Last week, I became a citizen of the United States. The process was long and tedious — forms, fees, photos, biometrics and, as the final step, a naturalization interview. That last hurdle in particular showed how much the rhetoric about the democracy the U.S. shares with immigrants differs from how it’s practiced.
One of the reasons I was keen to become a citizen is because the United States is supposed to be based not on a race or a culture but on an idea: of popular sovereignty; of government of, by and for the people; of democracy. That was reflected in my naturalization interview, as I discussed on my show the next day, which involved a test of my knowledge of “civics,” of U.S. history and government. Every prospective citizen is expected to answer a minimum of six questions correctly, from a list of 100 provided in a booklet from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Democracy is something of a running theme throughout the test. The opening section of the question booklet is titled “Principles of American Democracy.” Many of the questions refer to elections and the electoral process; question 55 asks: “What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?”
Now that I’m done with the test, maybe I should mail my well-thumbed USCIS booklet to the office of Republican Sen. Mike Lee. The senior senator from Utah declared on Twitter the night before my citizenship test:
He followed up a few hours later:
Sorry — what? Sure, right-wing trolls on Twitter often invoke the “we’re a republic, not a democracy” talking point to try to deflect from calls for greater representation and political equality. But it is deeply depressing to witness a sitting U.S. senator engage in the same “cheap rhetorical sleight of hand,” to quote the political scientist Ed Burmila.
Of course, Lee doesn’t really believe the U.S. isn’t a democracy. “It’s time to stop delaying democracy; it’s time to stop hiding from the American people,” he declaimed on the Senate floor in 2015. Lee, as writer Jonathan Katz noted, was accusing Democrats of undermining the democratic process in a debate over funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
We shouldn’t be surprised by Lee’s entreaties though. In all three branches of federal government, minority rule is the new normal — so why should Republicans pretend to care about democracy and the popular support it requires? Why would they want to promote it?
President Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016. The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, came to office in 2000 after also losing the popular vote. At the presidential level, the GOP has won the popular vote only once since 1988. Yet they have controlled the White House for the majority of the 21st century. According to Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, “In 2020, it's possible Trump could win 5 million fewer votes than his opponent — and still win a second term.”
In Congress, the House of Representatives is far from representative thanks to partisan gerrymandering. In the wake of 2018’s blue wave, which saw Democrats retake control of the House, the overall result still “wasn’t as bad as it could have been for Republicans,” according to analysis by The Associated Press, which states that the GOP “won about 16 more U.S. House seats than would have been expected based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country.”
Across the Capitol, the Senate has always been an anti-majoritarian institution but never more so than today. Based as it is on states regardless of size, “the Republican Senate ‘majority,’” according to Vox’s Ian Millhiser, currently “represents 15 million fewer people than the Democratic ‘minority.’”
And on Oct. 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee launched hearings to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee. If confirmed, Barrett will join Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorusch, and Brett Kavanaugh in being nominated by a president who became president despite losing the popular vote. A minority of voters will have led to a majority on the highest court in the land in lifetime posts.
The problem remains the same at the state level. In five states in 2017 and 2018 — Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — “Democratic candidates for state house received a majority of the statewide popular vote,” according to a study by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, but “the Republican Party won more seats than Democrats,” thereby retaining their majorities. In Wisconsin, Republicans won 45 percent of the vote but gained a whopping 65 percent of the seats in the state Legislature.
How is this fair? How is it small-d democratic or, for that matter, small-r republican? To those who abuse history to defend such grossly inequitable outcomes with the tired trope of “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” it is worth considering the definition of a “republic” offered by Founding Father James Madison. In Federalist No. 10, Madison defined a republic as “the delegation of the government…to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” The “rest,” however, have since become perpetually stymied even as their overall numbers have grown through universal suffrage. Yes, the U.S. political and judicial systems were designed to protect the minority from the majority — but not to entrench minority rule across the United States. None of the founders would have recognized a system that regularly denies a majority of voting citizens both political representation and the power to pass laws.
Those of us who are new U.S. citizens understand this, perhaps, better than most. I’m reminded of the third question in my test booklet: “The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?”
Answer: “We the People.”
“A Minority of People” would be marked incorrect.