’s vice presidential debate, when Sen. Mike Lee of Utah tweeted, simply, “We’re not a democracy.” He later followed up, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Lee’s comment triggered an uproar on social media, and other conservatives took up the line. During the first day of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana made the point that America is not a “pure democracy” and quoted newspaper columnist James Gill quipping that “we don’t all put on a clean toga and rush down to the forum to vote in person on every issue.”
An even more extreme position was staked out, a few days before Lee, by Loren Culp, the long-shot Republican candidate for governor of Washington, who said in a recent interview that “democracy is mob rule” and that “famous Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Mikhail Gorbachev loved democracy because democracy is a step toward socialism, which is a step towards communism.”
The critique that too much democracy will inevitably lead to mob rule and tyranny is as old as Plato—hence the togas—and these men are right that it was very much on the minds of America’s founders. But for anyone who lived through the era of George W. Bush and democracy promotion it’s jarring to hear Republican candidates and politicians speak about democracy with such disdain. And it certainly seems significant that the democracy critique is picking up steam ahead of an election that could once again hinge on the difference between the Electoral College and the popular vote, as the president rails against “ballots” and refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
To discuss this latest anti-democratic turn, I spoke with filmmaker and author Astra Taylor, who in the 2018 documentary What Is Democracy? and the 2019 companion book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone took a critical look at what true democracy would look like, and how closely our societies measure up to that ideal. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joshua Keating: A big part of your project, in both the film and the book, was talking to a wide range of people about what democracy means to them. Were responses like Mike Lee’s something you encountered?
Astra Taylor: Ah, yes. This phrase, “We are a republic, not a democracy.” I heard this phrase frequently, but always from a certain class of person. Always from a white man. I did quite a few interviews—what in the documentary film world we call “streeters”—where I would set up on a corner and talk to passersby. Often people were quite reluctant. I said, “I’m talking about democracy. Would you like to sit and discuss with me?” And I’d have to persuade people. They felt maybe a bit intimidated or they felt they lacked expertise. And often those interviews would be really interesting. People would actually be quite wise or have reasons for being politically disengaged or politically cynical that were actually pretty credible.
Then there were these guys who were really eager. “Yeah, of course you shall interview me about democracy!” And after a question or two, they’d go flat and say, “Well, we’re a republic, not a democracy.” That is a phrase that is uttered by people who, looking back on the sweep of American history, see themselves as safely at the center of the narrative, and typically they see their present privileges under threat. And so, they want to shore up the privileges that they possess, and they’re looking for a sort of historic hook.
Do you think there’s a reason why it’s bubbling up into high-level politics now?
I think you’re seeing a real shift in conservative rhetoric because they are giving up on winning majorities. If you go back 50 years, books like The Emerging Republican Majority, and even around the period of George Bush, there was this idea, “OK, well, if Republicans want to keep winning majorities, we need to appeal more to the conservative Latino vote.” And the party has just gone in the opposite direction of that. It’s figuring out how to maintain dominance with a minority of support. And so, in that sense, I think the rhetoric is really telling. It’s a way of rationalizing the further entrenchment of minority rule.
And the thing is that there’s something to their perspective. Political institutions in this country are not majoritarian. There is a long history of exclusion. And there are quite a few veto points in the political system that obstruct majoritarian policies. So they have a lot to draw on and it’s not a novel political philosophy. It’s a reversion to the American norm in some way. Because we haven’t really been a fully inclusive democracy, ever. And to the degree that we have, it’s been for just a generation—since the Voting Rights Act—and they’re already giving up on that.
And it’s so fascinating to me that that period that I took for granted because of the moment in time I happened to be born in—this Cold War framework of “capitalism is democracy versus communism is unfreedom”—that paradigm is breaking down. So, you see people on the left becoming more self-consciously socialist and saying, “Well, hold on, maybe socialism’s not so bad.” But on the right, you also see people who are like, “Why do we even have to pretend to be democratic at all?”
It is interesting, because, as you say, you expect people to at least pay lip service to democracy. You look around the world, even North Korea calls itself a “Democratic People’s Republic.” It’s just assumed that even the most autocratic movement has to at least claim some kind of democratic legitimacy. Is there something almost refreshing in hearing the other argument identified so blatantly in this way?
That’s a funny kind of refreshing! I’d say there’s something honest about it. I do think that it’s not a rhetorical argument that is going to win over a majority of Americans, but it’s not designed to.
Democracy is a term that has really deep roots in this country. It’s going to be hard to turn people against it. So I think there is something powerful in this shift. And this is why I’m saying that it justifies future strategies, because I think what it helps us do is understand what we’re up against. It helps us name the strategy that we’re going to have to fight if we care about building a more democratic society.
And this is why I’m frustrated with liberals who have spent the last four years warning about “populism,” which implies that the threat is the will of the majority. The real worry right now is not tyranny of the majority. If you look at the popular will in this country, the majority of people still want action on climate change, despite all of the disinformation and all of the millions of dollars that have been poured into misleading the public about the scientific consequences, right? People want better health care and public investment in health care. People want unions, et cetera. I think the problem is not the tyranny of the majority right now. The problem is the tyranny of an elite minority.
Do these conservatives have a bit of a point when they argue that the Founding Fathers were concerned about too much democracy?
This is why it’s important to understand the history of this country. The Founding Fathers were very concerned with protecting minority rights. They didn’t understand the phrase minority rights as we understand it today—protections for trans people, immigrants, et cetera. But they were very concerned with the rights of the opulent. And that’s one of their words, right? Madison said that it’s very important to structure the Senate as they did to protect the rights of the opulent minority against the landless masses.
John Adams wrote at length about how terrible it would be if you had a system where there’s rule of the majority, because the impoverished masses would vote to redistribute wealth. That is a fact of this nation’s history. And that is the history that these Republican figures are actually conjuring when they talk about the United States being a constitutional republic, not a democracy. Mike Lee is an economic libertarian, and in his tweet he emphasized liberty and prosperity. He didn’t say equality or prosperity broadly shared, right? So it’s all about protecting property from the masses who would seek redistributive reforms, and John Adams warned of that.
People who are annoyed by that phrase, they tend to do this counter-originalist argument. They’ll say, “Oh, you stupid conservatives, don’t you realize that actually the Founding Fathers meant representative democracy when they said republic, right?” But the Founding Fathers did not want the United States to be a direct democracy, which is how they understood Athenian democracy, to be a purely direct form of democracy. They thought that that was very unstable and risky.
I guess I have two responses to that. One is, I don’t really care what the Founding Fathers thought. They also thought I should have no political rights. So I’m not here to live in their world forever. And there was a lot of disagreement among the people we count as the founders, right? There were some of them who were far more small-d democratic than others. But I think the point is that the battle was never just, “Are we a direct democracy?” But rather, “How representative of a democracy are we?” In my opinion, it’s never been representative enough, but that’s really what this conversation is about.
So, you’re someone who argues that democracy is more than just casting a ballot every four years, that it requires constant engagement. But how does someone with that kind of small-d perspective approach something like the election we have coming up? Are you as existentially terrified as everyone else?
Oh, I am. I am very worried about this election. My framework for engaging electoral politics is that we have to engage with the system both as it is, while also keeping in mind a horizon of how we want it to be or how it could be transformed.
I think this election is existential, and I hope it reminds the left that we can’t take for granted even the basic political rights we think we have. I think for a while, there has been this sort of sense on the left that we are in this two-party system, it’s a duopoly, it’s not democratic.
And that critique was right. Of course, the system is not democratic in so many ways. I don’t think a society with the wealth inequality we have qualifies as democratic, just as a baseline. But we also have to vote. We can’t take the progress that’s been made for granted because there’s a deeply undemocratic anti-democratic strain to American politics. That’s what we’re seeing with comments like the one from Mike Lee. There are elites who are more than happy to do away with democracy, to do away with regular people having any sort of power or say over their lives.
Democracy has always been a concept that has been held in contempt by elites, even in ancient Athens. And that attitude is alive and well. Democracy is an idea that we really have to put a lot of care into, and constantly be engaging with, and to me, that process absolutely does not require this weird, religious reverence for the Founding Fathers. That’s why I end the book on the image that let us not aspire to be Founding Fathers, but to be perennial midwives, birthing democracy anew. If you don’t renew it, if you don’t reinvent it, then it’s at risk of disappearing.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus