Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grasps the meaning of democracy better than Republicans do

By | August 27, 2019

Jamelle Bouie writes:

Spend enough time talking politics on the internet — or in any other public forum — and you’ll run into this standard reply to anyone who wants more democracy in American government: “We’re a republic, not a democracy.”

You saw it over the weekend, in an exchange between Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Dan Crenshaw of Texas. In a brief series of tweets, Ocasio-Cortez made the case against the Electoral College and argued for a national popular vote to choose the president. “Every vote should be = in America, no matter who you are or where you come from,” she wrote. “The right thing to do is establish a Popular Vote. & GOP will do everything they can to fight it.”

Crenshaw, who has sparred with Ocasio-Cortez before, jumped in with a response: “Abolishing the Electoral College means that politicians will only campaign in (and listen to) urban areas. That is not a representative democracy.” And then he said it: “We live in a republic, which means 51% of the population doesn’t get to boss around the other 49%.”

Crenshaw is wrong on the impact of ending the Electoral College. A presidential candidate who focused only on America’s cities and urban centers would lose — there just aren’t enough votes. Republicans live in cities just as Democrats live in rural areas. Under a popular vote, candidates would still have to build national coalitions across demographic and geographic lines. The difference is that those coalitions would involve every region of the country instead of a handful of competitive states in the Rust Belt and parts of the South.

You can fill in the blanks of the argument from there. The Founding Fathers built a government to stymie the “tyranny of the majority.” They contrasted their “republic” with “democracy,” which they condemned as dangerous and unstable. As John Adams wrote in an 1814 letter to the Virginia politician John Taylor: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”

But there’s a problem. For the founders, “democracy” did not mean majority rule in a system of representation. The men who led the revolution and devised the Constitution were immersed in classical literature and political theory. Ancient Greece, in particular, was a cautionary tale. When James Madison critiqued “democracy” in Federalist No. 10, he meant the Athenian sort: “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” This he contrasted with a “republic” or “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” Likewise, in a 1788 speech to the New York ratification convention, Alexander Hamilton disavowed “the ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated.” They “never possessed one good feature of government,” he said. “Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

In more modern terms, the founders feared “direct democracy” and accounted for its dangers with a system of “representative democracy.” Yes, this “republic” had counter-majoritarian aspects, like equal representation of states in the Senate, the presidential veto and the Supreme Court. But it was not designed for minority rule. [Continue reading…]

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