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Democracy in the Crosshairs

An article of faith among those who control today’s Republican Party is that the U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.

I was raised on my family’s dairy farm. More often than not farmers are Republicans, and I grew up among them. In all the years as I grew to adulthood on the farm, I never once heard any of my Republican neighbors say America is not a democracy.

In the early 1980s, I got a job at the Capitol working as a legislative aide in the state assembly. In those days, Democrats and Republicans not only negotiated and compromised on the issues of the day, they socialized once the day’s work was done. We frequented the same taverns. We were in bowling leagues and softball leagues together. Never once in those days did I hear a single Republican say the U.S. is not a democracy.

On June 6, 1984 Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Normandy honoring those who gave their lives there in the fight against the Nazis. Reagan said that day that “some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I started to hear Republicans talk about a republic and a democracy as if they are mutually exclusive. Rush Limbaugh was among the first I heard insist that America is not a democracy. Soon enough, that claim became a Republican mantra.

It’s worth remembering that when Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was famously asked: “Well, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” He was not asked: “Well, what have we got – a republic or a democracy?” A republic is the opposite of a monarchy, not the opposite of a democracy.

One dictionary defines a republic as “a state in which the sovereign power resides in the whole body of the people, and is exercised by representatives elected by them.” Another defines it as “a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them.”

The term “democracy,” on the other hand, is defined as “government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

Under these definitions, a republic and a democracy are one and the same. What our nation’s founders established is both a republic and a representative democracy.

It’s commonplace to hear today’s Republicans reject this understanding and reject Reagan’s belief that democracy is the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised. They are not only saying the U.S. is not a democracy, they are acting accordingly. Without a shred of evidence, they continue to dispute the clear and decisive and verified and judicially reviewed outcome of last year’s presidential election. They continue putting voter suppression laws in place all across the country. They continue to scheme to draw tortured district boundaries enabling them to hold the most seats in state legislatures and congressional delegations even when they do not win the most votes in those states.

American democracy is being brutally assaulted. It can no longer be taken for granted that it will survive. It will only if it is defended as aggressively as its enemies are attacking it. Democracy will survive so long as we realize it is more verb than noun. It’s not so much something we have, it’s something we do. We’ll have democracy as long as we do democracy.

Mike McCabe


May 20, 2021