by Paige Terryberry
Senior Analyst for Fiscal Policy, John Locke Foundation
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, “threat to democracy” became a trending topic.
Source: Screenshot from the NBC News Poll of August 2022
In President Biden’s divisive speech on September 1, 2022, he used the word “democracy” 31 times. Among other things, he said that “equality and democracy are under assault,” “MAGA Republicans… [are] empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself,” “insurrectionists … placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy,” and “we are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy.”
Arguably the Democrat’s better-than-expected success in midterms can be attributed to their candidates’ use of this topic that resonated with voters.
But what are these so-called threats to democracy?
My search found these threats to include MAGA Republicans, the Electoral College, the Senate (which is supposedly biased against urban areas), the Supreme Court, the filibuster, disenfranchisement of voters by requiring photo ID or limiting early voting, and lack of union representation for workers.
Silencing “MAGA Republicans,” banishing the Electoral College or the Senate, packing the Supreme Court, or destroying the filibuster would supposedly calm the “threats to democracy” as defined by the Left, as it would ensure that their preferences are imposed by majority rule. By forcing their majority will through key institutions like the Supreme Court, they could circumvent the lawful process and accomplish their policy objectives.
In essence, American institutions like the Supreme Court are a threat to their democracy – one in which their power goes unchallenged. In a pure democracy, it is the iron law of majority rule.
The constitutional republic, on the other hand, insulates against abuses of liberty that can come from factions, including majority factions.
But there are good reasons we are not governed by pure democracy. A pure democracy would essentially cancel dissenters and disallow open debate, given that the majority opinion could be the law of the land.
In a constitutional republic — America’s system — minority views have a voice. This aspect is important because states and smaller, local civic institutions matter for political liberty.
The Left claims threats exist to their version of democracy. But their version of democracy would override the Founders’ framework that was intentionally designed to prevent mob rule and stop the destruction of individual rights.
A 2016 article from the Hoover Institution stated it well:
“The Framers believed that cooler heads would prevail if the people’s impulses were funneled through elected representatives in government. And, in fact, representation was only one part of the Founders’ remedy for the mischiefs of faction. They also separated the powers of government among three branches, established a Senate in which states, not people, have equal voice, established the electoral college rather than direct popular vote for the selection of the president, divided powers between the national and state governments, and allowed that individual rights would prevail over national (and later state) power.”
In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote, “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”
Pure democracies are peddled as egalitarian, but in reality they allow no place for the minority opinion. The false promise of pure democracy has failed dozens of nations. When socialists or other statists gain the majority, they crush minorities, stifle dissent, subjugate the individual to the whims of the state, and remove free elections.
The Left cries “threats to democracy” to communicate that their worldview is under attack. To solve this problem, they must push out the ideals of a constitutional republic and allow for government overreach. Supposedly, the desired result is an egalitarian utopia. But they would erase the important distinctions we have in our social, familial, religious, and economic life.
Pure democracies constrain liberty. The constitutional republic, on the other hand, insulates against abuses of liberty that can come from factions, including majority factions.
Founding institutions like the Supreme Court, for example, are entirely undemocratic on purpose. The Supreme Court has the power to strike down any law that violates our Constitution, no matter how many people support it.
As Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) wrote in his op-ed following the 2020 vice presidential debate that raised this topic, “you can’t pack the Court without inevitably threatening things like religious freedom and freedom of speech — things that are unpopular but are protected by the Constitution precisely because they are unpopular. In that sense, our Constitution is fundamentally undemocratic.”
The Founders established the American system not to empower the majority but to protect the rights of individuals and to insulate the traditions and values of our country’s experiment in self-government from factions.
Sen. Mike Lee continued, “only in a constitutional republic are Americans’ individual rights and cultural diversity given their proper position atop our political order, over and above even majority will.”
Big-government solutions that the Left hopes to reach by dismantling institutions that guard against the tyranny of the majority will always bring more problems and less liberty.
The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw this issue. He wrote, “there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduce men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” He claimed that such thinkers idolize equality over all else, even liberty. They would prefer people were all equally miserable.
No one has a monopoly on the solutions to the complex issues we face as a nation. Freedom is messy, but it is better than the imposition of top-down, one-size-fits-all big government.
Many voters agreed that there are “threats to democracy,” however they chose to define that phrase. Unfortunately, the topic was a distraction from real issues, like our economic downturn. Rather than defend an abysmal policy record, the Left focused messaging on threats to their democracy.