These incidents, coming faster than anyone can absorb, are all expressions of raw, undemocratic power—of might making right. They signify that Trump and his enablers will trample on any rules, and finally majority rule. Senator Lee made a constitutional case on Twitter for what President Trump will try to do by chin-jutting fiat. What Lee calls “rank democracy,” Trump calls a “rigged election.” Later, Lee explained that he’s concerned about the protection of minority rights from a coercive majority. That sounds like a hedge against an election blowout.
Lee’s contortions recall the antidemocratic arguments of Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, whose theory of nullification by concurrent majorities claimed constitutional grounds for the slave states to defy federal authority. History rendered a negative verdict on Calhoun’s theories and the evil system he defended to his last breath. Like the antebellum South, today’s Republican Party is composed of a demographically and economically weakening population. It appeals ever harder to an ever-shrinking base of older, white, male, rural, less-educated Americans. And, like the antebellum South, the Republican Party holds on to power by exploiting the Constitution’s unrepresentative features—the Senate, the Electoral College, and unelected justices with lifetime appointments. These institutions have concentrated outsize power in a minority party that doesn’t hesitate to break the rules for maximum advantage. Its skill in drawing inside straights and turning weak hands into political domination has been impressive. But next month’s election seems poised to begin the return of majority rule.
If so, then Republicans who trashed checks and balances for four years in order to consolidate conservative power will suddenly rediscover them. Not to constrain presidential abuses, but to thwart the popular will—first by trying to send the election to legislatures and courts and then, failing that, by blocking every move of a Democratic president and Congress. We’ll hear a lot of talk about the rights of minorities, the importance of separation of powers, and how America isn’t really a democracy. Last night Senator Ben Sasse released a statement warning that Biden intends to “effectively kill two of our three branches of government by abolishing the Senate and packing the Supreme Court.” Sasse was referring to the prospect of newly empowered Democrats ending the legislative filibuster and adding justices to the Court.
Both of those possibilities deserve to be debated, before the election as well as after. Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, should remind voters that Republicans, not Democrats, have turned the Senate into a body that produces no legislation but simply functions as a conveyor belt to cram every level of the judiciary with partisan conservative judges, filling seats that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell forced President Obama to leave empty. The goal of this strategy is to seize control of the third, unelected branch of government and use it to prevent the elected branches, if they ever return to majority rule, from governing. What we’re hearing now from these latter-day Calhouns is fear of representative democracy.
Having chained their party to Trump, Republicans will follow him in his frantic effort to delegitimize the coming election. But I don’t think it will work. The vote remains too powerful an idea in the minds of Americans. They are already standing in long lines to cast the ballots that Trump claims are fraudulent. The word democracy might not be found in the Constitution, but Senator Lee is right to be frightened by it.