SALT LAKE CITY — Wednesday’s debate between Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City was a bit calmer than the presidential one that preceded it. It was a debate that supporters from both sides likely felt they won and the undecided portion of the voters actually got to hear about each party’s platform.
But that didn’t mean the night was free of a political firestorm. And the biggest one may have been lit by Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
Following the debate, Lee tweeted: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and (prosperity) are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
The tweet caused more than a few people to raise their eyebrows.
Lee and his camp later explained democracy alone isn't sufficient, which is why there are checks and balances in a democratic constitutional republic. But in the meantime, many on Twitter expressed outrage.
Chris Peterson, the Utah Democratic gubernatorial nominee, tweeted in response to Lee's original tweet: “I am committed that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ Just wondering: whose vote shouldn’t count in a ‘rank democracy?’”
Steve Schmidt, a Republican political strategist who has worked with President George W. Bush and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, tweeted: “The attainment of liberty, peace and prosperity can only be achieved through democracy. This isn’t an abstract, academic argument that (Lee) is making. It is the authoritarian argument in a nutshell. Astonishing statement from a United States Senator.”
Schmidt wasn’t alone in throwing the authoritarian label toward Lee, with many prominent Democrats saying that the tweet was a sign of authoritarian tendencies that have emerged in President Donald Trump’s party.
Neera Tanden, a former administration official in the Obama administration, tweeted: “Mike Lee coming out against democracy. If this isn’t a warning about authoritarianism, I don’t know what is.”
The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Constitution, perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. To me it matters. It should matter to anyone who worries about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2020
When a spokesman for Lee, Conn Carroll, was asked if the senator could explain the thinking behind his tweet, he said: “At a time when Democrats want to pack the Court, eliminate the Electoral College, and turn the Senate into the House, it is very good that Americans are re-reading The Federalist Papers to rediscover why the founders put these specific republican checks on democratic passion into the Constitution.”
When it comes to the Federalist Papers, Carroll pointed to a quote from James Madison that says: “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.”
Lee, who is in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, sent a number of tweets Wednesday night centered around democracy. One simply stated: "We're not a democracy." Another read: “The word ‘democracy' appears nowhere in the Constitution, perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. To me it matters. It should matter to anyone who worries about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.”
In an interview with the Washington Examiner on Thursday, Lee further explained his views on democracy and its standing in America.
"In a democracy, when society decides, 'Hey, let's have a national church. Everybody has to go to that church.' If you've got a majority for that, it's gonna be the law. In a constitutional republic like ours, it operates according to elections, and in that respect ... you have democratic forces at play," Lee said. "But to think of it as a democracy, and to refer to it obsessively as 'our democracy' sends the wrong message."
But Lee said the controversy may come down to semantics. In a widely circulated quote from Ronald Reagan, the former president said, "Democracy is worth dying for because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man."
When asked about that quote, Lee said, “It may just be that the speaker is viewing democracy as the counterpoint to an autocracy, to a despotic regime, one in which there is a distinction between the ruled and the ruler. So, if that's what one is doing, then I suppose it makes more sense. It's an easy shorthand way of referring to the distinction.”
But still, he felt it was important to distinguish between democracy and a constitutional republic. As for the authoritarian accusations, Lee said: "There's nothing more counter-fascist than a constitutional republic like ours."