Trumpist Republicans are lately in the habit of repeating this doozy of a notion that the United States of America is “a republic, not a democracy” (RNAD). Often, this comes as a response to statements like, “Trumpism is a threat to democracy!” While your first reaction might have been, “Huh?” or, “Are these stone-cold nincompoops out of their ever-loving minds?” the refrain remains a consistent rebuttal from the extreme right.
Responding to RNAD requires understanding what right-wing extremists mean when they say “a republic, not a democracy.” It means they don’t care about democracy. This line of argument provides an ideological justification for some of the most extreme actions being taken by members of the MAGAsphere—actions aimed at thwarting American democracy itself.
The history of the “republic not a democracy” idea in modern Republican circles dates back to the 1964 Republican National Convention that nominated Barry Goldwater, where some of the bigger anti-government proponents in the crowd actually chanted the phrase. Fast forward to the present, where Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a self-styled constitutional expert, offered these thoughts:
In brief, Lee says the goals are more important than the methods. Where else have we heard that?
For a long-winded exploration of the origins of this idea, feel free (at risk to your health and comfort) to consult the essay “America is a Republic, Not a Democracy,” published by the Heritage Foundation—which has notably bent the knee to The Man Who Lost an Election and Tried to Steal It.
The essay’s author is Bernard Dobski, a political scientist at Assumption College, which identifies itself as a “learning community where we strive for excellence and we work to Become Respectful, Responsible Individuals Who are ready to serve our World In the Spirit of Christ.” Dobski believes that being a republic rather than a democracy “offers protections from the instability, rashness, impetuosity, and social and political tyranny of democratic politics.” I mean, sheesh, the popular vote would have given us President Hillary Clinton. What the hell do the people know about picking a president, anyway?
As Cornell University historian Lawrence Glickman noted, RNAD has a “long genealogy on the American right.” The ultra-conservative John Birch Society—the members of which Goldwater embraced, referring to them as “good people”—spouted this kind of anti-democracy rhetoric, as did those who opposed FDR’s New Deal.
Right-wingers from Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips (in 2010) to Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho (in 2014) endorsed limiting the right to vote to those who owned property. Yoho actually admitted to his audience, “I’ve had some radical ideas about voting and it’s probably not a good time to tell them.” Ya think?
Here’s the thing: These RNAD yahoos don’t even get the Founders right in the broadest sense when it comes to the concept of democracy:
The historical evidence suggests that the founders believed that majority will — defined as the prevailing view of enfranchised citizens — should generally dictate national policy, as George Thomas of Claremont McKenna College and other constitutional scholars have explained.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison equated “a coalition of a majority of the whole society” with “justice and the general good.” Alexander Hamilton made similar points, describing “representative democracy” as “happy, regular and durable.” It was a radical idea at the time.
For most of American history, the idea has prevailed. Even with the existence of the Senate, the Electoral College and the Supreme Court, political power has reflected the views of people who had the right to vote. “To say we’re a republic not a democracy ignores the past 250 years of history,” [Daniel] Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard University, said.
More and more often, Trumpists think it’s a fine time to throw democracy in the trash. Trump’s economic adviser Stephen Moore once proudly proclaimed: “I’m not even a big believer in democracy.” And Gen. Michael Flynn, who briefly served as national security adviser in 2022 is “spearheading the attack on our democracy,” stated NYU historian of fascism and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Since President Biden flipped Arizona from red to blue for the first time since Bill Clinton won it in 1996, the Grand Canyon State has become a particular hotspot for RNAD extremists. Journalist and expert on the American right-wing, Robert Draper, argued in The New York Times that their hatred of democracy stems directly from their belief in the Big Lie. Let’s go through some of the Arizona RNADers’ greatest hits.
Selena Bliss, a candidate for the State House, declared:
I want to address something that’s bugging me for a long time. And that’s the history and the sacredness of our Constitution and what our founding fathers meant. We are a constitutional republic. We are not a democracy. Nowhere in the Constitution does it use the word ‘democracy.’ When I hear the word ‘democracy,’ I think of the democracy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s not us.
(It’s no coincidence that Trumpists think of African countries when citing examples of places that are “not us.”)
State GQP committee member Rose Sperry posted the following command on Facebook: “Please strike the word democracy from your vocabulary! WE ARE A REPUBLIC!!!”
Charlie Kirk, who runs the Republican youth organization Turning Point, went to Arizona and told a crowd: “We don’t have a democracy. Okay? Just to fact check. We’re a republic.”
At another Arizona event, when the host, Jeffrey Crane, asked the audience whether America is a democracy, they shouted out, “Nooooo! Republic!”
And let’s not overlook the remark by the antisemitic, QAnon-loving, and all-around right-wing extremist Mark Finchem. He’s the Republican nominee for secretary of state—the office that oversees elections—who told his supporters he’s proud to be characterized as “the most dangerous person to democracy in America.”
Draper asked Sandy Jenocovich, a poll watcher keeping an eye on a voting drop box, why so many members of her party felt so negatively about democracy. Her answer was enlightening:
Well to me, what a democracy is, is like 51 percent of the people can decide that they want my property, and they can take it. Where a constitutional republic is: No, you can’t do that.
In big picture terms, Draper summarized what he found:
That anti-democracy and anti-’democracy’ sentiment, repeatedly voiced over the course of my travels through Arizona, is distinct from anything I have encountered in over two decades of covering conservative politics.
Folks, it’s not just Arizona. Across our country, the Trumpist right is out there not only spouting this crap, but acting on it to undermine our democracy and cement their own power, whether they win elections or not. In some circles at least, they are using the RNAD argument to support the notion that subverting, or, as Finchem made clear, directly rejecting the will of the voters, is the right thing to do—the American thing, even.
These extremists use RNAD and other arguments to justify simply not accepting the results of elections, like the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, or rejecting the popular will indirectly through measures like gerrymandering. This is happening most often at the state level.
Republicans have been pushing something called the “independent state legislature theory,” which claims that, when it comes to elections, the Constitution gives unfettered power to state legislatures. They believe their actions are not even subject to review by the judiciary. In other words, state legislatures’ power is absolute, and it doesn’t matter if what they do violates state constitutions, because nobody is authorized to block their maneuvers on those grounds. This means that if, for example, the Arizona state legislature had wanted to simply award its electors to Donald Trump in 2020, it could have done so. It’s worth noting that Trump’s lawyers cited the independent state legislature theory during their attempts to overturn President Biden’s 2020 victory.
Unfortunately, it’s also a theory that might find support through the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently agreed to take a case where the conservative majority will have the opportunity to weigh in on the matter—which means they could very easily say that, yes, state legislatures can essentially do whatever the shooby-dooby-doo they want. Keep your eye on Moore v. Harper.
If words fail to capture the full range of your reaction to this possibility, feel free to draw on those of Democratic activist and former New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron:
That state legislatures would be handed this power in presidential elections seems fantastical because it’s absurd. The fact that it may be what the Supreme Court says does strain credibility. It unfortunately happens to be true.
Rejecting basic principles of democracy also underlies the widespread attacks on voting rights we’ve seen from Republicans in recent years. On the latter, Carol Anderson, African American Studies professor at Emory and the author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, sounded the alarm to David Leonhardt of The New York Times:
[Republican voter suppression] is not politics as usual. When you have one side gearing up to say, ‘How do we stop the enemy from voting?’ that is dangerous to a democracy.
More broadly, Steven Levitsky, Harvard government professor and co-author (with Daniel Ziblatt) of the seminal How Democracies Die, put it to Leonhardt as follows:
By any indication, the Republican Party—upper level, midlevel and grassroots—is a party that can only be described as not committed to democracy.
In the English-speaking world, a “republic” has long meant one thing above all else: “not a monarchy.” That’s still true today. A republic is a country where the government claims to derive its power not from a king or queen, but from the people. That’s it. Some republics are democracies, and some are not. The Soviet Union was a republic—that’s what the “R” is for in USSR.
So why go through the rigamorale of twisting words like republic and democracy into something they don’t mean? Jamelle Bouie broke it down beautifully:
The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are, but to claim and co-opt [America’s] founding for right-wing politics—to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip, in other words, is an impulse against democratic representation. It is part and parcel of the drive to make American government a closed domain for a select, privileged few.
The Founders wrote a Constitution and crafted a structure for government that we follow—one we have amended using the process they also created. They knew our country's ideas might change, and allowed the Constitution to change with them. The wide array of the Founders’ beliefs expressed in various writings should not define what kind of democracy we are today. The RNAD crowd trying to cherry-pick ideas from 250 years ago in order to justify acts against democracy now is the worst sort of abuse of history.
On Sept. 1, in Philadelphia, President Biden forcefully and clearly delineated the core issue at hand:
MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they’re working right now as I speak in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.
Democracy cannot survive if one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: Either they win or they were cheated. And that’s where the MAGA Republicans are today.
Biden went on to ask all of us to “unite behind the single purpose of defending our democracy regardless of your ideology.” In all, he mentioned the word “democracy” a dozen-plus times, and closed the speech by emphasizing the word. Our job, in Biden’s formulation, is to “speak up, speak out, get engaged, vote, vote, vote!”
There are flaws in our democracy. But the difference between Democrats and these ultra-MAGA Trump Republicans is that the former want to fix those flaws and make our democracy stronger, so that all Americans have a truly equal voice in our politics, while the latter want to exploit these flaws to consolidate power through undemocratic machinations.
Too many on the other side don't think we should be a democracy in the first place. And if enough of those extremists win elections this fall, they’ll be in a position to turn their nightmarish dream into our reality.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)