By Reed Galen
“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” is the mythological answer given by Benjamin Franklin when asked what the 1787 Constitutional Convention had created. The word, republic, and its meaning in American politics has bounced around. Now, MAGA leaders are using it to claim the United States is not, in fact, a democracy.
This past April, Cleta Mitchell, long-time conservative attorney and the other voice on the phone during Donald Trump’s phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, spoke to a Republican National Committee ‘donor retreat.’ During her talk she said:
“Let me just say this: Whenever anybody starts telling you that they’re worried about democracy or protecting our democracy, or they’ve got democracy in their name, those are not friends of ours. Because we live in a constitutional republic, not a democracy. They want it to be a democracy to change our Founders’ intent…”
What is a constitutional republic? The United States? The People’s Republic of China? The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Why does Mitchell use these words? To change the definition of what the United States and its founders meant America to be – at the time they wrote the document.
Let’s remember that in 1787, the only people who could vote were white male property owners. Their intent, so far as it went, reflected their times and their limited ability to see the future. They knew enough to allow for changes to the Constitution, but the idea of women or Blacks voting was beyond their comprehension.
The only mention of African Americans related to voting is that, though not citizens, nor even considered people, each slave would be counted as 3/5 a person to ensure the southern states maintained their power in Congress. Is this the intent that Mitchell and her ilk want to return to?
Let’s take a moment, though, to dispense with the fiction that so many conservative jurists and legal scholars are ‘strict constructionists.’ Based on Mitchell’s comments, they might indeed want a return to the heady days of men wearing powdered wigs and silk stockings. But their real desire is to reinterpret, for their own purposes, what the Founders intended for the benefit of their own power and ideology.
Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, struck down an attempt by North Carolina Republicans to view the elections clause of the Constitution as allowing state legislatures to determine not only how, when, and who could participate in the political process, but also that state lawmakers override Federal election laws. In the most extreme interpretation, a legislature could change the outcome of an election if they so choose.
This is not an originalist argument. This is a radical argument. The Founders’ intent, whatever it might have been in devolving the running of elections to the several states, was not to create the dictatorship of legislatures just a few years after we’d thrown off the yoke of monarchy.
But here we are in 2023, with Republicans claiming that very thing. Why? Because Republicans know that the country is moving away from them culturally, socially, and politically. Their interpretation of the Constitution is simply another way to change the rules to enshrine their own power even as the country evolves into a multiracial democracy.
We should take a broader view of their efforts, many of which have been going on for decades. The culture wars they wage against women and the LGBT community are political in nature, yes, but much more insidious than that. The leadership of the Republican Party wants to control how Americans live their private lives; your life and mine are the business of government – of those who hold power, and they will determine what they believe is right for you and yours.
As Hannah Arendt writes in her book, On Revolution, a true republic “granted every citizen the right to become ‘a participator in the government of affairs,’ the right to be seen in action.” What people like Cleta Mitchell are telling us, and remember, they always tell us what they want to do, is they want to control your private life and silence your voice in matters of public affairs.
What they’re offering is tyranny.
In American history, each leap forward in freedom has been met with a reactionary wave. Be it Reconstruction following the Civil War, the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Roe v. Wade, or the Obergfell decision that legalized marriage equality, those in power have spared little time and expense in rolling back new rights when possible.
Now, as we approach the 2024 election, MAGA and its supporters believe Donald Trump’s return to the White House is existential to their vision of the United States as a white, Christian nation. We saw what they were willing to do after Trump’s (free and fair) loss in 2020 and the events of January 6, 2021. Their behavior has not and will not improve between now and next November.
It is incumbent upon all of us in the pro-democracy movement to ensure that MAGA’s twisted vision for America never comes to pass. To do that, we must lock arms, put aside petty differences, and march forward to a better, more free tomorrow. To do otherwise is to deliver ourselves, our children, and our nation into the hands of those whose bad intentions know bounds.