The argument that the United States is not a democracy originated in the heads of conservative thinkers with an incentive to preserve the power of the two fast-shrinking majorities that form the core of the Republican base
It’s possible to say something that’s both true and weirdly revealing. When a detective asks where you were last night, and you say, “Certainly not in the parlor with a candlestick,” that might be true, but the strange precision would also make you an immediate person of interest.
Starting about two years ago, any Facebook post that called the US a democracy would draw a comment from That Guy, saying, “Its a constitutional republic not a democracy you’re ignorance is embarrassing.” Even if that were true (more on that shortly), where did that very precise, suddenly scholarly phrase come from—and what on Earth is it supposed to prove?
Although this thinly-veiled argument against majority rule has re-emerged for the first in the age of social media, its history extends to the dim recesses of the early 20th century. Whenever political minorities wield outsized power, and that power leads to an outcome contrary to the desires of those who usually get their way, you can count on a pundit or a politician claiming that the United States isn’t actually a democracy. You might hear it when a Republican candidate wins the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, or after a Supreme Court decision that the majority of Americans oppose.
But who is claiming that the US is not a democracy, and where did the practice get its start?
One recent example comes from Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, who first wrote a 2020 tweet, then an essay, explaining why he believes the United States is not a democracy.
“Our system of government is best described as a constitutional republic. Power is not found in mere majorities, but in carefully balanced power,” Lee wrote. “Democracy itself is not the goal. The goal is freedom, prosperity, and human flourishing.”
This didn’t pop into Lee’s head unbidden. Earlier that same year, the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation made the same claim. Bernard Dobski, a visiting scholar at Heritage, wrote that
America is a republic and not a pure democracy. The contemporary efforts to weaken our republican customs and institutions in the name of greater equality thus run against the efforts by America’s Founders to defend our country from the potential excesses of democratic majorities.
Dobski continued with a warning against the looming twin spectres of hope and fairness:
The careful balance produced by our mixed republic is threatened by an egalitarianism that undermines the social, familial, religious, and economic distinctions and inequalities that undergird our political liberty. Preserving the republican freedoms we cherish requires tempering egalitarian zeal and moderating the hope for a perfectly just democracy.
Take a moment to breathe in the heady musk of those two sentences.
Egalitarianism threatens to “undermine inequalities that undergird our political liberty,” and we must “temper egalitarian zeal” to avoid the strange, foreign concept that all people are created equal.
The final clause urges us to take our hope for a just world and stick a Freedom Sock in it. It’s the ancient proverb Who said life is fair? given the scholarly shine of a think tank.
Majority rule, once the comfortable mainstay of a white and Christian majority, has in recent years become a looming threat as both white and Christian (not to mention white Christian) shrink inexorably toward minority status.
Both Lee and Dobski are arguing against majoritarianism and for a form of minority rule. Such a shift requires a long-game devaluation of fairness, day by day, talking point by talking point. It seems ludicrous until we recall that Republicans have only won the popular vote for President once in nearly three decades. Republicans are a political minority. To wield power at the federal level, they have increasingly relied on anti-majoritarian strategies.
So what is the actual US form of government? First, it is important to understand the definitions of a “democracy” and a “republic.”
A republic is defined as “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them,” whereas a democracy is defined as “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.”
The American form of government fits both of these definitions, and is thus a republican democracy, or a representative democracy. What the country is not is a “direct democracy”—a form of government in which the people vote on all political decisions, not simply electing leaders to do the job for them. The founders feared direct democracy and didn’t believe that the people were fit to make all political decisions for themselves. It is also true that the United States did not fully achieve democracy until the mid-1960s when Civil Rights legislation was codified giving Black Americans the right to vote.
But the founders certainly did not set up a system for permanent minority rule. That system would be autocratic. The founders fully intended for majorities to make political decisions.
So where did the argument originate that America is not a democracy?
According to Columbia University research scholar Nicole Hemmer, the “republic, not a democracy” argument originated with conservatives in the 1930s who wanted to prevent the country from joining the Second World War. Roosevelt’s call for America to defend democracy drew a conservative response that “we’re not a democracy, we are a republic.” Conservatives revived the argument in the mid-1960s after the codification of civil and voting rights legislation and following federal government efforts to desegregate schools.
“It goes back to the ‘republic, not a democracy’ chants from the 1964 Republican convention,” said Hemmer. “Conservatives rejected the one-person-one-vote standard of the Warren Court, a set of arguments deeply entangled with their opposition to the Black civil rights movement.”
So the argument that the United States is not a democracy originated with conservative thinkers who wanted to shrink the pool of decision-makers in the country and preserve the influence of two rapidly-shrinking majorities that just happen to form the conservative base. It has always been an argument against majority rule, against the voice of the people having an influence in political choices. As White Christians, the core of the Republican Party, continue to shrink as a percentage of the national headcount, these arguments become even more desperately attractive.
“We’re a republic, not a democracy” is nonsensical along the lines of, “A collie is a dog, not an animal.” The United States is both a republic and a democracy. American political power ultimately rests with the people, who elect representatives to carry out their will. The system is inherently majoritarian, and the founders intended it to be. It is not a direct democracy, but that isn’t the distinction this conservative shell-game is making.
The claim is likely to find more conservative support in the coming years, especially after former President Trump attempted to illegally subvert the 2020 election and seize power. This claim is useful mainly as a rhetorical argument against majority rule, but it doesn’t have any basis in historical truth.