Republicans Don’t Mind the Constitution. It’s Democracy They Don’t Like.

“A very large portion of my party,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah tells McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”

Romney doesn’t elaborate further in the article, and Coppins, who spoke to him in depth and at length, beginning in 2021, for a forthcoming biography, does not speculate on what exactly Romney meant with this assessment of his co-partisans.

If Romney was using “the Constitution” as a rhetorical stand-in for “American democracy,” then he’s obviously right. Faced with a conflict between partisan loyalty and ideological ambition on one hand and basic principles of self-government and political equality on the other, much of the Republican Party has jettisoned any commitment to America’s democratic values in favor of narrow self-interest.

The most glaring instance of this, of course, is Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which was backed by prominent figures in the Republican Party, humored by much of the Republican establishment and affirmed, in the wake of an insurrectionary attack on the Capitol by supporters of the former president, by a large number of House and Senate Republican lawmakers who voted to question the results.

Other examples of the Republican Party’s contempt for democratic principles include the efforts of Republican-led state legislatures to write political majorities out of legislative representation with extreme partisan gerrymanders; the efforts of those same legislatures to raise new barriers to voting in order to disadvantage their political opponents; and the embrace of exotic legal claims, like the “independent state legislature theory,” meant to justify outright power grabs.

In just the last few months, we’ve seen Tennessee Republicans expel rival lawmakers from the State Legislature for violating decorum by showing their support for an anti-gun protest on the chamber floor, Florida Republicans suspend a duly elected official from office because of a policy disagreement, Ohio Republicans try to limit the ability of Ohio voters to amend the State Constitution by majority vote, Wisconsin Republicans float the possibility that they might try to nullify the election of a State Supreme Court justice who disagrees with their agenda, and Alabama Republicans fight for their wholly imaginary right to discriminate against Black voters in the state by denying them the opportunity to elect another representative to Congress.

It is very clear that given the power and the opportunity, a large portion of Republican lawmakers would turn the state against their political opponents: to disenfranchise them, to diminish their electoral influence, to limit or even neuter the ability of their representatives to exercise their political authority.

So again, to the extent that “the Constitution” stands in for “American democracy,” Romney is right to say that much of his party just doesn’t believe in it. But if Romney means the literal Constitution itself — the actual words on the page — then his assessment of his fellow Republicans isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

At times, Republicans seem fixated with the Constitution. When pushed to defend America’s democratic institutions, they respond that the Constitution established “a republic, not a democracy.” When pushed to defend the claim that state legislatures have plenary authority over the structure of federal congressional elections and the selection of presidential electors, Republicans jump to a literal reading of the relevant parts of Article I and Article II to try to disarm critics. When asked to consider gun regulation, Republicans home in on specific words in the Second Amendment — “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — to dismiss calls for reform.

Trump tried to subvert American democracy, yes, but his attempt rested on the mechanisms of the Electoral College, which is to say, relied on a fairly literal reading of the Constitution. Both he and his allies took seriously the fact that our Constitution doesn’t require anything like the majority of the people to choose a president. Attacks on representation and personal freedom — the hyper-gerrymandering of legislatures to preserve and perpetuate minority rule and the attempts to limit or restrict the bodily autonomy of women and other Americans — have operated within the lines drawn by the Constitution, unimpeded or even facilitated by its rules for structuring our political system.

Republicans, in other words, do seem to believe in the Constitution, but only insofar as it can be wielded as a weapon against American democracy — that is, the larger set of ideas, intuitions, expectations and values that shape and define political life in the United States as much as particular rules and institutions.

Because it splits sovereignty between national and subnational units, because it guarantees some political rights and not others, because it was designed in a moment of some reaction against burgeoning democratic forces, the Constitution is a surprisingly malleable document, when it comes to the shaping of American political life. At different points in time, political systems of various levels of participation and popular legitimacy (or lack thereof) have existed, comfortably, under its roof.

Part of the long fight to expand the scope of American democracy has been an ideological struggle to align the Constitution with values that the constitutional system doesn’t necessarily need to function. To give one example among many, when a Black American like George T. Downing insisted to President Andrew Johnson that “the fathers of the Revolution intended freedom for every American, that they should be protected in their rights as citizens, and be equal before the law,” he was engaged in this struggle.

Americans like to imagine that the story of the United States is the story of ever greater alignment between our Constitution and our democratic values — the “more perfect union” of the Constitution’s preamble. But the unfortunate truth, as we’re beginning to see with the authoritarian turn in the Republican Party, is that our constitutional system doesn’t necessarily need democracy, as we understand it, to actually work.

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