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Opinion: Why Speaker Johnson says America is not a democracy

Opinion by John Avlon, CNN

(CNN) — It might surprise you to learn that the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, has said ”we don’t live in a democracy.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition of democracy is “government by the people; especially rule of the majority.” That’s the way most Americans experience elections: The person with the most votes wins. It’s true in every race except president (thanks, Electoral College), from mayor to senator to governor. And since the nation’s founding, voting rights have steadily expanded. Generally, this is celebrated as progress toward a more perfect union.

But majority rule seems to be a problem for Johnson. He described it in the past as “two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner” (a quote often misattributed to Benjamin Franklin). Instead, Johnson has said that the Founders set up America as a constitutional republic “because they followed a biblical admonition.”

There’s a lot to work with here – particularly the “biblical admonition” bit, given the Founders’ conscious decision to leave the word “God” out of the Constitution, as well as the Bill of Rights’ prohibition on the establishment of any state religion. In contrast, Mother Jones reported that Johnson has called for “biblically sanctioned government” and promoted the notion that the United States is a “Christian nation.”

Given that one of Johnson’s few well-known positions before attaining the speakership was his strenuous effort to help overturn the 2020 election, it’s important to understand that his dismissal of majoritarian democracy is part of a right-wing trend.

For example, Utah Sen. Mike Lee tweeted “We’re not a democracy” in the run-up to the 2020 election: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospe[r]ity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Lee explained his terminological embrace of “constitutional republic” over democracy as being a way to avoid “the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.”

But after the 2020 election was decisively won by Joe Biden, the likes of Lee and Johnson did not seem so concerned with constitutional processes or the excessive accumulation of power. They were among the many Republicans who tried to overturn the election without any evidence of mass fraud, choosing to defend Trump’s lies because it offered the chance for their party to stay in power. The ends justified the means.

On the surface, disregarding the popular vote is an odd look for self-styled populists. But of course, Republicans have won the presidential popular vote only one time since 1992. This has not curbed their ideological ambition. In that time, they’ve picked five conservative supreme court justices and abolished the constitutional right to abortion, which 63% of Americans, according to Gallup polling, opposed overturning.

This is where Johnson’s discomfort with majority democracy starts to track with his extreme evangelical beliefs.

Both were essential elements in his selection as speaker. Just a day before his elevation, the speaker designate, Rep. Tom Emmer, was attacked from the right for his decision to certify the election as well as his vote to protect gay marriage.

In contrast, Johnson checked every right-wing litmus test, from embracing election lies to opposing equal rights for gays and lesbians. Crucially, he was more genial and humble than higher-profile right-wingers like Rep. Jim Jordan, who tried and failed to claim the speakership. But with a few days of belated vetting, it’s clear that Johnson is the most socially conservative speaker in living memory.

He can be fairly described as anti-gay as well as anti-abortion. Johnson supports a national abortion ban after a fetal heartbeat is detected, though 69% of Americans support abortions being legal in the first trimester, according to Gallup polling. He’ll blame abortion for school shootings – and feminism – but not guns.

Johnson also opposes marriage equality, which is the law of the land and supported by more than 70% of Americans, according to a Gallup poll. He’s also supported criminalizing gay sex and even described heterosexual sex outside of wedlock as evil. Seriously. Here’s the full quote: “States have always maintained the right to discourage the evils of sexual conduct outside marriage, and the state is right to discriminate between homosexual and heterosexual conduct.”

For those keeping score, that’s states’ rights for discrimination but not reproductive self-determination.

This isn’t all past activism, either. His wife’s counseling company’s operating documents – notarized by Johnson – equate homosexuality to bestiality and incest as sins in the eyes of God. (Notably, the company website was taken down after Johnson reached the speakership.)

As recently as last month, Johnson dismissed as a fiction that the idea of separation of church and state applies to keeping Americans free from the power of the church on his husband-and-wife podcast, unironically called “Truth Be Told.” His comments on guns came after the mass shooting in Maine last week.

These are presumably sincere but extreme positions, untempered by moderation and unconcerned with popular opinion. Typically, winning elections requires attracting votes beyond the base and governing requires reasoning together with opponents.

But Johnson is part of a generation of conservative politicos who’ve never had a competitive election. Johnson went from being a right-wing activist lawyer lobbying for a creationist theme park to being a state legislator who ran twice with no Democratic opposition.

As the author of “Laboratories of Autocracy” and former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper details, Johnson has three times won his heavily gerrymandered House seat by 30 points or more because the seat has been drawn to ensure that no Democrat has a prayer of winning it. This structural dynamic means that congressmen like Johnson can essentially ignore anyone who isn’t on the far right and stay in power.

Republicans have been busy replicating this incentive structure as a core election strategy. It was reflected in the Republican-led North Carolina’s legislature erasing up to four Democratic congressional seats this past week. This is designed to undercut the will of the people in a state where there are more registered Democrats and independents than Republicans. It is an attempt to artificially secure partisan power by reducing representative elections.

This empowers extreme positions like the election lie litmus test. The knowledge that candidates will only have to win a partisan primary to stay in power — rather than win a competitive general election — emboldens tribal politics to the point where there is a creeping contempt for majority democracy. It can get dressed up as constitutional law or parade around as a naked power grab.

We saw a sinister snapshot of this dynamic the night Johnson secured his party’s nomination for speaker. Earlier that day, former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tearfully confessed that she had misled the nation by promoting Trump’s election lies. But when asked by ABC News correspondent Rachel Scott whether he still stood by his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Johnson shook his head in dismay that such a question would even be asked. Other representatives laughed dismissively in a riot of group-think while North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx told the reporter to shut up.

This is the sound of the ends justifying the means. This is what happens when dismissing majoritarian democracy and denying facts becomes an acceptable strategy to hold on to power. Election subversion is just one of the tools available when you’re intent on imposing an agenda disconnected with the beliefs of a majority of your fellow citizens.

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