Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.
This is a tweet from a United States Senator, Mike Lee of Utah. It speaks to an attitude, in the Republican Party. This is not just President Donald Trump, and it should scare you. It is part of the civic religion that is very strong with the radical right that is also infecting the Courts. This is that the country is a republic, not a democracy. This is a game of words essentially because Rome’s Constitution drew heavily from the Athenian tradition. During its republican phase, Rome was a democracy, just like Athens. They just used a different word since they spoke Latin, not Greek.
Let’s be clear about Rome. The Founding Fathers were very familiar with both Athens and Rome, as well as their history. They believed both provided a solid model for the nascent government they were creating, as long as there were some protections for the minority. Because they believed these would protect them from the tyranny of the majority.
The Founders, like all educated men of the Enlightenment, read deeply into the classics, in both Greek and Latin. Cicero, and his warnings on Imperial Rome, figured deeply in their thinking. To be Frank, they were not the only thinkers of the age concerned with tyranny. The discussions on natural laws and constitutions were common across the Western World.
The founders were also concerned about the role of religion in civil society, partly because they were closer to the 100 years war than we. Some of the colonists came to the colonies fleeing the horrors of both the religious wars in Europe, as well as Cromwell’s Glorious Revolution. That one did not produce free people able to rule itself. It was…a mess. It served as a warning to those writing the founding documents.
The founders wanted a limited democracy. Why? Like Rome and Athens, only landowners could vote. Women and slaves were not able to participate in this democracy. This system, which protected slavery from the beginning, has expanded. It first opened the franchise to white men, who were not landowners. This was part of the populist move by Andrew Jackson. The next expansion, truly, was the franchise expanding to mostly white women in 1917. Lastly, We have seen the franchise expand to everybody with the voting rights act.
Republicans have fought the expansion of the ballot to minorities since it started. To be fair, so did Southern Democrats who later joined the Republican Party. It was part of the two parties’ realignment. At one time, the party of Lincoln had a significant following from Blacks and Latinos who saw them as advancing their cause a little more than Democrats. The two parties have shifted their roles, and since, Republicans have done all they can to reduce the franchise. They know that minorities and immigrants, for the most part, do not like them. So this is one reason they want to stop it. The other, they are currently a white supremacist nationalist party. Remember those Southern Democrats who joined the party starting in 1968? Add to that the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon and you have the beginnings of a very toxic mix.
The measures they use include voter suppression and this is why they favor voter ID laws. Mind you, a national voter ID, which is their ultimate goal, can become a national ID law as well, Just ask your neighbors to the south and the role the IFE card plays in daily life.
This is why they keep playing word games. We are a constitutional republic. Indeed, but one where the franchise continues to expand. At one time Senators were appointed by state governors. No serious Republican is arguing to go back to that era. However, some movement conservatives have said that it is a good idea to remove the franchise from women.
Republicans are about maintaining power by any means. This includes violating their own rules, imposed to stop progress, and capture the Supreme Court. They are doing all they can to impose a tyranny of the minority. Perhaps they forget that the Revolution came because of a tyrannical government.
There is another red flag in that tweet. This is liberty. Libertarians mean positive liberty, what I can do. It is the idea that the government should be as small as possible and forget any regulations. This means no environmental or labor laws. This leads to prosperity for the few, who can afford to live behind closed walls and have clean water. The rest, well they are lesser people. There is a strand of Social Darwinism in Republican thought, as well as racism.
Republicans are concerned about holding to power no matter what. They are increasingly a minority. This means that they will do all they can to maintain it. In other words, this is the road towards radicalism. This is also alien to the Founding Fathers.
Here is where civic religion intersects with radicalization. We must understand that for some in the far right the Constitution has taken on an almost religious tone. It is not a civic document that can be changed with the times, the intent of the Founders, but a religious document inspired by God, that is unerring and beyond human change. This is at the heart of the Originalist school of legal jurisprudence.
Let’s be clear. The founders were mere men, with all the foibles and passions of human life. They had many defects, just like we all do. They were not gods, and the words they left behind tell us that these documents are not beyond change. Thomas Jefferson is often quoted by many in the far-right, who seem not to understand that he was not a deeply religious man who believed the nation would change. He believed an educated population could exercise power and believed in learning and reading thoughtful life. He wrote in the letters to Thomas Jefferson::
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
He also was a deeply intellectual and well-read man, who said this about the separation of Church and State:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
This is also critical, as an increasing number of radical Republicans wear religion on their sleeve and want to demolish that wall. This attitude is alien to at least some of the Founders who could conceive of a world where religion is not central to daily life. They were closer to the horrors of religious wars and anti-papism was still a feature of American life. Religion was something to be confined to what they called the private sphere. While Blue Laws would remain in some form in the books for centuries, members of Congress were given a copy of Jefferson’s Bible until the early years of the 20th century, and Christmas was a working day in Congress.
It is time for us to not just call Republicans on the hypocrisy. What they wish is to impose the tyranny of the minority, and take us down a very dark path It is not about the founders, because they would not recognize our nation, after all, theirs was a mostly agricultural nation, with a strong slave-based economy. Ours is an urban society, seeking the vision of the founders, of a land where we all are more equal. Theirs was also a collection of states, that at times barely tolerated each other. Ours is one nation, which emerged from a civil war.
Jefferson was a prolific writer, who was a student of history. He foresaw some of what we are experiencing right now. He wrote in Notes in the State of Virginia:
certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large,
Jefferson and others of that generation would recognize what is happening right now. They probably would compare this moment to what Cicero wrote about the end of the Roman Republic. We all make allusions to far more recent events, including the Third Reich, but it behooves us to re-read some Cicero.