Talking Points

The troubling case of Sen. Mike Lee v. Democracy

When Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said "we're not a democracy," he really meant it.

CNN reported on Friday that Lee worked in 2020 to overturn President  Biden's election by having GOP-led state legislatures in a few key swing states approve "alternate" slates of electors — to compete with the Biden electors those states' voters had approved — in order to throw the presidency back to Donald Trump. Lee ultimately voted to certify Biden's election, but that was long after he texted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, urging Trump to keep fighting for a lost cause.

"If a very small handful of states were to have their legislatures appoint alternative slates of delegates, there could be a path," Lee texted Meadows on Dec. 8, 2020. He continued to make that case in texts leading up to the cusp of the Jan. 6 insurrection — and even told Meadows he had personally called state legislators — cloaking it all, of course, in the drapery of Constitutional fidelity. 

"I know only that this will end badly for the president unless we have the Constitution on our side," Lee wrote on Jan. 3. "And unless these states submit new slates of Trump electors pursuant to state law, we do not."

It did end badly, as we now know.

Lee's newly revealed exhortations are unsurprising. Just a month before the election, the senator sparked controversy with a simple, declarative tweet:

"Power is not found in mere majorities, but in carefully balanced power," Lee later wrote. In fact, "we're a republic, not a democracy" is an old saw among conservatives, not just a Trump-era rationalization. From a strictly technical point of view, it's even correct. American citizens don't directly gather in community buildings to hash out political decisions, and not every policy our government pursues is approved by plebiscite.

But (and it feels ridiculous to have to explain something so obvious) the United States is, or has been, a republic with democratic characteristics. Voters pick their leaders to do the work of governance. Majorities don't have untrammeled power, but they do have a pretty big say. That's why many Americans use "democracy" as a shorthand to describe our system.

In that context — and in view of Trump's entirely foreseeable refusal to abide by the 2020 election results — Lee's tweet seemed at the time less a true statement of political fact and more like a threat. His proposal would have replaced the will of state and national electorates with the judgment of a few GOP-gerrymandered state legislatures. 

From his texts to Meadows, it's clear the senator would have portrayed such an act as a continuation of Constitutional practices. In truth, such a change would've been a radical, revolutionary departure from America's electoral traditions. Lee knows that. Which means that when he said "we're not a democracy," all he really meant was that Democratic presidential victories shouldn't count.