Cram it sideways
Eric Foner’s piece on the history of the electoral college has been getting an unusual amount of attention online this week, with a huge spike in pageviews on Wednesday and Thursday. It was shared on Pocket (the app formerly known as ‘Read it Later’), but also in more surprising places, such as a politics forum on a fansite for the Texas A&M college football team. It may have been doing the rounds in less public quarters, too, on Facebook and WhatsApp, since we’ve received dozens of angry – and eerily similar – letters to the editor from people who don’t appear to be regular readers of the paper.
Some of the letter writers think it a bit rich for the London Review of Books to be criticising democracy in America, given the parlous state of democracy in the UK (‘that limey newspaper can cram it sideways,’ as one Texan football fan eloquently puts it). ‘We haven’t had to care what the UK thinks since 1776,’ one letter says. Another, addressing the editors as ‘gentlemen’, suggests that our reviewer ‘should write about the queen’. Some at least register that Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, is a US citizen. But they still consider his piece ‘liberal nonsense’ or ‘another left-wing nationalist attack’.
But what’s really curious is how many of them take aim at a supposed fundamental misconception in Foner’s review: ‘He has no idea,’ as one puts it, ‘that the United States is a Republic, not a democracy’ – slam dunk! – as if it were somehow impossible for a polity to be a democratic republic, or a republican democracy. The alleged distinction has been used as a slogan to defend the electoral college since at least November 2016. Part of the reason for its catchiness, I suspect, has to do with the way it resonates with the names of the two main political parties.
A piece in the Baffler last year by Ed Burmila traced the origins of the ‘ubiquitous comment-section incantation’ to the Federalist Papers, where James Madison distinguished between a ‘pure democracy’, in which everything is decided by plebiscite, and a republic in which government is delegated ‘to a small number of citizens elected by the rest’. The difference Madison had in mind, in other words, was the difference between direct and representative democracy. And ‘it is a cheap rhetorical sleight-of-hand,’ as Burmila says, ‘to justify outcomes or processes on the basis that America is “not a democracy”.’
When I asked Foner about it, he said that ‘the mantra may have originated with Madison and his generation … but it was popularised by the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society in the 1950s and remains a slogan of all sorts of conservative groups.’
I don’t suppose the LRB’s new correspondents are any more likely to be persuaded by Burmila (a political scientist in Chicago) than they are by Foner or me (an ignorant left-wing limey) but perhaps they would listen to Ronald Reagan, who in his autobiography, An American Life, described the United States as ‘this great democracy of ours’, and once said that ‘democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honourable form of government ever devised by man.’