A Republic, If You Can Keep It

Thinking behind the tweets, as democracy's clock ticks

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Sen. Joe Manchin on May 27, 2021, after talking with reporters about the bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th attack. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

As the oft-told story goes, a group of citizens asked Benjamin Franklin as he exited the Constitutional Convention what sort of government he and the other delegates created. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he said, emphasizing not only that this government depends upon the consent of the people, it also requires an active, informed and engaged citizenry.

You’ve probably heard the too cute and clever comments from some Republicans when asked about the state of our democracy—that we are not a democracy, but rather a republic. That technical reply could be found in James Madison’s Federalist No. 14:

“In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

Of course, there’s a darker side to that Republican trickery: It’s meant to minimize the fundamental significance of our democracy and therefore minimize attempts to do away with access to voting rights and hostile attacks on our electoral system. This disdain for democracy—especially as the GOP focus congeals around efforts to get and keep power by any means necessary—is often couched in the desire to make sure that only the “right kind” of people are voting.

Such demagoguery was noted by James Madison, who worried in Federalist No. 10 about men of “sinister designs” who may employ the “vicious arts” to undo the peoples’ interests. As George Thomas, a professor of American political institutions, wisely explained in The Atlantic last year:

“Consider that President Abraham Lincoln, facing a civil war, which he termed the great test of popular government, used constitutional republic and democracy synonymously, eloquently casting the American experiment as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And whatever the complexities of American constitutional design, Lincoln insisted, ‘the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible.’”

All this brings me back to this dark week when Republican Senators succeeded at voting down a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection and Republicans in states like Texas sought to pursue the “vicious arts” with legislation which would allow judges to overturn elections without evidence. Texas Democrats successfully stopped that, for now, but recent “radical changes to core electoral procedures” were enough to motivate 100 scholars of democracy to assert that the GOP-led efforts “are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.” And worse: “our entire democracy is now at risk.”

No tweet of the last week tapped into what people were feeling like this one did. West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin continues to talk up bipartisanship and talk down the idea of ending the filibuster (that Jim Crow-era tool that the GOP used to deny the Congressional inquiry into January 6). Arizona’s Kirsten Sinema said the commission was critical, yet couldn’t find the time to even cast a vote on the matter. Well beyond these two, though, there’s a growing sense that the Democrats—in their courteous and slow-moving ways—are failing to recognize the extent and urgency of the crisis.

The insurrection did not end on January 6, a point that Chris Hayes succinctly asserted. But it goes beyond the role of the states. As I noted nearly a month ago in The Insurrection is Far from Over: “The longer this takes, the more both those directly involved and those who support the insurrection from afar will cling tighter to the Big Lie and resist the presumption that the leaders should be held accountable.”

The clock is ticking. We can be outraged by the Republicans’ refusal to pursue an investigation, but as they continue to roam the halls of the Capitol—as if the law does not apply to them, as if some people really are above the law—we can’t move on. I remain optimistic that Merrick Garland will fulfill his promise to pursue every lead “wherever it takes us,” but I worry every day that the Republicans’ nose-thumbing strengthens the insurgency.

We know that January 6 was not an endpoint, but rather the beginning of the next dreadful chapter to take power. We can see that the plotting is still underway, fueled by the continuing sense that elected Republicans believe they can cover up the deadly gravity of January 6 and continue the same lies that fueled violent extremists to attack the Capitol and our democracy.

It’s my growing belief that it will take prosecutions and convictions of complicit elected officials if we are going to shift the trajectory and slow the march toward more political violence.

Yesterday Joe Biden talked about “a truly unprecedented assault on our democracy” and announced that Kamala Harris will lead a wide-ranging effort in Congress and with voting rights and other community organizations around the country—positive signs of the rising awareness of the need to take more aggressive action as the voter rights legislation crawls through the Senate and faces an increasingly troubled path to passage.

But this comes only days after pardoned felon and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told a Dallas crowd of QAnon conspiracists that a Myanmar-style military coup “should happen” in the US; crackpot lawyer Sydney Powell told that same crowd at the “For God and Country Patriot Roundup” that Trump “can simply be reinstated” and “moved back in” to the White House; and the twice-impeached resident of Palm Beach readies rallies this month for the growing population of Republicans who believe that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

Democracy’s clock is ticking, democrats. (That’s a small “d” for everyone who still believes in democracy.)


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