Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah is facing a backlash after questioning the idea of democracy in an overnight tweet.
“Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are,” Lee tweeted overnight Thursday, misspelling the word “prosperity.” “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
It was unclear what Lee was responding to, but it was one of several tweets about democracy he sent while live tweeting the vice presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence earlier in the evening. Lee also tweeted that the United States is not a democracy but a constitutional republic.
Lee is currently self-isolating after he was among those who attended the Sept. 26 Rose Garden ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett and later tested positive for COVID-19.
The tweet sparked an immediate outcry from those who expressed fears that the Trump administration and its allies in Congress would not accept the results of the election should former vice president Joe Biden win in November, and would use such arguments as pretext. Many compared Lee’s argument to those that have been made by authoritarian regimes throughout history.
Can't believe I have to say this: Democracy is the objective.— Katherine Clark (@RepKClark) October 8, 2020
Good morning, Trump is demanding the arrest of his political rivals, Pence won’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and Republican Senator Mike Lee thinks “liberty” can exist without the ability of the people to freely choose their leaders.— 😱 Endless Zoom Meeting 😱 (@AdamSerwer) October 8, 2020
Reached for comment Thursday for clarification about Lee’s tweet, spokesman Conn Carroll cited the Federalist Papers, in which James Madison warns of the possibility of “the superior force” of an “overbearing majority.”
“Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths,” Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10. “Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
This explanation did not assuage critics, who claimed the argument that the United States was never a democracy does not hold water.
"Senator Lee engages in sophistry in its worse form,” said Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a prominent Harvard Law professor and litigator whose academic specialties include civil rights and civil liberties, in an email message. “He conflates a hyper-technical definition of our constitutional design with shorthand that describes our lived traditions. We are both a constitutional republic and a democracy. And, achieving our democratic aspirations is very much our collective objective as a nation. Senator Lee knows or should know this.”
Another Harvard Law faculty member, Nikolas Bowie, also pushed back on Lee’s tweet when reached for comment.
“This tweet by an elected senator is proof that people in a democracy can sometimes make poor choices,” said Bowie, an assistant Harvard Law professor whose academic specialties include constitutional law, via email. “But the hard work of a democracy, whether a representative democracy like the United States or a direct democracy like New England’s town meetings, is deliberating over what ‘liberty, peace, and prosperity’ should look like—as opposed to taking the word of the wealthy, the powerful, or James Madison. The best traditions of the United States are those that respect the dignity of the most vulnerable among us, allowing everyone to decide how we can all thrive in a community of mutual obligation. It is unfortunate that so many of those in power fear what an enfranchised people would do.”
Raymond La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, said in a phone interview that he thought the tweets from Lee were “part of his personality.”
“He takes himself to be erudite,” said La Raja, who’s also the co-founder of The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics. “He’s a legal scholar, so he likes to be precise. And politically, it wasn’t a very smart move for him.”
That’s because it provided instant fodder for Democrats to “pounce” on, La Raja said, though he he doesn’t think the dustup will have any long-term effects on Lee’s political future.
In the “archaic sense,” La Raja said, there are differences between a democracy and a republic, but people “almost never make these distinctions in practice. ... He’s being very technical on this."
“I don’t think this tweet was intended to ratchet up his base,” La Raja said. “This was an impulsive tweet. That’s what I think."
Requests for comment were sent Thursday to the offices of US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrats who serve with Lee in the upper chamber.
Walter Schaub, former director of the US Office of Government Ethics, also took issue with Lee’s tweet.
“Most Americans like living in this American republic,” Schaub tweeted in response to the Utah Republican. “Democracy is the whole reason for this nation’s existence. People of my grandfather’s generation knew what to do about fascists. Now a member of Congress is urging us to join them. I wonder what made you hate America so much.”
Hollywood weighed in too.
“I didn’t think I could definitively find one of the all time stupidest [expletive] on Twitter, but you just made it happen [expletive]!” tweeted actor and funnyman Seth Rogen in response to Lee. “Thanks!”
Melissa Jo Peltier, an Emmy-award winning film and television writer who also founded the American Dignity PAC, was equally emphatic in her criticism of Lee.
“You don’t know ... [what] you’re talking about,” Peltier tweeted. "'Rank' democracy isn’t an issue in the US because we have a representative democracy. This is you gaslighting to cover up the fact that you believe we should be a one-party, Fascist nation...with you & your pals as ruling oligarchs.
Closer to home for Lee, Utah Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson also had harsh words for the senator.
“I am committed that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,’” Lee tweeted in response to his fellow Utahan. “Just wondering: whose vote shouldn’t count in a ‘rank democracy?’”