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Steel v Straw: No, Mike Lee is Not Anti-Democracy

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

During the Oct. 8, 2020 Vice-Presidential Debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, Utah Senator Mike Lee, in quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19, posted several tweets that quickly got him in hot water.

The most egregious, apparently, was one in which he said, "Democracy isn't the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that."

Within 24 hours of this tweet, Senator Lee faced a backlash of pitchfork-wielding torch-wavers screeching about how a sitting U.S. Senator was undermining the foundations of civilization. For example, see this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and that.

The only thing controversial about this tweet is Senator Lee's spelling. Otherwise, anyone nominally familiar with our country's founding and the structure of government laid out in the U.S. Constitution would immediately recognize that "rank democracy" clearly (and Lee confirmed) is referring to the founders' concern over the dual nature of humankind, reason vs. "the impulse of passion." James Madison, author of Federalist #10 said:

"...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."

Our constitutional structure seeks to harness man's reason while subduing his passionate and impulsive nature when it comes to lawmaking. This is why we have a bicameral legislature with presidential veto, enumerated powers, the electoral college, etc. Even the bill of rights was the majority telling its future self what it couldn't do to minorities. "Rank" is referring to man's baser nature, the "violent passions" discussed in Federalist 63.

Obviously, this was the meaning of "democracy" that Senator Lee had in mind. Are there other usages of the word? Yes. Do we sometimes use "democracy" in a desireable sense, as a short-hand when "federal constitutional republic" feels too wordy? Absolutely.

Which brings me to my main point.

This is a classic case of "mak[ing] a man an offender for a word" (Isaiah 29:21).

Democracy, like many words, has multiple meanings. Lee is using a word in one way and the mob is attacking him using a different meaning of that word.

In modern terms, Lee's opponents are attacking a straw man, the fallacy when we give the impression of countering an argument, while the actual idea is not properly addressed or refuted.

In addition to being intellectually dishonest, it creates an enormous amount of noise. Citizens, already inundated with information, have to wade through stacks of straw to get at needles of truth. Last week, Senator Lee was trending at #4 on Twitter as the mob ravaged his comments. That's a lot of straw (men) and a lot of fake news.

Our discourse would get so much farther if we would instead use a steel man approach where we represent our opponent as they would represent themselves, not presenting and attacking a caricature. A few years ago, the Atlantic wrote powerfully about steel-manning as "the highest form of disagreement."

Perhaps Lee should be more clear in his tweeting (and spelling), but we can be more generous, gracious, and accurate in our critiques - addressing what the speaker meant, not one of many possible misrepresentations of it.

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