And You’re Using Them Wrong
Senator Mike Lee has been in the news a lot of late, and one of the reasons woke my inner word nerd right alongside my inner American, and I must set things straight.
No, this isn’t about how he attended the Rose Garden ceremony and later tested positive for COVID-19. It’s not even about how he whined on Twitter that no one was mentioning that all attendees had tested negative before the event.
(A fact completely irrelevant to how he didn’t wear a mask and was hugging people, as he was likely infectious at the time, but a test won’t show that for at least 5 days after exposure.)
It’s not even about how he turned on a conservative newspaper in his home state.
Or about his buddy Glenn Beck making the same crazy claim about the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of being a liberal paper.
Rather, I’m going back to the tweet that started the whole conversation, including the Deseret News article he took umbrage with:
Who would have thought that such a short tweet would create a firestorm?
(One that goes beyond Utahns turning on Lee for attacking the newspaper, which honestly does do a remarkable job being moderate despite challenges to be heavily right-leaning.) (I find that effect rather hilarious.)
Anecdotally, it appears he has held this deep belief — that U.S. residents live in a constitutional republic, and NOT a democracy — since at least high school.
I attended the same high school as Mike Lee, my freshman year overlapping with his senior year. That means we didn’t have U.S. history together, but it does mean we had the same teacher.
And I can tell you that Rosalie Mackay, while a small wisp of a woman, was wiry, strong, and brilliant, and I can totally picture her taking him down several notches.
I can also happily say that virtually everyone else who had Miss Mackay as a teacher has gone on to take history and current events seriously, to make sure they’re informed, to see their right to vote regularly as a solemn duty, and to be able to look at history and the present through discerning lenses. As teens we learned at her feet how to think for ourselves rather than just parrot what any one source — including our parents — said.
Many of her former students have gone on to become historians, writers, and others who have significant influence.
If anyone could have gotten through Mike Lee’s arrogant teen brain, it would have been our beloved Rosie.
His loss, but also a loss for so many Americans who now have to deal with his arrogance.
So what about his statement about the U.S. being a republic and NOT a democracy?
Is he right?
If you squint really hard at the hairs he’s trying to split, you might be able to argue that he could, maybe, in some universe, have an itty-bitty point.
In the real world, the answer is a simple NO. He is wrong.
Let’s back up and look at the most basic source of word meanings: the dictionary.
As any word nerd/linguist/editor worth their salt can tell you, a dictionary is descriptionist, not prescriptionist.
That means that dictionaries report what is actually happening in the world: how words are used, and the meanings we can infer by that usage and context.
Dictionaries often include several definitions of a word, which can trace the history of a word: how its use has changed over time. Many add etymologies (where a word comes from, such as via Latin).
And you can always tell what the most current and most relevant definition/usage is because that will be at the top. If a word has 15 definitions, number 1 will be the most common today, and number 15 will be the least, sometimes even an obsolete meaning. This is why old dictionaries are a treasure trove for language scholars — those volumes are a living point of history in a time capsule.
A prescriptionist source is one that explains what is considered “correct” in standard English, which we know changes through time. Those are the rules that are good to know to be taken seriously when writing a paper, a resume, or an email to your manager.
What Does the Word “Democracy” Actually Mean?
For this, we need a descriptionist source, meaning dictionaries.
First off, let’s look at the definitions of the contested word: democracy.
Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition of democracy, which has an A and a B, which means that both parts are equally used and relevant as a first definition.
Here’s where we get Lee’s hairsplitting:
Mike Lee wants definition 1A to be separate from 1B. He thinks that a “democracy” means majority rule, and that’s all it means.
As we can clearly see, definition 1B states that democracy is “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Emphasis mine.)
That last part is important: the power of the people doesn’t need to be majority vote (the way that power would be used “directly”). Unless the entire country wants to vote on every single law and legislative motion, we can’t possibly use our power directly.
That’s why we elect representatives to the House and the Senate, and those representatives then make decisions on our behalf.
Lee would argue that having elected representatives makes us a republic, not a democracy.
Um, sure. But it makes us both, dude.
In fact, D.com doesn’t bother with the majority-rule possibility that M-W includes in their first definition.
Rather, D.com jumps straight into how people have the ultimate power, and they exercise it either themselves or through representatives.
Just as M-W said.
Oh, but look at the next definition and the example in it! The U.S. and Canada are democracies.
The rest of D.com’s definitions line up well with MW’s, but to save space, I won’t include that screenshot. You can go check out the entry yourself.
Okay, so what about the other half of his argument?
We’ve defined democracy. What about the other term?
What Is a Republic, Anyway?
Once again, we turn to our trusty dictionaries.
Merriam-Webster offers the following:
Okay, so the most important feature of a republic is that the head of the government is not a monarch (think: king or queen), and likely a president.
And what’s that under 1B?
A republic is a government where — hold on, this sounds familiar — the supreme power resides in the citizens?
Who elect officers and representatives?
Wait, isn’t that what a democracy is?
Yes, Virgina. That’s exactly what we’re saying.
M-W has some additional definitions, none of which will be a surprise. Those can be found here.
What does Dictionary.com have to say?
(See the full D.com entry here.)
That, um, let’s see, the supreme power resides with the people, who exercise that power directly or indirectly through representatives.
Both dictionaries disagree with Mike Lee, whether that’s the today version of him of the teenager version who argued with Miss Mackay. The two guys seem pretty similar. I’d hope we’d have seen some maturing over the years. Alas.
Oh, It Gets Better
Another handy thing that online dictionaries often include are synonyms and antonyms: words that mean the same thing or the opposite thing.
Check out Merriam-Webster’s SYNONYMS for REPUBLIC (top) AND DEMOCRACY (bottom).
That’s right: THEY MEAN THE SAME THING.
Both words convey the meaning of a government ruled ultimately by the people (self-government, self-rule).
A synonym for REPUBLIC is DEMOCRACY.
A synonym for DEMOCRACY is REPUBLIC.
So Why, Aside from Lingering Teenage Immaturity, Is Mike Lee Arguing This Point Right Now?
I don’t think it’s that he’s afraid of the country becoming enslaved, as his buddy Glenn Beck said and Lee retweeted.
I don’t think he sees the heavy irony in his defending a president who has been doing his utmost to dismantle our constitution and undermine the checks and balances it sets up, things Lee claims to hold dear.
I don’t think he’s naïve enough to think that countries around the world who call themselves democracies lack constitutions, though he keeps saying that a constitution is proof that we’re a republic.
My suspicion is that, in addition to the nitpicking of these words being a weird hobbyhorse of his for most of his life, he’s bringing it up now because of three things:
(A) an election is happening right now
(B) the parties involved in the election are named after these two words, and
(C) he wants to make as many undecided voters as he can rethink things and go, “Oh, I guess the Democrats are EVIL and want to destroy America!”
Don’t take the bait.
The two words are, for all intents and purposes, in common usage, according to multiple sources, virtually identical.
Sorry, Mikey. We see through your scare tactics, and we’re not fooled.