Oct 20 2020
During the recent vice presidential debate, I pointed out on Twitter that our form of government in the United States is not a democracy, but a republic. The confused and vehement media criticism that ensued persuaded me that this point might be better served in an essay rather than a 140-character Tweet.
Insofar as “democracy” means “a political system in which government derives its powers from the consent of the governed,” then of course that accurately describes our system. But the word conjures far more than that. It is often used to describe rule by majority, the view that it is the prerogative of government to reflexively carry out the will of the majority of its citizens.
Our system of government is best described as a constitutional republic. Power is not found in mere majorities, but in carefully balanced power. Under our Constitution, passing a bill in the House of Representatives—the body most reflective of current majority views—isn’t enough for it to become law. Legislation must also be passed by the Senate—where each state is represented equally (regardless of population), where members have longer terms, and where (under current rules) a super-majority vote is typically required to bring debate to a close. Thomas Jefferson described the Senate as the “saucer” that cools hot passions more prevalent in the House. It’s where consensus is forged, as senators reach compromise across regional, cultural, and partisan lines.
Once passed by both houses of Congress, a bill still doesn’t become a law until it’s signed (or acquiesced to) by the president—who of course is elected not by popular national vote, but by the electoral college of the states.
And then, at last, the Supreme Court—a body consisting not of elected officials, but rather individuals appointed to lifetime terms—has the power to strike down laws that violate the Constitution. What could be more undemocratic?
As I said in a follow-up Tweet, democracy itself is not the goal. The goal is freedom, prosperity, and human flourishing. Democratic principles have proven essential to those goals, but only as part of a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, as well as between the federal government and the states.
Rest assured, every single critic who attacked me for correctly crediting America’s political success as a republic, not a democracy, supports counter-democratic checks and balances on majorities he disagrees with. My critics support Supreme Court decisions that overturned democratically enacted laws. They support Democratic filibusters of conservative legislation to, for instance, repeal Obamacare or allow for school choice or build a border wall to stop illegal immigration.
Advocates of “democracy” have convinced themselves the obstacle to progress in Washington is all these counter-democratic parts of our system. In truth, Congress’s failure to pass sweeping progressive—or conservative—legislation in recent decades is a signal that neither party has won the necessary support from the American people to pass it. That does not indicate a flaw in the system, but flaws in the two parties’ agendas. This is a feature, not a bug.
In the absence of national consensus, there isn’t supposed to be federal law. That’s what the states are for—to provide smaller, more homogeneous polities to reflect our broad national diversity. There is no reason New Yorkers and South Carolinians and Hawaiians have to have the exact same health care or education or welfare or tax policies. If diversity is a strength—and nearly all Americans agree that it is—our diversity has to be allowed to flex its muscles.
Right now, one political party is threatening to undermine one of the republican checks included in the Constitution—the Supreme Court—with a plan to pack the Court with progressive judges. But you can’t pack the Court without inevitably threatening things like religious freedom and freedom of speech—things that are unpopular but are protected by the Constitution precisely because they are unpopular. In that sense, our Constitution is fundamentally undemocratic.
Only in a constitutional republic are Americans’ individual rights and cultural diversity given their proper position atop our political order, over and above even majority will. Even above the tweets of social media outrage mobs. Thank goodness.
Mike Lee is the senior United States senator from Utah.