Yes, Mike Lee, America is a Democracy

tags: Constitution, democracy, Mike Lee, Republic

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

At some point during the vice-presidential debate — my wrap is here if you missed it — Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted out, “We’re not a democracy.” Man, oh, man, do I hate this one. I’ve argued before that this is one of America’s great crank ideas. But let me try again.

The short version of what I usually say is: For almost all practical purposes, when talking about the modern world, “democracy” and “republic” are best used as synonyms. Both are good words for describing the system of government in the U.S. The simplified history of the words in the American context: In the 18th century, there was a fad for Rome, and so people who liked Rome used the word “republic.” By the middle of the 19th century, there was a fad for Athens, so people started using the word “democracy.” 

Back to Mike Lee. Democracy, he should know, is a word from ancient Greek meaning “rule of the people.” That’s it. It’s true that James Madison doesn’t use it that way in the Federalist Papers; he uses it in the way we’d use “direct democracy.” But that wasn’t really true in ancient Greece, where democracy wasn’t contrasted with a scheme of representation because the Greeks didn’t have any concept of representation. Neither did the Romans, for that matter. All that comes much later, and 18th-century theorists were still grappling with the proper words to explain the insights that they were coming up with. 

So my question to Lee and anyone else who trots out this idea would be: If we’re not to have rule of the people, who exactly should rule? Throughout American history, from the Framers up to the present, the answer has always been the same: the people. It’s true that we’ve had a lot of sharp debates about who’s included in that phrase, and that the answers have often been far too restrictive. But those debates weren’t typically over whether the people should rule. They were about who the true citizens were (or even, horribly, about who was fully human). 

Read entire article at Bloomberg Opinion

comments powered by Disqus