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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Hey republic-not-a-democracy folks: It's your time to shine

photo by Nick Youngson

If you’ve been spilling ink over the past months or years arguing that the United States of America is a republic, not a democracy, congratulations, this is your moment. 

I can’t really improve on what Ed Burmilla, Jamelle Bouie, Jonathan Bernstein, Chris Baylor, or others have said on this topic. My own impression is that this republic/democracy distinction doesn’t really mean very much, and the argument is typically just used as a cudgel to defend anti-majoritarian institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College, or to just say that the people can’t have what they say they want.

But, to the extent “republic” has some actual distinct meaning in modern American politics, it would seem to be something like this: Elections are important but they're not everything. We have political values in this nation -- limited government, checks and balances, national sovereignty, the rule of law, and so forth -- and venerable institutions designed to protect those. Just because you won a recent election does not grant you immunity from the law or exemption from those values.

Indeed, the whole idea of an unchecked executive is really antithetical to republican government. “A republic not a democracy” folks like to bring up examples from Rome. So, okay, Rome stopped being a republic and started being an empire when its Senate handed over power to unelected Caesars who served for life and hand-picked their heirs. 

Well, we are now at such a critical moment. By publicly and privately inviting and pressuring foreign governments to intervene in American elections to his advantage, by calling for his congressional critics to be arrested and tried for treason, and by vowing insurrection and civil unrest should his rule be challenged, the President is flouting the law, republican values, and his oath of office. His claim that he has an absolute right to do these things because he won the last election is entirely inconsistent with the Constitution while entirely consistent with the behavior of dictators and tyrants.

Despite the complaints of some of Trump’s defenders, an impeachment would not be an attempt to undo or nullify the election of 2016. No serious person disputes that election’s outcome. Impeachment is a check on the executive, based on the Founders' non-crazy concern that voters (or Electors) could get it wrong, or that even if they picked well, a president could still act in a way hostile to the nation or its values. Indeed, Hamilton, Madison, Washington, and others agreed on including an impeachment clause precisely because they were concerned about presidents becoming the pawns of hostile foreign leaders.

Following a procedure delineated in the Constitution is not a coup, and it certainly isn’t a constitutional crisis. Impeachment and removal from office has a very high bar, but if it wasn’t intended for this particular moment, it’s hard to see what it was intended for.

As Bernstein has noted, the various defenses of Trump have basically evaporated -- he knew what he was doing, he’s done everything overtly, he was directly involved in all these decisions, etc. Jeffrey Toobin summed it up well on CNN yesterday: the question is no longer whether the President has committed these profound violations; the question is whether there will be a price for committing them.

So this is the small-r republican moment. If you’ve been making the “republic not a democracy” argument and believe that American political institutions and values matter, that Congress can actually check or remove a dangerous president even if he was legitimately elected, that the oath of office and national sovereignty and the rule of law have meaning, now’s the time to speak out and be heard.

Unless you didn’t mean that.

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