The Struggle for Democracy in America Has Been One Unending Battle

Republican senator Mike Lee ignited a controversy last week when he insisted that it’s a good thing the US isn’t a democracy. His comments were appalling — but they remind us that what democracy we do have in the US is thanks to the countless bottom-up struggles against elites like him since the country’s founding.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Last week, Utah senator Mike Lee set off a small controversy with a series of tweets. One simply stated: “We’re not a democracy.” A second added: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” The final one “clarified” that “[i]t’s a big deal, because in many ways, the whole idea of having a constitution itself, particularly a constitution that establishes a constitutional republic like ours, is materially different and distinct from a democracy.”

Observers rightly saw Lee’s tweets as emblematic of the antidemocratic animus of today’s GOP and conservative movement, whose frequent refrain is that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. Responses to this claim have tended to make two points.

One line of argument suggests that because the founders were explicitly concerned with the institutions of classical Athens, which few are advocating today, invoking their views means using the term “democracy” in a misleading way. While the term has stayed the same, its meaning and context has changed so much in the modern era as to render the founders’ criticisms anachronistic.

A second rebuttal argues that even if the United States was not a democracy at the time of its founding, it became one sometime along the way. This view became gradually accepted in the second half of the twentieth century. Freedom House, which takes free and fair elections, and the rule of law as the key indicators of the quality of democracy, consistently assigned the United States the highest possible score in political and civil liberties from the 1970s until 2018. According to Polity IV, another widely used measure, the United States maintained the highest possible democratic score from 1871 to 2018.

These positions maintain that the modern United States is both a representative republic and a liberal democracy. While it is true that the line between these forms of government became blurred in the modern era, it is not enough to fact-check the conservative rhetorical sleight of hand and argue its reverse. Instead, we should consider why this phrase has become one of the modern conservative’s chosen ideological justifications, and what it tells us about the history of democracy in the United States.

In reality, it is incorrect to speak of democracy in the United States either as a founding accomplishment or as an end point reached in the twentieth century. Since the advent of modern, mass democracy in the early nineteenth century, the very meaning of this term has been inseparable from the many social struggles over membership in the demos.

There is no democracy in America apart from the multitude of struggles to bring in those who were previously excluded from political power by the system’s very design. In other words, to speak of democracy in America is to recognize the slow and uneven process of democratizing what was originally an oligarchic, settler colonial, slaveholding republic — a political project that remains incomplete to this day.

The Slaveholders’ Republic

Today, it is widely acknowledged that the counter-majoritarian foundations of the United States were established to buttress the power of slaveholders. While the Constitution drew its legitimacy from the sovereignty of “We, the people,” it simultaneously erected an elaborate institutional system (the Senate, the Supreme Court, federalism) to fragment citizens and prevent them from effectively exercising their collective power.

More specifically, the conception of freedom and equality at the heart of the American founding was always defined in relation to those it excluded: women, the poor, and, most obviously, the enslaved.

The decidedly undemocratic origins of the United States can be seen by recalling the contrasts the Federalist authors drew between democracy in its Athenian form and the new “representative democracy” they were defending.

Pointing to the “turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern Italy,” they argued that because in this form of government “the people meet and exercise the government in person … it can never be established but among a small number of people, living within a small compass of territory.”

In contrast, the Madisonian “extended republic” was said to prove more stable by increasing the territorial size and requiring more mediated and indirect forms of participation and representation.

Equally importantly, Federalist No. 10’s remarks on “majority factions” etched into the American public philosophy a fear of unfettered majoritarianism overriding the rights of numerical minorities.

In a “pure democracy” where a small number of citizens regularly met to administer government in person, factions were liable to quickly form: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” Specifically, it was economic factions — namely, those who owned little to no property — that posed one of the biggest threats to republican government.

The Federalist spoke for a significant portion of American political and economic elites at the time, aghast at the upswell of revolutionary republican sentiments. It was no coincidence that it specifically referred to “improper or wicked” projects such as the “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property.”

In response to these popular demands then being made on weak state governments, the constitutional compromise hammered out in 1787 established a federal republic that rested on counter-majoritarian institutions that we’re still living with today.

Democracy for Whom?

The origin of the “republic, not democracy” claim has been traced at least as far back as a 1961 speech by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society. Democracy was an especially ambiguous term in those days of Cold War conflict. On the one hand, (liberal) democracy was the American hallmark to be protected throughout the “free world” and installed elsewhere. On the other, “democracy” was seen as having a dark underside because of its association with Communism.

The rise of libertarian ideology and its fusion with the modern conservative movement allowed the Right to increasingly dispose of democracy as an aspirational principle.

Yet it is crucial to note that while Mike Lee’s libertarian conservatism rejects democracy precisely for its association with the Madisonian “overbearing majority” (and by extension, its twentieth-century analogy, communism), it does not necessarily reject the principle of popular rule as such. As New York magazine’s Eric Levitz notes, earlier this year Lee was quite willing to invoke the idea of government “of, by, and for the people.”

The full implications of this abstract support for popular rule is only revealed when we ask who, for Lee and his ideological brethren, make up “the people.” Originally, the American republic equated citizenship with the figure of the property-owning white man.

Premised on territorial conquest and the ideal of agricultural self-sufficiency, this republican egalitarianism of “rule by the people” expressed itself as herrenvolk democracy — a society where equality within a dominant racial group coexists alongside formal and informal inequalities between racial groups.

But once the boundaries and meanings of the term were severed from their original association, and extended beyond the rights of property-owning white men, “democracy” became an idea to be feared and opposed. Movements erupted to abolish slavery, expand franchise rights, and democratize the country’s political and social institutions.

Later, in the context of the New Deal and the Cold War, this elite fear of democracy fused with the fear of Communism as a global movement that supported the liberation struggles of black and brown people in the United States and colonized peoples across the Third World.

Democracy and Citizenship

As Étienne Balibar has suggested, modern democratic politics rest on a perpetual, open-ended interplay between equality and freedom, in which neither impulse is reducible to nor fully independent from the other.

We can think of American history as two interweaving movements, both stemming from the founding: the democratization of its aristocratic Enlightenment liberalism, and the liberalization of herrenvolk democracy.

Driving these intersecting movements have been concrete social struggles over the meaning, depth, and extension of citizenship. In demanding and fighting for new rights to indicate their collective belonging in the demos, they not only exposed the limits of the present order but also gave rise to new experiences of collective action.

In other words, democracy is less a historical-end state or a specific institutional arrangement than a constant movement that contests domination in the name of expanding the spaces for exercising equality and freedom.

Seen from this perspective — what Balibar calls the “democratization of democracy” — we can understand why it is neither correct to believe disingenuous conservative claims like Lee’s nor accept its democratic credentials at face value today.

The struggle over democracy in American history has been about broadening its scope beyond the original institutions of the republic. Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society — all were periods where reforms democratized the American state by expanding the size of the electorate; making elected officials more accountable to their constituents and the public good; securing social rights for workers; and extending civil and political rights to those previously excluded.

At the same time, we’ve seen the backlash and the opposition: appeals to self-rule against the tyranny of extensive government mobilized during the suppression of the “abolition democracy” of the Reconstruction era; the nativist, anti-immigrant, and fascist-adjacent movements of the 1920s and 30s; and the rise of postwar conservatism in its opposition to the New Deal order. As Mike Lee’s statement shows, it remains a core principle of the Right to this day.

Each time it reappeared in different contexts, this anti-democratic ideology took on specific forms. But what’s been consistent is the invocation of the virtues of limited government and the self-rule of a demarcated community contra democracy — mobilizing the imaginary moment of the founding era for the preservation of a hierarchical status quo. And like all the past traditions of dead generations, it continues to weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.