About a month before Election Day 2020, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) raised a few eyebrows by declaring via social media that the United States is "not a democracy." The Utah Republican added soon after, "Democracy isn't the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that."
Eight months later, the New York Times published a report on the severity of Republican efforts to thwart our electoral system, and it quoted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) making related comments.
Some other Republicans embrace the notion that they are trying to use their prerogatives as a minority party to safeguard their own power. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said the endeavor was the essence of America's system of representative democracy, distinguishing it from direct democracy, where the majority rules and is free to trample the rights of the minority unimpeded.
"The idea of democracy and majority rule really is what goes against our history and what the country stands for," the GOP senator said. "The Jim Crow laws came out of democracy. That's what you get when a majority ignores the rights of others."
At face value, it's both unusual and jarring to see prominent Republican officials such as Lee and Paul expressing public skepticism, not about progressive governance, but about democracy itself.
It's important to emphasize the relevant context. When Lee, for example, made the case last fall that the United States shouldn't be seen as a democracy, he wasn't explicitly making the case for some kind of authoritarian alternative. Rather, the Utahan was clumsily arguing against tyranny of the majority: under "rank democracy," to borrow the senator's phrasing, an unchecked majority can trample on the rights of the minority.
Rand Paul's rhetoric was similar, referencing white-supremacist Jim Crow laws as an example of what happens "when a majority ignores the rights of others."
There are a few problems with this.
First, the idea that democracy "goes against our history and what the country stands for" is incomplete. Our history has too many examples of the United States falling short of its highest ideals -- I'm of the opinion that we weren't a true democracy until 1965 -- but democracy has nevertheless been intertwined with our system of government since its outset.
Second, Jim Crow is not, strictly speaking, an example of democracy run amok. As Cornell historian Larry Glickman explained this morning, Jim Crow actually "came out of the counter-revolution against democracy." The power structure across much of the South feared a level playing field and a multiracial system, so they went to disgusting lengths to undermine democracy with discriminatory restrictions.
Jim Crow wasn't emblematic of democracy; it was an attack on democracy.
And third, as a Washington Post analysis added this morning, "Paul's argument is offered in service to the idea that there should be a check on the power of the population and he uses Jim Crow as an example of why that's necessary. But Jim Crow actually serves as a more useful analogy to the way in which Republican officials are hoping to maintain power despite votes that might be cast in support of policies and candidates with whom they disagree."
Quite right. As the Kentucky Republican criticizes the idea of democracy, his party is targeting the franchise with the kind of aggressive campaign unseen in the United States since, well, the Jim Crow era.
GOP officials, in states across the country, believe the will of the people should be replaced with the will of Republicans -- as if the minority should have real power because it represents "real" Americans, unlike those rascally Democrats.
If Rand Paul wants to defend such a system, he'll have to do better than this.