Saturday, October 17, 2020

Musings on Whether America is a "Rank" Democracy or a Republic

     By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Senator Mike Lee (R/Utah) has asserted that America is a constitutional republic and not a rank democracy.  His disparagement of democracy came after President Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses in November.  It’s troubling evidence that Trump and Republicans in Congress question the legitimacy of American democracy.

This is not the first time that critics have asserted that America is a republic and not a democracy; but that’s a false distinction.  The Constitution created the U.S. as a democratic republic that’s a form of democracy with a representative government.  No nation is a pure democracy, and some representative democracies have regressed into authoritarian regimes.

Germany and Italy are Christian democracies that became fascist regimes in the 1930s, and Donald Trump’s populist politics resemble those of Hitler and Mussolini.  Voters in democracies have often allowed crafty and divisive demagogues to corrupt their democracy with empty promises of liberty, peace and prosperity and the ruthless elimination of their opponents.

The U.S. Constitution provides for a separation of powers in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government that protects against a dangerous concentration of power.  But that balance of powers can be circumvented by an unprincipled president with a minority of zealous supporters, a compliant Senate and courts weighted with his judicial appointees.

Once a draft dodger, Trump is now the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military.  It’s a paradox of an authoritarian regime within a libertarian democracy; and Trump would need its support to expand his power beyond that authorized by the Constitution; but military leaders are sworn to support and defend the Constitution, and I’m confident they would honor their oath..

Those who have served in the military understand the difference between a libertarian democracy and an authoritarian regime.  When they put on a uniform they give up many of their freedoms and risk their lives to protect the freedom of civilians to protest against U.S. policies, even those who burn our flag.  That’s a principle of Constitutional law taught in Army ROTC. 


America’s democracy is only as “rank” as the voters make it, and the 2016 election was pretty darn rank.  Trump has suggested that If he loses the 2020 election he will claim the vote was rigged and refuse to concede based on allegations of voter fraud.  He could tie up election results in court, and then quell the violence of expected protests by declaring martial law.

Germany provides a precedent.  In 1933 there was a suspicious fire in the Reichstag just  before elections.  Hitler blamed communists and was given power to impose martial law with the Reichstag Fire Decree.  He had the support of the German Lutheran Church and the pope; and while the Nazis were not a majority they were united, and their opposition divided.  That allowed Hitler to convert Germany’s “rank” democracy into the Third Reich.  And it could happen here.


The Guardian reported Senator Mike Lee (R/Utah) tweeting “‘We’re not a democracy. Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.’ Lee disparaged democracy as rank and questioned its role in US government: ‘The word ‘democracy’ appears nowhere in the Constitution, perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic.’ 

Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director, tweeted: “Democracy isn’t the objective’. Our suspicions are confirmed.”  Walter Shaub, former director of the US office of government ethics, said: “People of my grandfather’s generation knew what to do about fascists. Now a member of Congress is urging us to join them.  Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein wrote: “If we’re not to have rule of the people, who exactly should rule? Throughout American history, from the Framers up to the present, the answer has always been the same: the people.” See

In The New Yorker Sue Halpern has asserted that Senator Lee’s words illustrate “that many on the right view voting as an existential threat. At a gathering of evangelicals back in 1980, Paul Weyrich, a Republican strategist and a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, asked, ‘How many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo-goo syndrome’? Good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of 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.’”  Halpern concluded that “Democracy relies on trust. When we vote, we come together to articulate our singular will with the understanding that we will submit to the collective will. ...If, ultimately, Trump, Barr, and others were to subvert the election, Mike Lee’s claim that we aren’t a democracy will turn out to have been prescient.”  See

The Business Insider notes that Senator Lee’s remarks are “linked to a long history of Republicans rejecting the notion that the US political system is a democracy. The GOP's objection to calling the US a democracy is tied to the fact Republicans have reason to fear a system in which a majority of Americans have more say. The Republican party's platform is increasingly at odds with the perspectives of most voters on an array of issues.  But Lee's portrayal of democracy as something that can hinder progress in the US could also be viewed in a more chilling light given the Republican senator is an ally of a president who ...has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. The president has baselessly claimed that the election is "rigged" against him as he trails former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls. Trump's behavior has mirrored that of authoritarians, and alarmed historians and scholars of democracy.

Technically, the US is a constitutional republic. But a republic is, by definition, a type of democracy. “Both democracy and republic have more than a single meaning, and one of the definitions we provide for democracy closely resembles the definition of republic," according to Merriam-Webster, which defines a republic as "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections." In other words, the US is both a republic AND a democracy. Lee painted a false dichotomy and he could not have done it at a worse moment, as many in the US feel that the GOP has already instituted minority rule and democracy watchdogs warn that America is becoming increasingly autocratic under Trump.

"Authoritarianism in a nutshell," Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian and expert on authoritarianism at New York University, said in response to Lee. "Same words said from Mussolini to Orbán. GOP has judged the time right to come out and say it. ...The escalation of GOP and WH rhetoric about protestors being a mob and Dems being 'too dangerous to rule' is very serious.  She warned that such talk "often precedes" authoritarian government actions.

Like many congressional Republicans, Lee went from being a fierce critic of Trump during the 2016 campaign season to an ally after the former reality TV star won the election. Back in 2016, Lee questioned whether Trump would be an authoritarian if elected.”  See

“The Reichstag Fire Decree was issued by German President Paul von Hindenburg on the advice of Chancellor Adolf Hitler on 28 February 1933 in immediate response to the Reichstag fire. The decree nullified many of the key civil liberties of German citizens. With Nazis in powerful positions in the German government, the decree was used as the legal basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis, and to suppress publications not considered "friendly" to the Nazi cause. The decree is considered by historians as one of the key steps in the establishment of a one-party Nazi state in Germany. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany only four weeks previously, on 30 January 1933, when he was invited by President von Hindenburg to lead a coalition government. Hitler's government had urged von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and to call elections for 5 March.

On the evening of 27 February 1933—six days before the parliamentary election—fire broke out in the Reichstag chambers. While the exact circumstances of the fire remain unclear to this day, what is clear is that Hitler and his supporters quickly capitalized on the fire as a means by which to catalyse their consolidation of power. Hitler almost immediately blamed the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) for causing the blaze, and believed the fire would result in more Germans supporting the Nazis. According to Rudolf Diels, Hitler was heard shouting through the fire "these sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side. In their mouse-holes, out of which they now want to come, of course they hear nothing of the cheering of the masses."[1] 

Within hours of the fire, dozens of Communists had been thrown into jail. The next day, officials in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, which was led by Hermann Göring, discussed ways to provide legal cover for the arrests. Ludwig Grauert, the chief of the Prussian state police, proposed an emergency presidential decree under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which gave the president the power to take any measure necessary to protect public safety without the consent of the Reichstag. It would have suspended most civil liberties under the pretence of preventing further Communist violence. Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, a member of the Nazis' coalition partner, the German National People's Party (DNVP), had actually brought a draft decree before the cabinet on the afternoon of 27 February.[3  Göring issued a directive to the Prussian police authorities on 3 March, stating that in addition to the constitutional rights stripped by the decree, "all other restraints on police action imposed by Reich and State law" were abolished "so far as this is necessary … to achieve the purpose of the decree." 

The Reichstag Fire Decree remained in force for the duration of the Nazi era, allowing Hitler to rule under what amounted to martial law. Along with the Enabling Act, it formed the legal basis for Hitler's dictatorship. Thousands of Hitler's decrees, such as those which turned Germany into a one-party state, were explicitly based on its authority, and hence on Article 48. This was a major reason Hitler never formally abolished the Weimar Constitution, though it no longer had any substantive value after the passage of the Enabling Act.

The Nazis' use of the Reichstag Fire Decree to give their dictatorship the appearance of legality, combined with the broader misuse of Article 48, was fresh on the minds of framers of the postwar Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany. They opted to significantly curb the powers of the president, to the point that he has little de facto executive power.” See,legal%20basis%20for%20Hitler's%20dictatorship.

In 1933 Germany was the most Christian nation in Europe.  Over 90% of Germans were Lutheran and most of the rest Catholic.  Like Trump in America today, in 1933 Hitler and his Nationalist Socialist (Nazi) Party had the support of most Christians.  See HansTiefel, The German Lutheran Church and the Rise of National Socialism at htttps://, Church History, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 1972), pp. 326-336 (11 pages), Cambridge University Press.

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