Are we a “republic” or a “democracy?” Every time I think this question – a golden oldie for grade school civics classes, high school debate teams and call-ins by C-SPAN viewers – has gone away, it pops up again.

Its latest life comes to us from the Twitter fingers of Republican Sen. Mike Lee, a rising conservative star from Utah, who in a series of tweets during the recent vice presidential debate, declared, “We’re not a democracy.”

“Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prospefity (sic) are,” he tweeted after midnight. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

He sparked around 29,000 retweets by the next afternoon including, not surprisingly, numerous critics of his view.

In a later essay (“Of course, we’re not a democracy”) in the interdenominational intellectual journal First Things, Lee rebutted critics with a current example: the vigorous calls by progressive-wing Democrats for an expansion of the Supreme Court to offset its new 6-3 conservative majority with liberal nominees.

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,” Lee wrote. “In that sense, our constitution is fundamentally undemocratic.”

As semantics go, he makes a good point – at least halfway good, in my view. No, the framers of the Constitution did not have direct democracy in mind. As my Louisiana column-writing colleague James Gill wrote, “We don’t all put on a clean toga and rush down to the forum to vote in person on every issue.”

No, that would be direct democracy as practiced by the ancient Greeks. Our constitution’s framers set up a constitutional republic, described by John Adams, among others, as “representative democracy.”

So, the answer to the “republic or democracy” question is, we’re both. The framers gave birth to a democratic republic for their own class – elite, male, land-owning and, in some cases, slave-owning – in a way that protected themselves for what they were: a minority in need of protection from possible abuses by the majority.

Over time, a Civil War and the Industrial Age, a new view of freedom, equality and liberty took hold in what Abraham Lincoln memorably described at Gettysburg as “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Yet we still see the old disputes resurrected in polarized times like now. There’s the Electoral College that installed our current president with a minority of popular votes. The U.S. Senate gives the same number of seats – two – to Wyoming as it does to California, which is about 67 times larger. There’s Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, which get no senators or voting members of Congress.

And we see issues seemingly settled by the Civil War resurrected under such labels as racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws and other impediments that tend to make it harder in some states for the poor, racial minorities and released felons, among other groups, to vote.

Today’s disputes over “voter fraud” have become increasingly partisan, especially as Republicans see their demographic numbers shifting in favor of Democrats. Today we hear about “widespread fraud” allegations mostly from President Donald Trump and other Republicans, even though the respected Brennan Center for Justice finds fraud is very rare – more rare than repeated, false allegations of fraud that can make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote.

That’s called voter suppression, which Trump and his allies deny at least as much as they have denied the need to wear masks during a pandemic.

One of the more candid voices, the late Paul Weyrich, who co-founded The Heritage Foundation and other leading groups of the “New Right,” seemed to give that game away in a 1980 speech often quoted by his critics on the left:

“I don’t want everybody to vote,” he said. “Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In today’s political language, we might say that Weyrich’s candor was “saying the quiet parts out loud.” No, our republic is not quite a democracy, but we could be a lot more democratic.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpagechicagotribune.com.

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